I visited the exhibition days before Halloween. It was seventy-eight degrees out, and I walked from the cafe across the street where the a/c still blew cold air at the students buried in their books and computers. The pertinence and urgency of talking about climate change felt uncanny.
The multimedia exhibition “Earthly Visions: Inside the Climate Crisis” has amassed works by eight artists, local and international, to showcase artistic strategies for discerning, understanding and coping with climate change. The environment affects us all, including the art world, but what artistic research and creation can afford in return to ameliorate climate change remains most powerful when it aims at raising awareness and promoting speculative thinking. “Earthly Visions” has hit both items on the checklist. To use participating artist and filmmaker Ursula Biemann’s own words (available on the wall label), “The images and narratives have to reach a collective imaginary… [W]hat is at stake… [is] the ability to mutate and imagine ourselves anew.” The exhibition spotlights documentarians, speculative visualizers and storytellers to present a snapshot of the human condition under the capitalist planetary extraction that menaces global populations and communities disproportionately.
Biemann zooms in on landmark legal cases that have realized the conceptualization of endowing legal standings to non-human entities, such as the forest and nature, in a 2013 video “Forest Law.” The almost-forty-minute two-channel video carries out a series of interviews with Indigenous habitants of the Ecuadorian Amazon, including activists of Sarayuku and Shuar people, and scientists who study botanics.
Biemann’s steady and diligent documentary sets itself in an intriguing contrast with the moving-image works by Theo Cuthand, an artist of Plains Cree and Scots descent and a member of Little Pine First Nation. Cuthand’s speculative fiction “Reclamation” (2018) unfolds a miserable scenario where Indigenous populations are left to survive on the inhabitable Earth while white people venture to colonize Mars. A fiction shot in a documentary style and coupled with convincing acting, the video underscores the resilience of Indigenous subjects and their attachment to their motherland. They are seen guarding themselves with gas masks against dangerously polluted air and talking sarcastically about the labor of cleaning up the mess that the new Martians have left behind.
Cuthand plied a filter to render all outdoor Earth scenes in tarnished yellow, striking an eerie parallel with Jeremy Bolen’s sculptures “Because The Sky Will Be Filled With Sulfur” (2022), a series of large-scale acrylic glass with UV-printed images of the sky—not in azure as we’d hope, but in burnt amber to show how the atmosphere would look if humans decide to inject sulfur particles therein to reverse global warming. These translucent pieces casually lean against the columns, offering a perspective to the rest of the exhibition through an alarming orange hue and foretelling an impending shift in our aesthetic memory of the world if the climate continues to worsen.
As a seasonal tree planter in Canada, photographer Lorraine Gilbert uses her camera to record the process of deforestation and regeneration. Another photographer, Terry Evans, collages documentation of Jackson Park’s 300-year-old bur oak tree and its surroundings in multiple seasons to preserve Midwest prairies. But perhaps the more interesting works are those fraught with positivity and possibilities. Cydney M. Lewis’ wall-based sculptural collages reimagine landscapes that evolve together with the climate. In “Delicately Held” (2022), motifs such as flowers and hands stem from a ground of waste materials that the artist collected while walking in her Bronzeville neighborhood. Similarly, Australian-born Nigerian artist Nnenna Okore also makes creative use of waste to conjure artworks that do not burden landfills. Her sophisticated flat works, lying comfortably and delicately on the surfaces near a window, lit with the natural light of a warm afternoon, are bioplastic sheets made of food waste but visually akin to rich textiles. Pieces in the series “Pellicles of Delight” have binder clips clipped to the edge, as though prompting some functional or decorative potential. Consider hanging this instead of a wall rug made of acrylic yarn or a mass-produced print framed in plywood, that is if the price tag justifies the cause.
In its thankless attempt to tackle the complexity of environmental issues that are constantly being knitted by intellectual pessimism and unraveled by mercenary ignorance, “Earthly Visions” still calls for a change—not only in how we live but also in how we understand the essence of living. To conclude, I quote from an Indigenous interviewee in Biemann’s film: “The Correa government says that we are poor. I can show him that we are not poor. I have wood. I have chicken. I have land. I have clean air, clean water, tranquility, happiness, peace… We have other indexes of richness. They measure in terms of how much money you have in the bank, how many cars you own, what clothing you wear. Here the wealth indicators are air and water, spending time with your family and your friends, knowing everyone in your community. This is considered wealth.”
“Earthly Visions: Inside the Climate Crisis” is on view at Gallery 400 of the University of Illinois Chicago, 400 South Peoria through December 16.