Art in the Time of Planetary Change
The Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw invites to the exhibition “Penumbral Age. Art in the Time of Planetary Change”, where we present artistic works from the last five decades, based on observations and visualizations of the changes underway on planet Earth. It provides a space for discussion on “managing the irreversible” and new forms of solidarity, empathy and togetherness in the face of the climate crisis.
We live in a time of planetary change affecting each and every one of us. Climate change influences every sphere of life, including thinking about art: the systems of its production and distribution, its social function and its relation to other disciplines, especially science.
The title of the exhibition is drawn from the book The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (2014), where the protagonists from the future date the “period of the penumbra” from the “shadow of anti-intellectualism that fell over the once-Enlightened techno-scientific nations of the Western world during the second half of the twentieth century, preventing them from acting on the scientific knowledge available at the time” and leading to tragedy. We are witnesses to this process: scientific findings have ceased to be regarded as dispositive and do not persuade people to act. As the American writer and historian Ibram X. Kendi wrote in The Atlantic, analysing scepticism about climate change or outright rejection of the threat (climate denialism).
Observations by artists are akin to those of scientists, but they typically do not confront viewers with an excess of numbers, soaring bar graphs, or “pornographic” images of poverty and devastation. Art has “strange tools” (Alva Noë, 2015) at its disposal, which we can use to discern “wonders in the heavens and signs on the earth.” When ordinary tools of dialogue and persuasion fail, artists enable an “imaginative leap” by working on the emotions, confronting the incomprehensible and the unknown. As the theoretician of visual culture Nicholas Mirzoeff puts it, we must “unsee” how the past “has taught us to see the world, and begin to imagine a different way to be with what used to be called nature.”
The “Penumbral Age. Art in the Time of Planetary Change” spans five decades, and highlights the strengthening of environmental reflections in the art of the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as the second decade of the 21st century. The first period is linked with intensification of pacifist, feminist and anti-racist movements and the formation of the contemporary ecological movement. At the same time new artistic phenomena arose, such as conceptualism, anti-form, land art and earth art. While introducing “geological” thinking about art, artists used impermanent organic materials or sought to entirely dematerialize the work of art.
For us, land art is much more than a stream of Western art emblematic of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Following the thought of the Pakistani artist and activist Rasheed Araeen, drawing from his “ecoaesthetics” agenda, we seek “global art for a changing planet.” Actions connected with the “canonization” of land art, such as Richard Long’s Throwing a Stone around MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, in which the artist followed a stone he tossed before him, the “terraforming” plans of Robert Morris, or Gerry Schum’s television programme (an example of the use of new media to expose audiences to “organic” art practised in deserts or forests), are accompanied in this exhibition by works from the 21st century, employing ecological education (Futurefarmers, Ines Doujak, the Center for Land Use Interpretation), protest (Suzanne Husky, Akira Tsuboi), and involving spirituality and esoterics (Shana Moulton and Nick Hallett, Teresa Murak, Tatiana Czekalska, Leszek Golec).
Life in a state of deepening crisis forces us to fundamentally change our thinking about the entire system of social organization and to confront ethical and existential dilemmas (climate migrations and new class conflicts). The world of art, with its museums and rituals for organizing objects and ideas, is no exception (to paraphrase the slogan of the Youth Strike for Climate, “No museums on a dead planet!”) and requires deep systemic transformation. We treat engagement in this discussion as a duty of the museum, and not as just another fashion or stream in art. Countering the calls for “ecological restoration” or the popularity of “art of the Anthropocene,” we stress the permanence of environmental reflection, based on continuity and responsibility.
Art will certainly not protect us against catastrophe, but it can help us arm ourselves with “strange tools” for the work of imagination and empathy. In her memorable manifesto from 1969, Mierle Laderman Ukeles posed the question: “After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?” In works of art from recent decades we not only seek a visualization of processes occurring on our planet, but also discern possible proposals for the future. If ecological catastrophe is already happening (as the residents of the inundated islands of Nauru and Banaba in the Pacific would certainly agree), together we wonder, will we ever manage to clean up our planetary mess and rebuild our relations with other sentient beings? Will we manage to start over again?
The works in the exhibition come from the collections of such institutions as Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Modern Art Antwerp, and Tate Britain. The architectural concept for the show was prepared by the German studio Kooperative für Darstellungspolitik.