Carbon 14: Climate is Culture Exhibition, Royal Ontario Museum

Integrating art with science and nature isn’t new: mathematic perspective and anatomical dissection contributed to Renaissance realism. Following that, landscapes became an important painting genre. In the 1960s, artists left the “white cube” to make Land Art. Today, artists alarmed by our fraught relations with nature, integrate birds, bees, and bacteria into their works. The exhibition Carbon 14: Climate is Culture, the centrepiece of a four-month festival of the same name at the Royal Ontario Musuem, shares this terrain, and says much about what we’re all talking about these days – the weather.

This is the first Canadian project for the UK based foundation, Cape Farewell, begun by artist, David Buckland in 2001, and shares its goals of extending scientific climate research, through art, into political action, as a last-ditch effort to forestall environmental crisis. To attempt this in a country such as Canada, where the Conservative government forfeits environmental health for Alberta tar sands revenue, is no small goal.

The exhibition of works by North American artists was introduced by Canadian media artist, Sharon Switzer’s #Crazyweather (2013), a 10 minute, digital media loop, also screened as a giant outdoor billboard in record low temperatures in downtown Toronto. Paired screens presented distant Earth, calm amidst agitated skies (NASA’s Blue Marble image) on the left; letters fly onto the right screen, as if blown by the wind, forming tweets about weird weather conditions: “It was crazy weather in Moscow last evening. Sun+rain+thunder with pieces of ice at the same time”; “What a lovely WINTER day in Sao Paolo hahahaha this crazy weather is crazy”. If light in their anecdotal singularity, the statements accumulate as a weighty testament to a frightening future.

US conceptual artist, Mel Chin takes the audience south where Western Saharan Saharawi refugees offer a brighter ray of sunshine than the “black gold” of our fossil fuel addiction. Dispossessed of their land and dependent on aid in Algerian camps, the Saharawi community has been working with Chin to harness their only natural resource into an economy “backed not by gold or gas, but by the sun.” Chin’s installation, The Potential Project (2013), includes a model of a Stand Alone solar Power Station, a wall papered with hand-drawn Saharawi currency, and The Saharan Sand Dollar Machine that exchanges visitors’ bills for coins made of fused sand. While other works in the exhibition clarify the conditions of climate change, this work alone offers practical solutions in poetic format.

Inuk filmmaker, Zacharias Kunuk collaborated on two films here, and both captivate with their quiet observation of their Inuit subjects. In Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël’s, Kobe (2012), a young boy goes on his first traditional hunting excursion with extended family; in Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change (2010), made with scientist, Ian Mauro, the camera quietly allows elders to share their lived knowledge of land and water. Their comments capture the tension within “southerners” relation to the polar bear communities: some conclude that the biologists’ helicopters and tagging threaten their survival, while others think the polar bear will thrive in warmer climate.

More analytical is Canadian Melanie Gilligan’s and British Tom Ackers’ two-channel projection, Deep Time (2013). In this study of the human rationalization of the exploitation of the earth’s resources, the movers of capital make poetic word play as they trade off natural, human and financial values as if they are equivalent. Sweating workers digging in a forest pause to state their resource value: “Sun, carbon, fixed into my body for you to live by”. Their overseeing foreman manipulates resources through cellphone exchanges with an agent who sits at a desk in a green field. As neo-liberalized conflation of Molly Bloom and Gertrude Stein, the agent lies back in the grass, ecstatic within cosmic mergers of natural energy: “Ah yes, moon tides. A heron is a wind stalk ripple. Mud is a grass is a salt is a mountain top. Oceans: out of sight out of mind.” An aged rock face tells the slow story of ancient growth of life on earth, in contrast to the speed at which modern humans destroy it.

In the video A Draught of the Blue (2013), Mexican artist, Minerva Cuevas goes to great depths, literally, by staging an underwater protest against the destruction of ocean ecosystems. Divers unfurl signs that read “In trouble”, in the vicinity of coral reefs, the essential nurseries for the phytoplankton base of our food chain. The tension between human help or hindrance is again visible here, as sea turtles attempt to escape the intrusive camera that disturbs their habitat.

The artists in Carbon 14 have used various creative strategies to translate scientific studies for at least the museum-visitor segment of the public. Yet, a stubborn problems persists – how to influence the politically powerful to change the course of “human” nature?

Carbon 14: Climate is Culture ran 19 October – 2 February, Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queen’s Park, Toronto, ON M5S 2C6.

Jill Glessing

1. Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change, by Kunuk and Maura.