Seeing the Big Picture of Climate Emergency on Earth Day

De-nin D. Lee is an Associate Professor of Art History in the department of visual & media arts at Emerson College in Boston. She is a co-author of Thames & Hudson’s art history survey text, The History of Art: A Global View, and the forthcoming Asian art history text, The History of Asian Art: A Global View. Her eco–critical research on Chinese landscape has been published in The Journal of Song-Yuan Studies and Verge, as well as in edited volumes Eco–Art History in East and Southeast Asia (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019) and Picture Ecology: Art and Ecocriticism in Planetary Perspective (Princeton University Art Museum, 2021).

De-nin D. Lee
Image Credit: Heidi A. Erickson

I am an art historian, and I now find myself teaching in a climate emergency. Students are concerned about their families living near wildfires. Hurricanes leave them temporarily homeless. And, of course, we are all living in a pandemic of a zoonotic disease that has spread due to human communities encroaching upon ever-shrinking wilderness habitats.

Amid these terrible realities, teaching art history can offer temporary escape into the exalted architecture of temples and cathedrals or the tenderness expressed in images of love and care. But to focus solely on the marvels of brush and ink, to revel exclusively in the beauty of suspended colors on canvas, indeed to see only human dramas seems somewhat dangerously out of touch. And so, I have turned to eco–critical art history, which recognizes how art is inextricably connected to the particulars of our earth.

Today is Earth Day, so I thought I would write a few words about how art makes the environmental challenges we face visible and can give us reasons to take action.

Prehistoric cave paintings in northern Spain
Image Credit: PS3000

Since 1970, April 22 has been a day to think about, celebrate, and restore our planetary home. For millennia, Earth has provided abundant materials to sustain our lives. It has also nourished our imaginations. Cave paintings such as those in Spain and petroglyphs such as those in South Korea preserve prehistorical visions of a world teeming with animal life.

Malu Board
Image Credit: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1969, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Then and ever since, humans have transformed clay, metals, and stone into sturdy storage containers and sacred objects alike. Wood and plant fibers, too, have been shaped into human form and clothing. Bugs and birds, sheep and bison—among others—have provided us with silk floss, bright feathers, wool, hides, and bone to fashion into things that express the ideas we hold dear. Combine nut, oil, or eggs or beeswax with ground azurite stone or crushed cochineal insects and you can paint a blue sky or a red sunset. These are the stuff of studios, the ingredients of art.

Image Credit: Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1993, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

With the development of modern science and technology, along with accompanying shifts in culture, we are increasingly apt to credit our own ingenuity for both freeing us from natural limitations and fueling our creativity. This tendency is not altogether unreasonable, but it is dangerous to delude ourselves into believing that we are utterly independent agents. On this Earth Day, I’d like to offer some examples of artwork that help us to see again, or anew, our deep connections to our planetary home. It is our life-support system, and our fates are inextricably entangled.

Robyn Woolston’s art installation sardonically welcomes visitors to the “fabulous Anthropocene,” a term for the current epoch, during which human activity has generated a geological marker across the Earth’s surface and now affects planetary systems such as the water cycle.

Astrid by Xavier Cortada
Image Credit: © Xavier Cortada. All Rights Reserved 2022/Bridgeman Image

But whether or not you have adopted the term “Anthropocene“—despite documented images of floods and droughts, hundred-year-storms and wildfires—it can be hard to see the scale and the complexity of problems such as sea-level rise, the persistence of plastics, the sixth extinction, and so forth. Numbers can quantify, and data can prove, but numbers and data are difficult to visualize. In contrast, Xavier Cortada makes pictures from sea ice and sediment from Antarctica, setting before our eyes an image of a more watery world. Warming temperatures, polar ice melt, and rising seas reach to Cortada’s home state of Florida, where he has also founded a participatory art project called Underwater HOA.

Plastic, a material—even a miracle—of modern convenience, has become cursedly persistent, too. We throw plastic stuff away, but it has not vanished. Vivan Sundaram shows us how we are awash in plastic waste by taking photographs of garbage that he has sifted through and meticulously rearranged to resemble satellite imagery of the kind of global city that generated the trash. Bottle caps, string, and glitter could end up in Sundaram’s hands, but great volumes flow to oceans. Whales and dolphins, turtles and fish, gulls and terns could all once assume that anything that fit into their mouths could be digested. But now, as photographer Chris Jordan reveals in his Midway: Message from the Gyre, supposedly harmless bits of plastic lead to tragic consequences. A seabird’s corpse bursts open to reveal its deadly diet of plastic caps and baubles.

Threats affect not only individuals but entire populations. How can we see massive impacts on creatures all around the planet? Maya Lin’s What Is Missing? is an interactive digital artwork that uses crowdsourcing to document diminishing habitats and animal species. Sounds of birds, insects, whales, and other creatures accompany photographs, historical records, and personal stories. Some anecdotes take the form of childhood memories of river dolphins and butterfly migrations. Grief is an unavoidable part of this memorial project, but so too is hope, advocacy, and action. Lin includes success stories and solutions.

Like Cortada, Sundaram, Jordan, and Lin, more and more artists around the world are making some aspect of the Earth’s ecology their subject matter. One of their goals is to move us from our complacency, and so the resulting artwork can be unsettling. Just as their artwork can spur us to act, so, too, are artists taking action. Cannupa Hanska Luger’s Mirror Shield Project was deployed at his home, Standing Rock Reservation. Photographer Subhankar Banerjee is a founder of Species in Peril, which partners with scientists and government leaders. Artist Betsy Damon works through Keepers of the Waters to restore and protect sacred rivers.

Just as more artists are exploring ways to connect their practice to our marvelous planetary home, so are scholars from a variety of fields now working on common ground in the environmental humanities. In the classroom, too, we can shift our attention and direct some of our energies toward the good stewardship of this earth.

Stewardship can begin with recognizing the climate emergency and raising awareness. I often begin my class with an exercise that art historians call “close looking” or “slow looking.” I project an image of an artwork and ask, what do you see? This could be a prompt for a 5-minute in-class free write to be followed by class discussion. Or, we could in conversation generate an inventory of represented things, but also shapes and colors, patterns and lines. Together we would puzzle out the relationships among those inventoried pieces until a deeper, more coherent understanding of the whole picture emerges.

I often withhold information about the artist, title, medium or materials, and date so as to encourage students to rely on their eyes and inductive reasoning. When some pieces begin coming together, I’ll offer information about the medium (e.g., ice from Antarctica, plastics ingested by a seabird) or the context (e.g., the Water Protectors at Oceti Sakowin Camp near Standing Rock, North Dakota). Perceptions shift. As the form and the meaning of the artwork come together, we talk about impact and significance. We pursue connections: Have you learned about the climate emergency elsewhere in artwork or stories in your everyday life? What roles do artists play? With climate in mind, what if we took a second look at a historical event or advertisement or play from earlier in this class. . .how would we see it differently?

The exercise is a little bit like detective work, decoding the meaning hidden in plain sight. The communal sleuthing can be fun. Then, as students see how the images have shaped their views and informed geopolitical policies—especially when justice is at issue—they develop a deeper sense of how art matters.

Happy Earth Day.

Leave a Reply