Artists illustrate the science and sentiments of environmental movement
You probably haven’t been to Antarctica to see a desert made of ice and the microbial life revealed as that ice retreats. Even if a sheep were to swallow a mountain lion whole, you couldn’t see through its skin to grasp the metaphor. You may have a few words to express the depth of frustration at a legacy of inherited environmental woes and the hope that planting a tree, or a garden, or a whole forest can in some way bite back against power plants, automobiles, chemicals in waterways and over-fished oceans. But explaining exactly why we persist in having enough hope to ride bikes and recycle doesn’t come so easily.
Then art steps in, and it creates, if not in words, some frame of visual language, a world’s worth of worry, thought, contemplation and even hope for the environment we live in.
“With art, expressions that are less limited by reason, common sense and values conditioned by history and the dominant culture can emerge,” says sculptural artist Nadia Guthmann. “Viewers also can read those expressions in diverse ways and levels, finding more than one meaning. Then, art contributes to the awareness about environmental issues in a different way than explanations.”
The Americas Latino Eco-Festival has drawn together an exhibition of artists who do just that. They each engage with science, climate change and communities in a unique way, and the end result is a cluster of astounding views at this planet we call home — and a resounding affirmation that it is worth acting immediately to preserve.
Andrea Juan’s photography, video and installation art transport the viewer to the literal ends of the earth. Work that she’d begun on the glaciers in Patagonia in her home country of Argentina, she carried on to Antarctica in 2004, where she came into contact with scientists studying the continent.
“I was astonished about the projects. I began working with them and it was, for me, very useful,” she says. “Since then, I cannot work without being inspired by them.”
She has been the recipient of multiple grants, from organizations including the Guggenheim Fellowship and UNESCO, funding her trips to Antarctica, where she creates installation pieces inspired by the scientific research being undertaken there, specifically that on climate change. She’s now been there nine times.
“Every year, I work in different scientific investigation research, such as methane, the appearance of methane gas or the disappearance of ice glaciers or ice shelves, and the last three years I worked with a new species that appeared on the bottom of the sea after the disappearance of the ice shelf,” Juan says.
In 2013, she visited the Larsen Ice Shelf, where an unprecedented disappearance of ice has led to the discovery of a previously unknown ecosystem in the Weddell Sea that had been hidden under the ice. Juan created “The Organic Project,” a series of photographs of creations that echoed those new species made from fabric from the women’s clothing firm Varanasi.
“The idea is to, through a poetic way of working, show how the new species are appearing in Antarctica,” she says.
In her 2012 project, “New Species, New Eden,” Juan delved into Antarctica’s paradox itself — that the continent of 5.4 million square miles is covered by an ice sheet nearly three miles thick on all but 2.4 percent of its land mass, and while it holds 70 percent of the earth’s water as solid ice, it hasn’t rained there in more than 20 million years.
“Antarctica is a pristine place, it’s a pristine continent, there is no habitants there, it’s the most important reservoir of drinking water in the world,” she says. “Being a desert is a funny thing because it’s the most important reserve of drinking water, so we must take care of it. It’s the drinking water for our future.”
Her work references rising water, increasing levels of acid in oceans and methane release.
While a single male performer engages with the tulle fabric she’s created to represent plant life, penguins totter through the background. She works with melting ice, ice riding on the ocean waves, drips from the tips of icicles that briefly catch the color of a fabric.
She’ll be presenting some of her video work from Antarctica during the Americas Latino EcoFestival.
“I think that the piece of art makes the message more clear and I think the message of the idea of the research goes directly to the heart, to the soul,” she says.
Sculptural artist Guthmann’s work brings visual metaphor center stage. Drawing from her own science background — she has a doctoral degree in biology — Guthmann creates metal sculptures that make art out of the material of zoology classes and microscope slides.
“I always thought that nature was a bit depreciated in human decisions, and I, in my work, give more importance to those natural aspects and respect of our original energies, and nature’s energies,” Guthmann says.
In working with metal and mesh, she began to utilize that material’s capacity for increased size and potential for transparency.
“In this material, other thing that happened is that I was very interested in nature, in animals, ecology, evolution, and I studied biology and when I went into working with these materials, I made like a connection between the sculpture and the biology,” she says. “I began to talk at the same time about ecology, biology, society and also the human condition because animals work like symbols, they have many meanings and relation between those animals and human feelings.”
“Water sample” suspends oversized renditions of aquatic life in a mobile. “Migrating root” takes immigrant humans and the non-native red deer, now well established in Argentina’s Nahuel Huapi National Park as inspiration — the iron sculpture of a deer has horns that grow to the ground as “roots.” She again links ecology and the human condition as the same in “Patagonic marginalization,” in which she takes the native Patagonian hare, the mara, and puts it inside the introduced European hare, alluding to the displacement of indigenous populations and subsequent colonization.
She conveys the coexistence of ecosystems by placing one animal inside another — the interior creature visible through transparent metallic frames.
“These metal meshes that work like skin, like a biological tissue defines an individual, and skin usually separates individuals,” she says. “To put another animal inside is to say something else.”
She uses that opportunity to put opposite or complementary energies together — putting a mountain lion inside sheep, for example. One is domesticated and used to produce meat, and the other is wild, free and aggressive.
“I’m talking about these animals that live in the same place, and this kind of conflict, but also I’m talking about society, because domestication is also seen in people that behave like sheep, or could have another energy to be free and wild,” Guthmann says. “Also, I’m talking about original the people that lived here before colonization, and about individual energies, because each one can have a sheep aspect, a sheep energy, domesticated, and very like, sometido [submissive; subjected], and also each one could have a wild energy inside that could save and make more independent and free.”
In addition to the works that will come and go, some works will be created during the festival to stay, including a mural by artist David Ocelotl Garcia and one painted by the community led by Rafael Lopez. Garcia’s depicts Mother Earth struggling with an imbalanced set of natural resources, localized to Boulder with references to the September 2013 floods, and has been painted on one wall of the Dairy Center for the Arts. The mural will be unveiled during the festival.
Lopez’s has been designed, but part of the point, he says, isn’t about what ends up on the wall at all.
“The mural is really just an excuse to bring people together. I could easily throw a party and introduce each other, but doing a mural is a lot more fun,” he says. In other places where he’s helped to coordinate murals, as here, he creates a simple graphic design that artists of any skill level can contribute to completing and gets together a group of people to complete the task in just a few days.
“It’s not really about creating a pretty picture, it’s not about decorating a wall, it’s more about bringing the people together,” he says.
He tries to create images that are easily readable and relatable, so any viewer can look at it and read something personal into it that’s loosely related to the theme given.
“You see a sun, usually it doesn’t say depression, it says sunshine,” he says. “When you see a bird fly, it can say freedom, but it can also be about your own personal freedom or your own personal evolution or whatever was holding you back.”
In this case, the focus was on the environment and making a positive change in the ecosystem.
“I think that art, it’s the perfect escape to actually externalize a lot of things about who you are. … It’s this excuse or this instrument of bringing people together that would otherwise be too shy or too reluctant to try to do something as a group,” he says. “You create this bond between these people because you have this common thing you’re enjoying, you’re enjoying the creating of something, so you open yourself up to new ideas, to perceptions of other people and welcome them and say OK, I think this way but this other person feels this other way, maybe by doing this together we have more power than by myself.
“Art is also very permanent, so it’s a message that continues to be told every day as you drive by, so it’s a reminder of, whether it’s a positive or negative message, it’s something you’re going to be looking at over and over and over again on a daily basis if you drive by this mural.”
Lopez also designed the four posters used to advertise the festival, all taking off with new words that spin off the famous “re” words — recycling, reuse, reduce. He chose to build a progression that begins with “reflect,” and moves through “reimagine,” “reawaken” and “re-flourish.”
“The first one should be that one which says reflect, look what’s facing us. We have a lot of challenges ahead because of what we have done to the environment in a negative way, so in a way it’s this person reflecting on how we have trashed our oceans and the oil spills and how it’s effecting the environment. The first thing we need to do is reflect about that negative impact we had … it’s time to reflect and to take action,” Lopez says. “After you reflect and you realize what we have done you have to re-imagine what we can do difat the Dairy Center for the Arts. Artists present will include Margarita Cabrera, Andrea Juan, Rafael Lopez, Alan Manuel, David Ocelotl Garcia and James Rodriguez. ferently. So how do you do that, by realizing that we are all humans, an intricate part of this environment, its all interwoven because whatever we do will effect the environment positively or negatively.”
The “Re-imagine” poster gives a red bird human legs and feet, a reminder, Lopez says, that “We are the environment, we can become agents of good change and we live in this intimate interaction with the natural world, we cannot consider ourselves apart because whatever we do to the environment will effect us,” he says.
For “Re-awaken,” he shows a hand with an eye in its palm, the center of the flower making the iris in the eye.
“What we do will effect the changes whether they’re going to be good or bad, so the hand in a way symbolizes our participation and whether we’re doing something positive like collecting trash, or trashing our environment,” he says. “The hand, to me, symbolizes our participation physically into doing something with the environment, we do a lot with our hands, so by having this rebirth, this blooming of the flower, the message was, yes we can effect the environment, but let’s effect it in a positive way.”
The last one says “re-flourish” — and shows a flower rising from the pinched fingers of a human hand that miraculously hold a pool of water to nourish it — a call to put human hands to work in aiding in the rebirth of anything human hands have destroyed in the past.
“By doing all these things, we reawaken the minds of our selves and the new generation,” Lopez says. He returns to that image from reawaken of the hand in the eye. “Like your soul reopens its eyes to see things now differently. You will never see things the same old way you used to see, or ignore. You have reawakened your mind and your spirit in a way that from now on you will be aware of your interactions with the environment.”