When art has a brush with the climate

Published: Tue 23 Jan 2024, 8:24 PM

Why science alone won’t be enough to move us past the paralysis of eco-anxiety and toward solutions

By Maya Allison

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The work in Horizon comes out of De St. Croix’s study of UAE landscapes, and his dialogues with faculty from all disciplines who are working on climate questions.
The work in Horizon comes out of De St. Croix’s study of UAE landscapes, and his dialogues with faculty from all disciplines who are working on climate questions.

What does art have to do with the environment? Be propaganda? Green-wash? Be an object to which protesters can glue themselves?

Most times, I don’t see that art makes very effective propaganda, or rather, vice versa (propaganda is rarely excellent art). Instead, I see how we humans have, from cave-paintings on, a fundamental need for art, regardless of its “purpose.” (I am reminded of how emphatic the artist Hassan Sharif was in making the point that art must not do anything, or it is no longer art, it is something else).

Still, as a curator, one of my jobs is to ask: “What does humanity need from art right now?”

With that question, living in Abu Dhabi has transformed my perspective. Any exhibition I mount here will be seen through two lenses: That of the viewer’s political-cultural context, and that of our physical environment. In particular, the UAE is shaped by the intensity of its desert and ocean. To live here requires distinct technologies of survival, past, present, and future. Those technologies become increasingly relevant as we advance into the era of global warming. My sense is that every exhibition I make, in some way, must be seen in light of the climate change question from here out.

I have the eco-anxiety of a parent. Since moving here 12 years ago, I have watched my infant son grow into a rambunctious tween, and wondered how to prepare him for the unknown world ahead. It gives me some relief to know I’m not alone in this: The UAE is thinking very explicitly about the future, exploring strategies for solutions to surviving and slowing environmental change. “Post-oil” was already a frequent topic of economic and environmental planning back in 2012, when it was not a common headline across the world as it is now.

In the past year, as the UAE was preparing to host COP28, I was often asked, “What can art do to help?” Certainly, art can scare us, inform us, agitate for change, or celebrate the beauty of natural environments. Still… Do we really need more scaring? Melting glaciers, rising waters, dying species, fires, tornadoes, drought, and ultimately climate-forced migration and limited resources: it’s already impossibly daunting.

In his photo series Al Sawaber, the late Tarek Al Ghoussein documented a once-futuristic, high-rise housing complex in Kuwait. His photos show it as abandoned, awaiting demolition. What was once the architecture of an ideal future was becoming the past: utopia and paradise arrive and then depart. This insight yielded the name of the exhibition in which I included this work, the only constant (which refers to change itself). Recognising, through art, that everything does change, makes the present moment, our present environment, that much more precious. Knowing that change is constant also gives reason to hope.

Now, we have an exhibition called Horizon on view at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. It’s a solo show by the artist Blane De St. Croix and the fourth in a series of exhibitions that I’ve curated that deal with the landscape of the UAE, and the most explicitly directed at the question of climate change. But Horizon is the first exhibition in which you will encounter a toy train.

Why a toy train? And, for that matter, why art? Global warming is, after all, a science-backed fact that we must face.

The work in Horizon comes out of De St. Croix’s study of UAE landscapes, and his dialogues with faculty from all disciplines who are working on climate questions. NYUAD faculty Joanna Settle, who co-created one of the exhibition’s major central commissions, points out that scientists have been predicting climate change, and all that goes with it, for a long time, and if facts were enough to help us change, it would have by now. We need additional ways of knowing that motivate a viable course-correction.

According to D. W. Winnicott (a founder of child development theory), play and art may be just the missing pieces to enable us to confront reality, and thus to mature toward solutions. He writes that “no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality” and that “relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of experience, which is not challenged (arts, religion, etc.). This intermediate area is in direct continuity with the play area of the small child who is ‘lost’ in play.” In order to mature, we need to relate inner and outer realities.

I take this well-used quote by Winnicott to mean: when I am “doom scrolling,” I am not getting relief from my outer reality (the news cycle, the marketing) nor from my inner reality (the resulting fear, anger, grief, and so on). We cannot help without relief, we instead become paralysed by the strain. The vulnerability necessary for insight simply cannot happen. However, the moments that we find in art or in play, in religion or in nature: perhaps this is where the “rubber hits the road” as we say in car culture. Perhaps a toy train can simply help us to forget to close our minds. And perhaps, to open our eyes.

Horizon is an exhibition that creates a meeting point for scientists and nonscientists to be present with the questions at stake. If Winnicott is right, perhaps it can also help us to move past the eco-anxiety, past the paralysing impossibility of it all, and toward solutions.

As I look back on COP28 and the process of preparing this exhibition, as well as my history curating on the subject of our environment, I am daunted by the ecological challenge that confronts humanity. How can I help my son, and all of us, to prepare for the unknown future? More science. More play. More art.

Maya Allison is executive director of The NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery and University Chief Curator

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