The Art of the Climate Crisis

Issue 265

By Mike Newton Aug 2, 2021

It’s a strange time to be stepping outside in New York City. There’s the still-looming pandemic, the string of nasty heatwaves and, as I write this, the sky is covered in gray clouds made up of ashes from the massive wildfires on the West Coast. With each new day and each new, terrible news item about cataclysmic weather — flooding in China, Germany and also right here in New York City and people dying in record-breaking summer heat, drought and fire all over the world — it’s seeming like this may be the summer where many of those in denial will have to admit that, yes, climate change is real. And it’s here.

It’s a lot. With climate news, it’s always a lot. The scope of the problem feels huge, bigger than anyone can make sense of. Artwork about climate change can often feel strange — like something’s missing — for exactly this reason. It usually comes down to one person (or a small group of people) trying to make sense of something that is massively, inconceivably complex.

But of course, people are trying. Through mid-November, we have Maya Lin’s sculptural installation Ghost Forest, in which 49 barren Atlantic white cedar trees have been implanted into the otherwise lush, green lawns of Manhattan’s Madison Square Park. Lin made her name with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., a distinctly mournful and non-heroic work of public sculpture in which the names of the dead seem like they’re emerging out of a rupture in the ground itself. Much of her work since then has stayed with the theme of shaped and wounded earth, like her famous trio of “Wavefield” pieces, in which acres of land have been formed into rippling waves, mimicking the swells and bulbs of satellite photography.

Ghost Forest is worth seeing and it’s the sort of artwork that has to be seen in person. The starkness of its life-or-death contrasts — ashen white against verdant green — makes the most sense when seen at its natural, life-sized scale, where you can touch the skin of the trees with the skin of your hand. If one of the big problems around climate change is that many people still just don’t think it’s happening at all, then it’s hard to fault works like this for giving a clear and practical demonstration of the issue at hand: These trees are dead. They died because of climate change.

Long Time by Paul Ramirez-Jonas on Pier 66 in Hudson River Park. Photo: Renée Fetz.

On view through late October, Blessing of the Boats, a public, interactive sculpture by Muna Malik, looks at similar concerns from a more buoyant, hopeful perspective. The piece, which has been installed in multiple sites near NYC waterways (and which is currently one of a handful of exhibits on Governor’s Island involving themes of climate change), includes a glimmering, origami-like boat and invites viewers to make their own paper boats inscribed with an answer to the prompt, “We have an opportunity to set sail towards a new future — what society would you build and how do we get there?” It creates its own stark contrasts: a tiny, flimsy paper boat set against New York’s dirty, intimidating waters (waters which will, in due time, rise and become a genuine threat to the city because of climate change). The installation makes for a nice gesture — but isn’t that just the problem? It feels like we should be past the point of mere gestures.

Art that means to address climate change often feels just too small, out of scale
with the enormity of the crisis itself. The question follows, what can we reasonably expect? The climate crisis is too big for any one person too tackle and may require forms of collaboration and community-building that have never existed before; maybe it will call for new forms of art, as well.

On Manhattan’s Pier 66, you can find Paul Ramirez-Jonas’s permanent public installation Long Time. The work has been there for about 14 years but it feels much older. It’s a large, weather-beaten water wheel which moves gently with the Hudson River tides, evoking an industrial past and a (presumably) more mechanized future. Seeing it is a good chance to stop and consider how short a time our human cities have flowered alongside the rocks and rivers that predate us by millions of years. You can stand on the pier and look at Manhattan with all its construction cranes and luxurious skyscrapers, a place that seems, simply put, unsustainable in its current form.

So, artwork about climate change often lacks the sort of fire and urgency that such a major crisis would demand but there’s already so much fire. While the climate crisis grows bigger, we’ll need to keep space for small things, things that make sense at the scale of human bodies and lives. Maybe as we move forward, art can provide necessary spaces of reflection, solace and mourning. We’re going to need a lot of that as time goes on.


Maya Lin: Ghost Forest
Madison Square Park; Thru Nov. 14

Muna Malik: Blessing of the Boats
Governor’s Island; Thurs–Sun, 12–5 p.m., Thru Oct. 31

Paul Ramirez-Jonas: Long Time
Pier 66 at Hudson River Park; Permanent Exhibit

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