Artists show their power to effect change

The Art Newspaper | Ben Luke

In May, the photographer Edward Burtynsky unveiled the first fruits of his five-year Anthropocene Project at the Photo London art fair, in the form of an augmented reality (AR) installation. Taking the name of our present geological era recently proposed by geologists and climate scientists, the project is multidisciplinary, featuring a film, a Steidl book, Burtynsky’s trademark large-scale photographs and virtual reality (VR)—all of which will be brought together for two exhibitions in Canada opening in September. The project follows the Anthropocene Working Group of geologists, and captures the devastating impact of humankind across the planet. Strikingly, Burtynsky told us that, while the term is gradually being more widely used, “it is the scientific and arts communities that are propagating the term Anthropocene, more than anywhere else”.

That Burtynsky sees the arts at the vanguard of climate change thinking speaks to the power of diverse cultural forms to grapple with complexities and find ways to communicate them. Among the biggest problems facing environmental campaigners—apart from the recklessness of the US, the world’s second largest polluter (according to the World Bank)—is in communicating the intricacies of the science and the need for urgent action. It is not helped by the warped sense of balance applied by media organisations to an issue with overwhelming scientific consensus: in April, the BBC was rebuked by the UK media watchdog Ofcom for not challenging false claims made by the prominent climate change denier Lord Lawson on the radio last year.

In the visual arts, a greater sense of activism is possible, and it’s being helped by the absorption of a broader range of disciplines and media into the canon. New technologies have been used in many of the best works, so it is no accident that Burtynsky is using AR and VR. John Akomfrah’s Purple, shown in London last year and recently in Madrid, used multi-screen video installations to reflect on present climate change theories through both new HD footage and archive materials. The brilliance of Akomfrah’s work lay in its ability to reflect an industrial past together with historic global colonisation and related cultural identities as the hinterland haunting environmental catastrophe. In Purple, one was repeatedly confronted with a figure in a protective white suit, framed by epic landscapes, imbued with beauty and terror. It was a clear reference to Caspar David Friedrich’s image of man enveloped by nature; the Romantic sublime imbued with insidious toxicity…read more

Image: Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Metivier Gallery, Toronto / Flowers Gallery, London