Unfold: A Cultural Response to Climate Change Museum of Contemporary Photography and Glass Curtain Gallery
The low point of Unfold: A Cultural Response to Climate Change comes with Portraits, a series of photographs by David Buckland. Spread out, like the rest of the show, between two Columbia College venues—the Museum of Contemporary Photography and Glass Curtain Gallery—Portraits comprises head shots of artists who participated in expeditions to the Arctic (2007 and 2008) and the Andes (2009) under the auspices of Buckland's London-based charity, Cape Farewell.
The treks were intended to give the artists a firsthand look at the effects of climate change, so they could bring the bad news back to us less sensitive sinners. Buckland's pictures explore the sublime intersection of art, celebrity, and extreme tourism. Images of the likes of rockers Robyn Hitchcock and KT Tunstall, garbed in winter adventure gear, are juxtaposed with typed effusions from same. It's as if you're in the room with these hardy souls, listening to them gush about how they've learned valuable things and rededicated themselves to woozy hippiness. As Rufus Wainwright's singing sister, Martha, says, "I had my first real teary moment, which is usually an indication for me of something important."
But leave it to a poet to express the true pomposity of the endeavor. Seizing the reins of self-importance, Lemn Sissay rides off into the glaciers declaring, "This was a group of artists wanting to create, battling with ideas in the middle of the sea, dwarfed by icebergs and the possibility of a disappearing planet."
Global warming as an occasion for romantic kitsch. I'm moved.
Portraits is by far the worst piece in Unfold, but it's also emblematic. Buckland says his images are supposed to help us understand how the participants "formulated their own idiosyncratic expression of climate change"—and, sure enough, many of the contributions come across as attempts to transform the world into a vehicle for narcissistic display. The idea may be to point out our collective responsibility, but the practice mostly replicates the solipsism that gave us climate change in the first place.
Canadian singer Leslie Feist provides the perfect example. Her Grey, Green, Blue, Black, White, Pink is basically a home movie—the sort of thing you'd put together to show your friends and neighbors that, hey, I went to the Arctic. It reduces the landscape to a consumable. "I thought I'd film some Super 8," she writes, "and give myself a frame to look at that enormousness through."
Other artists offer just as little insight, but with more pretention. In Red Ice, for instance, Brit artist Chris Wainwright shows an iceberg lit red . . . because it's hot, get it? Sunand Prasad's photo Greenhouse Gas gives us four people standing in a valley, holding big balloons—also red—that represent the amount of CO2 emitted per month per person in the UK. And Buckland himself photographed icebergs with wry witticisms projected on them—stuff like "Going to Hell on a Handcart" and "Discounting the Future."
This sort of easy moralism, pandering to a like-minded audience, is bad enough. It's the bland egotism that's truly unsettling. The artists have put a hand on nature, framing it, manipulating it, and hauling it home like a lion pelt collected on a safari. They emulate the hubris they're trying to indict. They suggest that nature is ours to have, hold, and fuck with. And fuck, with its sexual connotations, is the right word, too: there's sadism in the unacknowledged, fetishized lust for control that's put on display here. The world serves and is subsumed into the artists, who use it for their own pleasure and what they take to be its good.
Some of the cannier contributors attempt to avoid the problem of speaking for the world by collaborating with it. Bookbinder Tracey Rowledge placed paper and felt-tip pens under the chair she sat on aboard ship and let physics do its work; the result is Arctic Drawings, a series of black or multi-colored blobs on paper. Generally isolated in one portion of the page, the blobs seem fragile and spastic—tiny random motions on a white field.
Even more successful is a video showing "microbial" artist Daro Montag working with Amazonian leaf-cutter ants. Using powdered graphite, Montag draws a line with a small gap in it across a piece of paper, then sets the ants loose on the paper. The ants, it turns out, tend to avoid the graphite. They use the gap to travel from one side of the paper to the other, so the line gets smeared mainly at that spot. The result, as Montag notes, looks like iron filings drawn by a magnet. The piece is a testament to both the ants' adaptability and human limitations. We can put down carbon if we like, and that will have its effect, but the ants will find their own response. We make the world, and the world makes us.
Just as Buckland's projected slogans are reductive in their pessimism, though, so Rowledge's and Montag's pieces are reductively cheery. Yes, we don't control nature—but we're not exactly in harmony with it, either. Clare Twomey's Specimen addresses that paradox with a delicate lyricism. The piece consists of a box filled with dirt, atop which sit unfired clay zinnia blossoms; more such blossoms are scattered around the floor. The text notes that travel and shifts in climate will cause the exquisite little sculptures to deteriorate—and, indeed, that the art of making them is being lost. "They are a remnant of the past," Twomey says, "honoring something we cannot save." If we collaborate with nature, it's not only in creation but in loss and decay.
Perhaps my favorite piece of the exhibition is Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey's Polar Diamond. This is an actual diamond, created artificially from the carbonized ash of a cremated polar bear bone. I wasn't aware until I saw it that diamonds could be synthesized, but apparently we tricky humans have been making our own for decades now. That alone amazed me. But to know that we can take a polar bear bone and turn it into a diamond seemed especially awe-inspiring. What can't we do, after all? Well, one obvious answer is that we probably can't keep polar bears from dying out if we radically raise the temperature of the earth—or (and this, not global warming, is the current greatest danger to polar bears) if we keep shooting them.
Polar Diamond revels in the power that Buckland and others simultaneously demonstrate and disavow. We can turn bear bones into diamonds. We can ship boneheaded celebrities to the ass end of nowhere. Our brains spin and spin, and when they're done spinning there's a hole in the world. That hole is our distinction and our sin. By it we'll be judged.