The winter has been eerily mild. While the January temperatures reaching into the sixties have been a welcome break from heavy jackets and scarves, the pleasant days are a bittersweet indication of climate change. During the lukewarm limbo of winter break, I spent a lot of time in museums, where I was struck by a number of exhibits that confronted this very issue.
At the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, the exhibit “Environmental Graphiti,” masterminded by Alisa Singer, sublimates data visualization into visual poetry. These pieces incorporated climate data — the “graph” of “Graphiti” — to create abstract art. Trends become waves; modes become mountains peaks. The vivid, deeply saturated colors glow neon under the focused spotlights, like unnatural nuclear waste. The symbols of graph legends are metamorphosed into haunting iconography.
While an exhibit on climate in a museum about nature came as no surprise, I kept coming across similar pieces in other kinds of museums as well. The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City recently tackled sustainability in “Nature — Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial.” As a museum focused on design, the exhibition showcased nature in its architectural and tactile forms rather than through the typical two-dimensional paintings set in frames.
Biodegradable urns and burial suits, carbon-negative outerwear, and coats with 3D printed cilia merge style with sustainability; a glow-in-the-dark silkworm gown hangs, delicate and ethereal. Beyond the design of the individual, the sustainability of spaces is examined. The largest pieces were models of an organic sea line barrier, a monarch butterfly sanctuary, and a staircased urban greenspace on a college campus. Here were green honeycomb utopias. Despite the technical science of these natural constructions, the patterned and verdant glory of sustainable life was clearly art.
This past summer the Whitney Museum of Art showcased its celebrated Whitney Biennial. The exhibition was largely sculptural, with a striking number of the curated pieces echoing the recycled nature of Duchamp’s “ready-mades.” One particularly moving series addressed the issue of climate change head-on — particularly, that of rising sea levels. Shadow boxes of illuminated American landmarks were filled with bubbling water: a future skyline.
Finally, the Museum of Modern Art recently put on an exhibition, “Energy.” As the title suggests, the MoMA showcased the history and future of energy, from the kinetic motion of slinkies to solar power. The word “energy” was projected onto a wall in red letters, crackling and shifting.
Art has always been heavily influenced by the environment. From “Water Lilies” to “Starry Nights,” innumerable landscapes have captured our attention over centuries. As contemporary art explores medium and form, raw materials become more immediate. In the white, sterile, air-conditioned spaces of museums, we are often far removed from the scenes represented. In their response to the climate disaster, these works grapple with their content, structure, and role as art.