These Extreme Artworks Embody the Climate Crisis

North Pole Dinner Party, Performance at UNTITLED FAIR, 2019.

Artists Who Go the Distance for the Environment

Art & Object | September 6, 2022
BY Amy Funderburk

Headquartered in Dorset, England, Cape Farewell has been devoted to shifting perceptions about climate change since 2001, with founder and international director David Buckland at the helm. As climate warnings went unheard, Buckland was inspired to reunite the creative fields of science and art to converse with people using a cultural language. “Art always seduces. And people love being seduced,” he points out. “Everybody holds a piece of art in their psyche…. So art is a very powerful weapon.”

Also an artist, designer, and filmmaker, Buckland considers the High Artic the best place to witness “big physical” climate changes. Describing his first trip there, he refers to the bleak, dramatic landscape as having “layers of magic that you can’t imagine…until you experience them.”

Cape Farewell’s 2008 expedition to Disko Bay on the west coast of Greenland was documented in their film Burning Ice. Scientists participated with a variety of creatives, including musician KT Tunstall, poet and playwright Lemn Sissay, and the icon Laurie Anderson.

The most provocative moment comes when architect, engineer, and artist Francesca Galeazzi defiantly releases a canister of six kilograms of compressed carbon dioxide as a statement. Against the hiss of the canister, Galeazzi states, “I’m fully aware of this negative gesture. I think people need to take full responsibility for their actions, and at the moment, we’re not doing that.”

While this act seems in stark contrast to the excursion’s mission, oceanographer and Cape Farewell board member Dr. Simon Boxall later reveals that six kilos of CO2 represent only twenty miles in a car.

From 2014 to 2017, Cape Farewell partnered with the Norwegian-based research group Climart for a sociological study of visual art’s efficacy when it comes to influencing the public’s perception of climate change.

After Climart commissioned British artist Michael Pinsky to create the immersive installation Pollution Pods, Cape Farewell toured the work worldwide.

The art piece features five connected geodesic domes contain the air pollution mix of a city. Visitors start with the clean air of Tautra, Norway, then experience London, New Delhi, Beijing, and São Paolo.

During the 2019 Climate Action Summit, Pollution Pods was installed outside the United Nations in New York—during a heat wave. In the humid, pollution-filled New Delhi dome, it was 120°F. “People were running in and out of that dome. They couldn’t stay there. But at the same time, we had live data from New Delhi, and it was exactly that temperature,” relates Buckland. “That physical experience is what art can do. It can cut through all of the data….”

The Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, who works in Berlin, was appointed United Nations goodwill ambassador for renewable energy and climate action in 2019. Eliasson’s revealing The glacier melt series 1999/2019 (2019), consists of before-and-after aerial photographs of Icelandic glaciers over a ten-year span.

The artist recently participated in the exhibit Fault Lines: Art and the Environment at the North Carolina Museum of Art. In an exhibition statement, Eliasson shared his belief that a major responsibility of artists is to help people not only understand something mentally, but also to feel it emotionally and physically. “By doing this, art can mitigate the numbing effect created by the glut of information we are faced with today and motivate people to turn thinking into doing.”

Eliasson constructed a cast bronze for the show, The presence of absence pavilion (2019), from a glacier ice block harvested from the Nuup Kangerlua fjord, Greenland.

Chief Curator of Contemporary Art Linda Dougherty describes the work as embodying the imminent disappearance of our glacial terrain. “As the ice block melted in its casting, the leftover sculpture is a void where the memory of the ice is only present as an absence…. The Greenland ice sheet currently loses thousands of similar blocks each minute as a result of global warming.”

Dougherty agrees that art can be more effective than facts and figures. “At a time when it is easy to feel inundated by a twenty-four-hour news stream of critical environmental challenges, these artists offer the possibility for new perspectives and shifts in understanding of how the natural world is changing.”

On the otherside of the U.S., Fire & Ice: Our Changing Landscape is on display through September 26 at The Wildling Museum of Art and Nature, Solvang, CA. The Wildling uses art exhibitions and programs to educate visitors about issues and the need for ecological conservation due to the threats currently faced by wildlife and dwindling natural and wilderness areas.

Executive Director Stacey Otte-Demangate, who also curated the show, shares, “We feel that the works that artists create are often a better tool for inspiring understanding and empathy than reading a textbook or news article.”

On display is a video installation by Zaria FormanOde to An Iceberg, 360 View, Whale Bay, Antarctica is an eight-minute looping video that Otte-Demangate describes as “a beautiful and contemplative journey around a slowly dying iceberg.”

Forman, who lives in upstate New York, has joined NASA scientists on airborne missions to study changes at both poles. “I consider it my life’s mission to convey the urgency of climate change through my work,” said the artist in her 2015 TED talk. Known primarily for her large pastels, she aims to convey “beauty as opposed to the devastation,” through her work, inspiring viewers to emotionally connect with a place they may never visit.

Miami artist Xavier Cortada is also exhibiting at the Wildling. Frequently collaborating with scientists, he sees artists as “eco-emissaries,” able to help society understand our interconnectedness with nature. Cortada explains why many are slow to act despite climate warnings: “In a world of instant gratification, imminent feels too distant. It is at this juncture that art can help us see things differently.”

As a recipient of a 2006-2007 National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists and Writers 5, Cortada traveled to the coldest, least populated location on the planet. There, he created ‘ice paintings’ as melting ice interacted with pigment and local sediment samples. As he worked, Cortada realized that this was “the same ice that would melt and drown [his] city.”

Some of Cortada’s ice paintings were created aboard an icebreaker returning from the North Pole. As the ship rocked, melting ice created marks in pigment on paper that he had taped to the deck.

Ritual is important to Cortada: “Growing up in a Cuban-exile family, I was immersed in traditions and folklore that helped keep the memory of the homeland alive.”

During this trip, Cortada also created ritualistic art installations. In North Pole Dinner Party (2008), he fed his fellow Artic travelers a symbolic communion: a serving of ice he had collected from the North Pole.

What made the Antarctic trip feel extreme to Cortada? The “raw emotions” he felt as scientists explained the global impact of melting ice: “Once you have that knowledge, you are forced to do something about it.”

Buckland is optimistic based on the growing awareness he has witnessed over the last twenty-odd years. “Roll the clock forward another twenty-two years. Look what could happen.”

See the original article at