According to National Geographic, the global average surface temperature has increased by more than 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1906.

This fact, and other statistics on the ever looming threat of climate catastrophe, are indicative of an ever–worsening problem that we must reckon with. But to those of us whose brains are not wired for STEM, what does the fact that the global average surface temperature rose 1.6 degrees really mean? How can we expect to understand the severity of climate change when the data feels foreign to us?

For those visual learners out there, contemporary artists are creating work about climate change that helps to make the issue more tangible.  

Such is the case with Olafur Eliasson’s “Ice Watch,” in which the artist took 12 large chunks of ice from the Greenland ice sheet and transported it to Copenhagen’s City Hall Square. The local community watched as the ice melted over the course of three days, bringing the title of “Ice Watch” into reality. This piece not only forces the community to reckon with the global issue of climate change by placing it in an active community space, but also makes the complicated problem more accessible. 

In his series “We Are the Astroid,” Brooklyn based artist Justin Brice Guariglia uses average highway message signs to deliver messages, warnings if you will, about climate change. These solar—powered, LED signs project eco-aphorisms like “TRIASSIC WEATHER AHEAD,” “WARNING: HURRICANE HUMAN,” and, of course, “WE ARE THE ASTEROID.” 

These texts are taken from Rice Professor Timothy Morton’s HYPEROBJECTS: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, among other publications. Guariglia takes them out of the academic context and puts them it into the world, making the concept of global warming more accessible, through direct wording, familiar medium, and public presentation.

While art that deals with the environment is not new, it's rooted in the history of landscape as a subject of art—from the Hudson River School or the Land Art movement, for example. These groups produce environmentally conscious art to make viewers aware of the world around them or spark change. This type of art has become more popular over the past few years. From Wara Bullôt’s photography, which elegantly captures the contrast between nature and the man–made in simple but striking ways, to Agnes Denes, who is considered to be a pioneer of environmental art with her work Rice/Tree/Burial in 1968, the investigation of the environment today through an artistic lens is more important than ever.

While we can minimize the numbers or dispute the data, visually confronting the viewer with representations of glacial retreat, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification, contemporary artists are making the reality of climate change harder to ignore. 

Gabriel Orozco’s work Sandstars puts the viewer in direct conversation with pollution. This installation, which was on display at the Guggenheim in 2012, is composed of 1200 objects from Isla Aerea, Mexico, which is a repository for flows of industrial and commercial trash.  Arranged side by side on a pristine museum floor, Sandstars is overwhelming to look at, as it makes us confront our role as a species in causing this global disaster. 

Often, as is the case with Sandstars, these works are beautiful to look at, combining classic aesthetic values with political intentions to create work that is both beautiful and provocative. This is also true for Spencer Finch’s The River That Flows Both Ways

The River That Flows Both Ways, which until recently was located at the High Line in New York, is beautiful. Visually, it draws in the viewer with the gentleness of the stained glass and the varying shades of solid greens and browns; each unique color compliments its neighbors. In this project, Finch attempted to capture the exact color of the Hudson River by photographing the river’s surface once every minute. Each pane of glass represents a single pixel in one photograph. This work documents Finch’s attempt to investigate the color of the water, specifically, polluted water. With that small piece of context, The River That Flows Both Ways becomes more upsetting than beautiful.

While 1.6 degrees may seem like an abstract concept, Ice Watch and We Are the Asteroid are very real. Spencer Finch and his peers are making art using the principles of aesthetics, to create work that might be pleasing on its surface, but in fact contains incredibly complicated messages about our role in a changing world, and the impacts of the threats faced by our generation.


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