Are Art Exhibitions on Climate Change Harmful or Helpful?

Olafur Eliasson was one of the first artists to  create works that draw attention to the effects of climate change. (Olafur Eliasson, Ice Watch, 2014, twelve ice blocks. Installation view at Place du Panthéon, Paris. Photo courtesy of Martin Argyroglo.)
Banksy’s migrant child mural shown partially submerged in Venice, Italy, 15 November, 2019. Photo courtesy of AP Photo and Luca Bruno.
Sun & Sea, Lithuania’s contribution to the 2019 Venice Biennale. Photo by Neon Realism.
Chris Burden, Urban Light , 2008. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
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Is increasing awareness and knowledge enough to compensate for the waste product and carbon emissions required to mount these climate change exhibitions?  Do they make up for the art world’s addiction to travel?

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

Olafur Eliasson was one of the first artists to  create works that draw attention to the effects of climate change. (Olafur Eliasson, Ice Watch, 2014, twelve ice blocks. Installation view at Place du Panthéon, Paris. Photo courtesy of Martin Argyroglo.)

 

Climate Change, The By-Product of Capitalism

Let’s be real. The art world has a chronic addiction to travel; jet setting all year-round in the name of art. Between curatorial theorists bringing global art to the fore, to the prestigious aura surrounding the global citizen, and the art market’s quest to make the entire world its client; the art world has become entrenched in capitalism. Already a decade ago, scholars began to notice the art world calendar had become inundated by the proliferation of art fairs, festivals and mega-exhibitions. This has only continued to expand. We consume art faster than we consume our next meal. We are addicted to chasing the next fair, the next biennale; the next place to be seen.

Consequentially, climate change has become the by-product of capitalism. At a time when all it takes is a few clicks and a credit card to arrange that next flight, offsetting our own carbon footprint may be a step forward but it certainly isn’t enough. A 2016 scientific study published by University College London suggested that for every tonne of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, three square meters of Artic sea ice melts. It may sound insignificant yet the impact of rising sea water levels is posing a real threat. A recent study from Climate Central presented updated data of sea water level predictions for 2050—and the new results are frightening to say the least. Major cities in Asia—including Bangkok, Shanghai, Mumbai, Hong Kong, Saigon—are almost fully submerged or at great risk. Southern Vietnam practically disappears. In Europe, Amsterdam and Rotterdam is lost, while the heart of Venice is in jeopardy.

 

Banksy’s migrant child mural shown partially submerged in Venice, Italy, 15 November, 2019. Photo courtesy of AP Photo and Luca Bruno.

 

If you consider that a round-trip from Hong Kong to Singapore is enough to emit an estimated 0.916 tonne in carbon emissions, then this badge of honour we give to frequent travellers of the art world—collectors, curators, gallerists, journalists alike—is doing greater harm than we want to admit.

Our desire to travel for an exhibition or attend that all-too-glitzy opening party and socialize at the next art fair is indeed damaging the planet. And we are all guilty—perhaps some of us more than others—of contributing to this.

 

The (Environmental) Cost of Exhibitions

Without a doubt, bringing issues of climate change and sustainability to the forefront of public debate is important. These days, this task no longer solely belongs to science and natural history museums; contemporary art museums and institutions are seeking to do their part. Of course, we want to attract visitors from all over the world; encouraging widespread dialogues and the dissemination of knowledge is a necessary step if we are to cooperate on a planetary level to combat such gripping issues.

In the past 12 months alone, we have seen exhibitions taking climate change, sustainable development and environmental challenges as its central theme all across the globe. From the UK, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Israel to various cities across the United States and all around Europe. Not to mention the Golden Lion Award-winning Lithuania Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, which was a powerful message towards the urgency of the climate crisis. Recently, even Saudi Arabia wanted a piece of the pie; the seventh edition of 21,39 Jeddah Arts, a non-profit initiative by the Saudi Art Council which seeks to promote art and culture in Jeddah, opened in late January and announced “a call to action in response to the environmental emergency from the specificity of a local context” as it’s overarching theme.

 

Sun & Sea, Lithuania’s contribution to the 2019 Venice Biennale. Photo by Neon Realism.

 

But is it too much?

There is an argument that art connects people on an emotional level, and as a result, is a very fitting way to bring attention to critical issues. Sure, this is indeed true. Throughout history, the way art can capture imagination, speak up for the silenced, even become a form of protest, is a testimony to its power. As Danish Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson—who has been a long-time advocate for climate issues through his art—wrote for the World Economic Forum, “The arts and culture represent one of the few areas in our society where people can come together to share an experience even if they see the world in radically different ways.”

Yet, recently, as I walked out of yet another climate change and sustainability art exhibition—my sixth in the span of half a year—I couldn’t help but brood on the obvious: somewhere along the line, climate change art perhaps runs the risk of being all too alike and its impact on the immediate issues too negligible.

Then there is yet another pressing concern; the cost of mounting an exhibition has an effect on the environment which is often ignored. For every exhibition held there are various operational and logistical matters that take place. Every minor aspect, from artwork transportation, packaging materials, marketing banners, to that new souvenir tote bag—they all contribute to an amassing of trash and discarded by-product. This is in addition to the cost of travelling to participate in the show or even visit the exhibition.

 

Chris Burden, Urban Light , 2008. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

 

Taking Action Towards A Greener Art World

So while I applaud climate change exhibitions for their efforts to raise awareness and hypothesize how humanity can approach the climate crisis, I can’t quite look past that maybe the root of the problem is deeper. Rather than creating more exhibitions to generate discussion on humanity’s future survival, perhaps the impact will be greater and more immediate when we face the demon that is our addiction for endless travel and consumption. Our social and urban fabric is overdue for a deconstruction and reformation. Curbing some of our chronic habits and reigning in our necessity to travel for fear of FOMO in an effort to lessen our individual carbon emission may be one step forward with a more profound impact.

Furthermore, what if we were to spend those funds on more immediate actions and making existing artworks that may be harming our environment more eco-friendly? In 2018, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which is dedicated to environmental causes, funded the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to replace all 309 incandescent lights in Chris Burden’s installation Urban Light with energy-efficient LED bulbs. Although a costly execution, the change was estimated to reduce the artwork’s energy consumption by 90 percent, and prevent 5.2 million pounds of carbon emissions over 10 years. Perhaps, more of such actions towards mitigating our climate disaster have far greater impact than mounting that next climate change art exhibition.

 

 

 


 

Denise Tsui is the Managing Editor for CoBo Social. A Hong Kong-born Aussie with an addiction to coffee, her research interests are primarily in the study of exhibition models and curatorial practices and art from the Southeast Asia Region. Previously she was an editor for ArtAsiaPacific and curator for a private collection of Australian and New Zealand art. A condensed version of her postgraduate curatorial thesis on contemporary Indonesian art was published in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies in 2015.

 

 

 
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