Climate change is a hot topic at Art Basel, but this year locals are stealing the show

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Miami Herald
By Alex Harris 
December 4, 2018

Miami artist Xavier Cortado painted four intersections in Pinecrest with their elevations as a public art project about climate change’s impact on the community. “I’m trying to make sea level rise impossible to ignore,” he said. XAVIER CORTADA

Climate change, the existential threat to the way of life of billions of people around the world, has always been a juicy topic for artists — especially during South Florida’s premiere artistic event, Art Basel.

Last year, a neon sign proclaimed “climate change is real” on the side of the Perez Art Museum Miami and performance artists performed daily tasks in an elevator sized tank of water outside Miami Dade College that drained and filled at random.

But the most interesting climate change art this year doesn’t come from overseas or New York, but from local artists embedded in their communities.

If art lovers take a slight detour from the traditional hubs of Miami and Miami Beach and head South to Pinecrest Garden’s Hibiscus Gallery, they’ll find a hundred blue-and-white swirled watercolor paintings made with melting Antarctic ice.

Miami artist Xavier Cortada used glacier ice and sediment collected by climate change scientists to make the images, 60 of which will be officially named after coasts around the world vulnerable to sea rise. The French consul named theirs “Tahiti;” Spain went with “Barcelona.”

“Every person that got on a plane to get to Art Basel and see the show has a coastline waiting for them at home that’s vulnerable like Miami is,” he said. “I’m trying to keep it real for them.”

Cortada’s gallery work is coupled with a a public art project called “Elevation Drive,” where murals mark the elevation of four intersections on a stretch of Killian Drive in Pinecrest. He also invited homeowners to use his design for a yard sign (or paint their own over an old political sign) declaring their property’s elevation above sea level.

“I think that’s an honest piece of art. It’s not about hiding that Miami has this issue,” he said. “We’re going to face it.”

Miami’s unique vulnerabilities also inspired Anastasia Samoylova, a Russian-born photographer who moved to Miami Beach in 2016 and decided to process the region’s growing risk through the lens of her camera.

Her exhibit, “Flood Zone,” is on display in her ArtCenter studio on Lincoln Road throughout Basel. It features more than a hundred photos of Miami that juxtapose the region’s obsession with promoting itself as a glitzy tourist paradise with the real dangers the community faces.

“Photography is such a potent tool in the capitalist machine. It’s used to sell anything and everything,” she said. “Miami is certainly dependent on its own image for its survival.”

Samoylova said she hopes the takeaway from her work is that climate change is real and affecting people now, even if its not a regular conversation topic for most of the world.


In Wynwood, artist Linda Cheung is working on her second augmented-reality mural focused on the devastating effects — or potential opportunities — of climate change.

Her first mural, launched last February, “essentially represents Miami as a facade of itself and what it wants to represent to the world,” she said. It features towering construction cranes and a Xanax pill, the anti-anxiety drug. But if it’s viewed through an app, the mural pops in 3D and offers the viewer a choice: “no change” or “be the change.”

“No change” transforms the scene into a dystopian, swamped version of the city. “Be the change” shows a sustainable, green city with wildlife and cyclists.

For Art Basel, Cheung and her team are nearly done with their second major mural, at 299 NW 25th Street; it tackles biodiversity and the sixth mass extinction. Painter Reinier Gamboa created a scene of Florida’s most iconic plants and animals, like orchids and alligators. But snaking throughout is a giant python, representing humanity as “the ultimate invasive species,” she said. The augmented aspect will be video clips about the significance of each animal.

It won’t be finished for Basel, but Cheung and her fellow artists plan to throw an informal block party through the week as they paint, complete with local musicians.

She said she’s not aiming for an international audience with her work.

“I’m more interested in effecting the local influencers of culture, and then we have an impact that’s national and international,” she said. “Miami has the power because enough people travel here. If you can influence enough of the art here, it can influence beyond Miami.”


For Misael Soto, an artist embedded within Miami Beach’s government through a residency with ArtCenter/South Florida’s Art in Public Life, art is all about “temporarily glitching an object and then returning it” to its regular life. In this case, art can make people think twice about climate change’s impact on their lives.

“I think artists are really good at making people reexamine behaviors or objects they’re taking for granted,” Soto said. “I consider this my job.”

Soto is re-deploying a set of street signs used last year during Art Basel. One, simply lettered with the word “stakes,” sits on a long pole near a floodwater pump near Alton Road. It’s meant to symbolize the high stakes residents face in a rapidly warming world.

Another sign, which reads “someday…” is next to a bus stop that lost its roof and side paneling to Hurricane Irma and wasn’t repaired for a year.

Last month, Soto wrapped up the first of three projects through a partnership with Miami Beach — an exhibit called “Sand” that used the literal foundation of the island city as a medium to explore its future. Poets, historians and city officials tasked with adapting to climate change spoke in an arena built from sandbags in Collins Park.

“I specifically did the Sand project to not happen during Art Basel because it’s not about the international art community; it’s about us; it’s about our neighbors; It’s about who’s already here,” Soto said.