Arts and the New World Order
Climate crisis is without a doubt the defining challenge of our times. From rising sea levels to species extinction, its scale is unprecedented and its consequences will affect us all. Yet it appears that the facts are not enough to compel the urgent action required to address it. We need a sweeping cultural shift that places us all firmly within the context of ecosystems under stress and makes the climate crisis deeply personal.
The arts are not exempt from this collective responsibility; they too have a critical role to play.
And though artists are not in control of the received outcomes of their work, they can certainly guide their own practice to respect the parameters of the natural world. I spoke with three artists who have woven sustainable values into the core of their work, who, in doing so, have formed a personal response to the crisis – something that we all need to do.
Tatyanna Meharry. Photo by Justyn Denney for Rekindle’s festival of Necessary Traditions 2018
Christchurch based ceramicist and clay forager Tatyanna Meharry uses local earth to create a deep sense of place in her work and firmly places humanity within the temporal context of natural systems in her practice. She celebrates both the materials around her and the processes involved in producing them.
"Clay is a precious resource, it has developed over millions of years of mother nature doing her thing," Tatyanna says. "It is not a renewable resource. Like many things, we are using it faster than nature can replace it."
Interaction with the earth through foraging deepens this appreciation: "When you have to dig your own clay and materials, you have much better respect for volume quantities." So too does an understanding of the bigger picture.
Accordingly, Tatyanna believes it is imperative to ask ‘What am I using and why am I using it?’. There is perhaps no question more relevant or contemporary, whether you are an artist, consumer or business.
"Unless you ask questions, you are blind to the processes behind an item, particularly in ceramics." Commercial or industrial forces have hidden many detrimental processes, rendering us blind to the true cost of production. This might be the six parts waste created to gain one part porcelain in industrial ceramics (not to mention damaging mining practices) or the many litres of water required to produce one litre of milk.
Photo by Justyn Denney for Rekindle’s festival of Necessary Traditions 2018
Here, art allows for interrogation. Questions can also create connections for the audience. Knowing where an item or a resource comes from "connects the materials back to you" and connects you to place: a vessel might be made with sand from a beach you have fond memories of. By embedding it with location and time, the story is deepened – a memory is shared and a sense of care, for place and object, is created. It becomes personal and valued.
For sculptor Andrew Drummond, the relationship between people and land has been the constant thread through his work over his vast career. This key sustainability principle is now more relevant than ever: ‘The idea of man’s interconnectedness with the environment is ancient; we’ve lost that connection and need to reestablish it.’
One of Andrew’s earlier works, Vein, explored this symbiotic relationship. Earth Vein involved inserting a copper tube in a former miners’ race - a gesture of "identifying and putting back"; City Vein involved a glass tube linking to the city, representing a life support system from the land. Now he mainly works in large kinetic sculptures that are connected to the landscape through natural forces – they are wind-driven and reflective of what is happening around us.
Andrew Drummond with his work Armillary, 2016. Photo courtesy of Andrew Drummond
"Treading lightly on the environment has always been central to my practice. Do unto others as you do to yourself is a good way to think about it." He agrees that it is essential to consider both materials and practice in light of climate disaster: "You are accountable for your actions - what you are using and how you go about it."
Andrew’s work is a vital rebuke to the suffocation of information and digital excess we are subject to, and our subsequent distance from natural processes. The scale and contours of the sculptures, the way they move and reflect light, all speak to the site. Their interactions with the physical world call on us to consider our place within it. "It’s about trying to get people to feel where they are. Because if they can feel where they are, they will connect to where they are, and that is a very important thing."
Social practice artist Tiffany Singh shares in this idea of art as a connector, though with a more direct application. She "aims to create social and/or political change through collaboration with individuals, communities and institutions in the creation of art." In doing so, Tiffany seeks to help those communities develop sustainable practices. The process is, for her, transformative: it can catalyse social change.
The goal? "Building communities to actively explore and experience connections to land and waterways through participation in cultural practices such as food gatherings, arts, culture and whanaungatanga, which are fundamentally protective and preventive."
‘Journey Of A Million Miles Begins with One Step’ by Tiffany Singh for Headland Sculpture on the Gulf 2016, Waiheke Island, NZ. Image by Pete Rees.
She is currently working on a project in Bangkok that empowers vulnerable women by exploring the factors that affect women’s participation in the socio-economic field. By creating awareness of indigenous art forms at the museum and gallery level, the work contributes to the future well-being of women artists and their families.
Through such collaborations, she explores the ‘critical linkages’ between social sustainability, the environment and sustainable development. The problems facing us, after all, are complex and intertwined.
These artists have deep consideration for the lived-in world threaded through their work, which can help us to see things anew or better, encourage care for place and offer us ways of thinking or space for emotive experiences. But effective and enduring behavioural change involves incremental, layered and consistent responses from a vast collection of individuals, the cumulative force of which equates to transformation. We all - from individuals to corporate entities – need to do the work for a sustainable future.
The first step is understanding this vital relationship between people and planet. If we do not change how we are living, the earth’s natural resources and systems will be irrecoverably damaged. So make the climate crisis personal, as these artists have. Whether you avoid single-use plastics, reduce meat consumption or use natural resources to make work, the imperative is to act.
‘Sundari Jal’ by Tiffany Singh for Kathmandu Contemporary Art Centre Siddhartha Art Gallery. Image by Subash Thebe.
Written by Emma Johnson.
This September is New Zealand Arts Month! You can read more and join the kōrero on Artsmonth.co.nz