'Passion and romance and love'
The role artists can play in communicating about climate change
| 01 May 2009
BERKELEY — Is the topic of climate change the province only of scientists? Or are artists who use symbols and metaphor equally or better equipped to deliver the message of global warming?
An exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum, "Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet," explores whether art can effect world change. The exhibit, which is on view through Sept. 27, is the result of an unusual and nearly six-year collaboration involving the campus museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and RARE, a conservation agency.
"Human/Nature" features the work of eight artists who each chose a UNESCO World Heritage site to research, visit, and respond to artistically. The sites span the globe — Mark Dion traveled to Komodo National Park in Indonesia; Diana Thater opted to work at iSimangaliso Wetland Park in South Africa; artist Rigo 23 went to the Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves in Brazil; and Marcos Ramírez ERRE journeyed to the Three Parallel Rivers area of Yunnan, China. The resulting art is as diverse as the sites they visited.
Future environmental losses will be so extreme, Robleto said, that "nobody's equipped to handle them on the abstract level, let alone the personal level."
Among the artists was Dario Robleto, who chose Waterton Glacier International Peace Park on the U.S./Canadian border for his project — a spectacular area, but one where (the park's lead glaciologist told him) the glaciers will be gone within 25 years. We're at "a terrible moment," says Robleto, theorizing that such environmental catastrophes coincide with an era of widespread repression of thoughts, images, and feelings around the subject of death. Mourning and loss are recurring themes in Robleto's art, and he posits that Americans' repression of death has hit an all-time high in terms of our collective inability to discuss the topic.
Probing scientists' feelings
Robleto spent a week interviewing scientists about the emotional toll of what they were witnessing in the park. "I don't think anyone has ever asked them, 'How do you feel about losing this grizzly bear or this glacier,'" says Robleto. He speculates that the scientists may have felt freer talking to an artist about such feelings because we "have the luxury of talking in metaphor and passion and romance and love." And he argues that future environmental losses will be so extreme that "nobody's equipped to handle them on the abstract level, let alone the personal level." Yet, he suggests, we can find "a beautiful blueprint, a historical lineage, a creative response to loss" in the mourning practices of the Victorian era.
In their rituals, the Victorians braided the hair of their deceased loved ones and incorporated it in memorial plaques; they also produced elaborate "death notices" (which were distinct from obituaries). They also hewed to a strict mourning dress code. Robleto is not advocating for Americans to replicate Victorian mourning practices, which he acknowledges might seem morbid to people today; but, he insists, "we need to come up with new strategies for the moment." Becoming aware of those old traditions will help people "connect the dots" and understand they can "mourn the world on a private, individual level."
Robleto seems a bit like a man out of time with his fascination with loss, his studious manner, and his romantic sensibility. At the University of Texas he studied biology before turning to art. His love of history and science inform his artistic process, including the research he puts into his materials. "Do they even exist? Can I change them into what I want?" he asks.
Robleto adapted some of the Victorians' creative responses to death in the pieces he contributed to "Human/Nature," braiding audiotape recordings of melting glaciers with fur from woolly mammoths that have been exposed as the ice melts. Almost every handmade element of Robleto's work is laden symbolically: For example, he used willow wood to fashion several of his exhibit cases. The willow, he says, was the tree of the Victorians, who buried their deceased beneath their boughs so that "the loved one will become part of the tree. It sounds silly, but it's quite beautiful."
In some of his work before "Human/Nature," Robleto explored whether there can be "a material component of love." For this exhibit he asked lovers of various ages and at different stages in their relationships to record one another's heartbeats as they thought about their beloved. "When you're in love or reflecting on someone you love, the chemical cocktail that's released in your brain changes your heart pattern," explains Robleto. He then braided the audiotapes of the lovers' heartbeat recordings with the sounds he captured of the glaciers melting.
Robleto reveals that one of the couples died since making their recording, and two others divorced. "Life just happens, but that moment [when the lovers were together] was caught," he notes. Love is not eternal; like the glaciers it "melts away as life continues."
In another piece, Robleto has arranged in a circle the skeletal paws of cave bears that went extinct during the Pleistocene era. Again he braided audio, transferring the earliest playable audio recording in which the experimenter (who was working at the same time as Thomas Edison) recites the hours: one o'clock, two o'clock, three o'clock, and so on. The cave bears, he says, are holding on to time.
Within a few hundred years after humans came to North America, cave bears, woolly mammoths, and many other megafauna species were gone, says Robleto. Those losses occurred at a time when man was competing with the bears for space in those sheltered caves, a time when only the fittest survived. Considering the ecological consequences of killing a cave bear didn't enter into the equation for our ancestors, observes Robleto. "But at this point, we have no excuse," he says. "The morals are clear."
And that, for Robleto, is where art can play a role. "Art can produce the desire to want to change," though it doesn't provide the specifics for how to change. "If you can incite awe and wonder," that can provoke a desire in people to change or protect what they have.