Written by Hung-Fei WU
In the autumn of 2022, I once again set foot on the European continent after a hiatus of four years. Apart from hoping to fill the gap caused by the pandemic and reconnecting the bridge between cultures, there was also curiosity about the progress of contemporary art in Europe in the midst of these tumultuous four years since my previous research project, “On the edge of Europe: Exploring the Intersection of Art and Ecology.” How much progress has been made in the discussion of ecological sustainability during this time, and in which directions has it advanced, and how has it advanced?
The European art scene, now free from the shadow of the pandemic, appears particularly vibrant. Major biennials and institution-based exhibitions symbolize a variety of seemingly emerging and unique themes. However, if we take a step back and look from a broader perspective, we can sense that Europe, currently amidst storms such as war, immigration, energy shortages, inflation, etc., is reflecting on capitalism and colonial history, focusing on marginalized and vulnerable communities, and addressing various environmental and democratic crises. In doing so, it is once again standing at the crucial anchor points of history, at the forefront of crises, actively exploring the possibilities of art and human development.
In the face of the complexity of global geopolitics, economics, and ecology interwoven with unprecedented crises, humanity can no longer simply extract discussions of the environment or climate crisis in a compartmentalized manner. Instead, we should recognize a broader sense of sustainability, one that embodies equality, justice, and inclusivity within society. Just as my recent research and my focus during this trip to Europe are not limited to finding art examples solely aimed at ecological sustainability, but rather, they attempt to examine how various creative practices, curations, and performances connect ecology with aspects of society, geopolitics, and the human spirituality and consciousness. They aim to explore how to expand upon established understandings and knowledge frameworks to foster a new worldview that unifies humanity and the Earth as one.
Before seeking solutions, where do the problems originate?
As various parts of the world gradually lifted restrictions in the second half of 2022, environmental activists made headlines with incidents of splashing paint on major art museums. While many lamented that art had become a sacrificial lamb for environmental awareness, perhaps, art museums, as spaces that simultaneously serve as cultural havens and repositories of colonial history, truly need to confront how they have participated in and contributed to today’s global ecological crisis. They should actively address the question of “What can art do to respond to or even save this world?” in the face of these challenges.
In recent years, there has indeed been a growing international emphasis on examining the carbon footprint of the art industry’s mobility and production. However, in-depth discussions regarding the systemic operation and fundamental causes of ecological crises may be reduced to solutions like “carbon reduction” or “conservation.” The Museums Association (MA), in its Climate Justice Action initiative, explicitly states that responding to climate and ecological crises must go hand in hand with the journey towards anti-racism and decolonization. As the gears driving the world towards destruction continue to accelerate, how do we talk about lives already sacrificed? How do we address equality and justice? Through the following exhibitions, we can see Europe engaging in a critical examination of its colonial history, political frameworks, modes of domination over others, and even the violence caused by Western liberalism.
The Tate Modern’s annual special exhibition is dedicated to Australia in “A YEAR IN ART: AUSTRALIA 1992.” The exhibition’s title draws inspiration from the famous 1992 Mabo decision of the High Court, which ruled against Britain’s justification of colonization in Australia based on the concept of “terra nullius,” meaning ‘land belonging to no one.’ The exhibition explores how artists acknowledge the reciprocal, caretaking relationships between Australian Indigenous peoples, Torres Strait Islanders, and their land. It encourages viewers to confront the history of colonization and its ecological consequences directly.
Not only the UK, but various colonial countries are actively confronting the social and environmental injustices they have imposed on colonized peoples. In this regard, the Nordic Pavilion at the Venice Biennale has undergone a highly symbolic renaming to the “Sami Pavilion” in the current edition. It features three Sami artists, Pauliina Feodoroff, Máret Ánne Sara, and Anders Sunna, acknowledging the sovereignty of the indigenous Sami people. The exhibited works touch upon issues such as the exploitation of grazing rights, the crisis of industrial logging, and the complex causes behind these challenges. They also highlight the Sami people’s spirit of gifting, their spiritual knowledge, sustainable resource management wisdom, matrilineal values, and trauma recovery, all manifested in the face of adversity.
The TBA21–Academy, founded by the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21) Foundation, has been dedicated to building a deeper connection with the ocean through art and inspiring awareness and action since 2011. The Ocean Space, opened in 2019, focuses on using art to give voice to the ocean, conduct research, and advocate for it, encouraging participation and collective action in response to today’s most pressing marine issues. The author’s visit in October of last year to two exhibitions, “The Soul Expanding Ocean #3: Dineo Seshee Bopape” and “The Soul Expanding Ocean #4: Diana Policarpo,” both touched on postcolonial mediators of the ocean and the intertwining of colonial history and biodiversity.
Breaking free from rationality and constricting confines: Why can’t we be joyful?
Once we recognize that ecological issues are not isolated events but deeply intertwined histories and shared responsibilities, we may quickly find ourselves mired in moralizing or puritanical abstinence. Identifying the margins, recognizing the others who suffer, overcoming our differences, and truly moving forward together towards systemic change are all challenging endeavors. However, it is often on the fringes, where individuals have not yet succumbed to rational frameworks and have not been tamed by dogma, that the energy of desire and creativity flows, capable of quenching our thirst and leading to salvation.
“How can art respond to the climate emergency?” has been the central question of the Serpentine Galleries’ “Back to Earth” project, initiated in 2019. This long-term initiative has brought together insights and action plans from over sixty artists and professionals from various fields. It aims to shed the didactic tone in its namesake milestone exhibitions, releasing catalysts for change through multi-sensory experiences. Works such as the medicinal plant installation by Tabita Rezaire and architect Yussef Agbo-Ola, sound pieces by legendary environmental musician Brian Eno, scent studies by artist Sissel Tolaas, and the CLIMAVORE menu designed by Cooking Sections all encourage individuals to open their bodies to the ever-changing environment. Perhaps, instead of constantly seeking external solutions to environmental crises, we need to awaken our inner connections and utilize our existing sensibilities and empathy to address these challenges.
The Gherdëina Biennial, highlighted in this special feature, explores the persona of the natural world while emphasizing the interplay between humans, animals, plants, and materials. Through various forms of artwork, including performances, hiking trails, sounds, and food, it engages the senses of the audience. British art critic Tom Jeffereys pointed out that in discussions within the art and ecology field, the focus is often on goal-oriented discussions aiming to catalyze change or raise environmental awareness. However, the Gherdëina Biennial stands out by openly displaying the suppressed joy. The pleasure encouraged by the two curators is not a departure from issues of injustice, sadness, and anger but rather serves as an essential medium for resistance and subversion.
Keep the Fire On
Canadian Indigenous and environmental studies scholar Janelle Marie Baker has spent years learning from First Nation Elders in the field, and her nonlinear and ever-evolving journey has been transformed into compelling storytelling articles. In her article “Bear Stories in the Berry Patch Caring for Boreal Forest Fire Cycles of Respect,” Baker explores the relationship between bears, berries, fire, and humans. For Indigenous peoples, fire serves as a cleaner and caretaker of the land, allowing it to accommodate all species, enabling the growth of new berry shoots, filling the bellies of caribou and bears whom can be hunted by hunters. For over a thousand years, controlled burning of the land has been viewed as a sacred ritual and valuable Indigenous wisdom until the government passed fire suppression laws in 1908. Fire suppression led to overgrown forests, reduced biodiversity, and disrupted the reciprocal relationship between humans and berries. Some studies even suggest that, in addition to climate change, the restriction of Indigenous fire management practices has contributed to the recent increase in forest fires.
Once again, the long-standing, multi-species wisdom obtained through observation and experience is suppressed by enforcers. Overly dry monocultures and oilfields ignite one fire after another, solidifying the fixed idea that “fire is dangerous.” In the article “Five Desires, Five Demands” by Jennifer Mae Hamilton and Astrida Neimanis, they mention, “Want, like fire, is a potentially transformative force,” and they quote Nigel Clark and Kathryn Yusoff, who wrote, “rather than putting fire out… must be preserved, enhanced, and multiplied.” As they write, they are in a world surrounded by drought and wildfires, and they use words to conjure a rain ceremony of desire and plea.
In “Five Desires, Five Demands,” the two authors advocate for the intersection of feminist studies and environmental humanities. They argue that feminism, besides providing perspectives on justice of queerness and disability that challenge colonialism, racism, can also embrace desires, internal contradictions, and differences. Astrida Neimanis, based in the unceded Syilx territory of Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, has been involved in the Feeled Lab since 2019. Through various forms of gatherings, readings, and interdisciplinary collaborations, the lab is dedicated to focusing on those who are most affected and marginalized under mainstream climate change discourse. It acknowledges that their knowledge, ideas, and viewpoints are exactly what we need to learn from.
In the deep currents of time, human progress may seem both rapid and slow. We watch wars erupt in the distance, listen to glaciers calve, and march forward alongside seemingly flying technologies and disasters. Perhaps, these elements are not waiting at opposite ends of a linear spectrum, just as fire and ice are not divided into two separate worlds.
Leaving aside the discussion of feminist environmental humanities as a new discipline, perhaps the most crucial knowledge we need is to unlearn. In the face of the moral and desire dilemmas arising from the climate crisis, as we grapple with the challenges of the Anthropocene, adopting a “more than human” worldview allows our personalities to transcend boundaries and form kinship with all living things. Perhaps, we will discover that we have been carrying the solutions to the crisis all along, walking alongside them and living together.
Simon Stephens, Museums Journal: the Climate Justice Special Issue, Museums Association, https://reurl.cc/rZGyN1
Tom Jeffreys, Biennale Gherdëina Makes a Case for Pleasure, FRIEZE, https://reurl.cc/bG8QZr
Janelle Marie Baker, Bear Stories in the Berry Patch-Caring for Boreal Forest Fire Cycles of Respect, Extracting Home in the Oil Sands, 2019.
Larsen 1997, 672
Jennifer Mae Hamilton & Astrida Neimanis, Five Desires, Five Demands, Australian Feminist Studies, 34:102, 385-397, 2019
Clark, Nigel, and Kathryn Yusoff, Queer Fire: Ecology, Combustion and Pyrosexual Desire, Feminist Review 118 (1): 7–24, 2018