The Art of Climate Change

by Yeong Min Kim

"Winter's End", Helen Klebesadel, Watercolor, 40" by 60".
One recent wintry Saturday, after scraping the ice off my huge yet unimpressive Toyota minivan, I visited the Olbrich Botanical Gardens, to see an exhibition on climate change titled Paradise Lost. Nature has traditionally been a source of inspiration. The romantic view of nature is to sing it’s praises, but lately impending climate change has inspired artists to draw attention to this threat. This is precisely why a group of regional artists, scientists, and educators found themselves participating in a three-day workshop last summer based in Northern Wisconsin, where the strict parameters of science and art were rendered obscure by the common goal of taking action against earth’s impending trials.

John Bates, one of the twenty artists who participated in this climate change exhibit, writes of his experience in an article that appeared in the Winter 2007 edition of Wisconsin People & Ideas: “During our time together, questions flew between the artists and the scientists about the scientific data and the interpretations of the data, about the uncertainties and the unknowns, about one another’s art, about the process of trying to incorporate a profoundly complex scientific concept into art, about what the public might best respond to, about the purpose of art and science, and our purposes as artists and scientists.” The project’s main concern was how to blend science with arts and how to reach “non-scientific audiences with art that reflects science,” as Bates puts it.

This conscious effort to merge science with art resulted in a thoughtful and thought-provoking display that was educational and informative as well as being fairly uncomplicated and straightforward in its intentions. The exhibition was organized around three different themes: Consider Climate Change, Celebrate the Cold, and Alter the Course. While informing the public of the issues concerning climate change, it strove to maintain a honest approach by addressing the controversy over the details of climate change or “global warming,’ a frequently adapted yet inaccurate term for the much-debated global phenomenon. Viewers were also presented with helpful ways to alter the course and take action. For a non-scientific person such as myself, the accompanying information helped me better understand the concepts behind the artworks on display.

Marilyn Annin, artist of The Warming, said during our interview: “There are a variety of ways to understand things whether it be with words, numbers, or images. The scientists understood the environment through understanding numbers. We artists took a more visual approach. It was interesting how everyone came up with different artistic responses despite having experienced the same lecture and having received the same information. Some of these artworks you can see here are very personal and maybe less straightforward than others. Some of them educate more with the use of graphs, numbers, and scientific data.”

Indeed, with the guidance of the supplementary facts and figures, I felt little to none of the familiar puzzlement I often experienced while wondering around contemporary art museums. Most of the artworks were fairly self-explanatory. Others were slightly more obscure and required the viewers’ further scrutiny, or a quick skim through the artist’s statement to grasp the general meaning of the work. The range of works was diverse, including photography, painting, ceramics, metal work, poetry, and music composed by a Native-American using handmade instruments.

I was especially intrigued by a watercolor piece by artist Amy Arnston, titled The Things We Know. Arnton’s statement revealed hidden symbolism behind the brushstroke color choices used in her depiction of Lake Superior.

I found Jamie Young’s mixed media piece Ages 3 and Up: A Puzzle for Our Children thought provoking. This work in the shape of a giant puzzle map, showed Wisconsin being dragged southwards by SUVs. Based on the assumption that climate changes will bring about a drastic temperature increase in the northern states, the artist had set up three miniature Hummers (much to my initial delight and eventual horror) hauling the state of Wisconsin down towards the warmer Arkansas and Alabama. As the title implies, the giant toy-like structure represents what we are leaving our descendants: an environment that is disturbed and transformed by reckless human actions.

But what really caught my attention and affected me in a most profound way was not, in fact, a brainchild of a professional artist, but a leafy tree grown by none other than the viewers themselves. As the exhibit traveled through numerous cities, each community participated in the cultivation of a paper-and-wire concoction that had by then grown lush with the hopes, thoughts, and promises of the people who had taken the time to jot down their feelings on a paper leaf and tie it to the saplings of the tree. Clearly, the exhibition had made an impression on the people. Gently pawing through the leafy mass, I was caught staring at this one particular leaf that stuck out like a sore thumb to me. “Do you really need the Hummer?” it cheekily asked me. First, there was the Hummer-trailing puzzle board, and now this? What was the universe trying to tell me? (I am a firm believer of the saying, ‘everything happens for a reason.’)

It is interesting how an artwork fashioned by the viewers could stir in me more emotions than the works of the professional artists. But after all, Tolstoy in his philosophy of art decried the assumption that only the fine arts are art, and that artistic activity is the exclusive domain of the professional artist. I believe that the tree had such an impact on me because it said to me that the viewers were indeed touched by the experience and were infected by the ‘feelings’ of the artists.

Finally, the unavoidable question is posed; Have I, aficionado of giant, impressive cars and passionate opponent of the grueling Wisconsin winters, turned over a new leaf? My answer is; maybe halfway. As human nature goes, it’s not easy to discard one’s initial viewpoints, or in my case, an extreme hatred of the cold and snow. I would still gladly consider moving out of this glacial state where one’s car doors frequently refuse to open due to the accumulation of frost. One thing for sure, however, is that I will not be exchanging my humble minivan for a shiny black Hummer anytime soon. I have become more conscious and aware of my decisions and how it would affect the world. I realize that as a member of society, I have a responsibility to respect Mother Nature and preserve our environment for the future generations to come. Thus, I respect the cold and would gladly celebrate it. In California or Florida, that is.

For more information on the exhibit, visit www.wisc.edu/cbe/K12/paradiselost.html Paradise Lost? will be continuing its exhibition at the Bell Museum of Natural History from Feb 16 to April 11. The exhibition catalog can be downloaded in pdf format from the website or purchased from the exhibition organizers. For more information contact Dolly Ledin at (608) 222-4865 or daledin@facstaff.wisc.edu

Subsequently I have learned that the exhibition described above is not alone in combinging art and science in the northwoods. The project Forest Art Wisconsin: Native / Invasive was produced this summer to draw attention to additional issues which face the north woods. The website www.waldkunst.com/2007/ documents the work of a number of artists many of whom are UW faculty members and some of whom are guests artists from Europe and South America. The Forest Art catalog which documents the process and works of International Forest Art Wisconsin - Native Invasive can be obtained by contacting Cedar Marie: cmarie@wisc.edu at the UW Madison.

"Winter's End", Helen Klebesadel, Watercolor, 40" by 60". Tree with viewer reactions to show
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