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Why art is the missing piece in the climate change puzzle

Eco-art in Copenhagen is creating spaces for environmental activism

By Mattie O’Callaghan

Claudia Comte’s exhibition I Have Grown Taller from Standing with Trees at Contemporary Copenhagen deserves critical attention in understanding how interactive, invitational art forms can create spaces of environmental activism. In an age of climate change, the arts just as much as the sciences, have created essential spaces that educate and empower people to push for change through creative solutions. With arts’ ability to invoke emotion, connection, and intimacy, it is more necessary than ever, as the facts of science cannot save us alone. I believe that Comte has been successful in her art by engaging the public through participation, creating conversations beyond boundaries, and valuing responsibility and care.

Comte is a Swiss artist with an intimate understanding of materials using their memories to reveal our relationships with the environment. She created this site-specific installation combining spruce trees suspended from the ceiling, digitally printed graphic carpet, and a large ceramic sculpture at the centre of the space. In this installation, Comte personally was involved in the sourcing of the trees, even making sure to plant two new spruces for every one that is felled. By creating an immersive installation, this has created a significant space for environmental activism.

Photo by Matilda O’Callaghan

The exhibition embodies Bourriaud’s theory of relational aesthetics, born out of the performative turn. This theory understands participatory and immersive art as ways to engage the audience and encourage social interactions. Here, the audience is seen as part of the art with opportunities for creating relationships among people and objects. This is especially significant in eco-art, as it creates an opportunity to reconsider the nature-culture divide that dominates western thinking. Separation has led us to have a hierarchical relationship over nature as something we control, exploit, and dominate. Instead, by seeing ourselves as imagined creatures as part of Comte’s forest, we can realise how all life is interconnected and intertwined. If the destruction of the environment is from domination and separation, the solution to these issues must lie in connecting actively to our environment and each other.

Photo by Matilda O’Callaghan

When I visited this exhibition, I was struck by its aura and how I suddenly felt encompassed into this new world away from the busy streets of Copenhagen. It invoked this child-like nostalgia inside me as we could climb over the trees, escribe on them, and carry out activities. There was this sense of freedom to be able to run around the soft carpet and play in the woods with the sweet pinewood scent. The invitation of curiosity and creative interaction with the environment stems from a youthfulness that eco-art education hopes to encourage, alongside learning positive environmental values. The evocation of youth also links to the vulnerability of the future, with the forest half fallen, I felt desperate and afraid for what is to happen not only here, but on our planet. As Greta Thurnberg has shown us, the young people of today are more willing than ever to stand up for their future through climate strikes and protest. Art remains an important education tool for empowering the young as well as a sense of youthfulness in the adults to be environmental activists. 

Photo by Matilda O’Callaghan

Comte also creates an activist space through promoting conversation that bridges divides that exist both between humans and with nature. Following the lines of the carpet, which Comte presents as the roots structure connecting the trees together in a community, I reached The Queen of the Volcano created as part of the exhibition. This large, smooth, rounded structure I touched was the lifeblood of the forest, making me feel deeply connected. One group of people who were situated around the trees in a camp-like scenario began dancing together to the rhythmic beats layered with forest sounds. This presented to me an enormous sense of community; the key for growing environmentalism through art. However, as with all communities and ecosystems, there will be tensions and issues represented by chaos in the grid structure. Yet, it is about how we negotiate these. The exhibition is here to open up a conversation with everyone, removing the distance that art institutions often hold. One of the curators sees the idea of boundaries between disciplines as the root of all evils. Instead, diverse pluralism is seen as essential for communicating across divides if we are to find sustainable, inclusive solutions to the climate crisis.

Photo by Matilda O’Callaghan

Finally, I think that this exhibition produces an activist space through valuing ideas of responsibility and care, where everyone can make a positive difference by becoming environmental stewards. This is stressed through reoccurring themes of time that create a sense of urgency. For example, the trees falling frozen in time invoked an impending sense of dread. In one of the activity cards, Comte draws our attention to the concentric rings of the trees that are between eighty and one hundred years old. This makes us take notice about how anthropogenic induced climate change has impacted the world, yet it is not too late to stop all the trees from falling. Even the title I Have Grown Taller from Standing with Trees, suggests a sense of enlightened hopefulness. This is important for fostering resilience in a climate crisis where optimism and hope is needed to bring people together to create solutions. The assistant curator I spoke to strongly emphasised how art needs to take responsibility for social issues and art is not finished until people participate in it. Comte herself exercises responsibility by being part of the whole process, planting two new trees for each that she felled. By promoting a space that requires active participation and purposeful creativity, responsibility and care arises. Thus, with personal as political, the hope is that art can be environmentally activist outside its own boundaries.

However, it is also important to remain critical and recognise the limitations of this space for environmental activism. For there still remains an exclusionary distance in institutional art and a disconnect with others. This comes from the privilege of being able to access art spaces; free time available, money to pay ticket fees, education to engage with the art, ability to access and travel to these spaces. Further privilege is needed to actually participate in environmental activism, with more time and money needed to truly commit to the cause. As the Extinction Rebellion protests have shown us, despite raising huge awareness of the climate crisis, it is exclusionary to certain bodies who cannot afford to carry out the group’s explicit aim to be arrested. This therefore often excludes those of colour, women, from low-income backgrounds, and with disabilities. In doing so, it fails to tackle the fundamental inequalities that have caused the climate crisis in the first place. In this way, art and its institutions must play its role in not only making politically conscious spaces that invite participation, but being active in the way that people can access those places in the first place. 

Photo by Matilda O’Callaghan

Comte’s exhibition has shown us the potential of how art could really be the puzzle in the climate crisis by connecting the personal to the political. Participation through relational aesthetics theory reignites youthful connection to our environments; creating conversations enables diverse knowledges to cooperate; responsibility and care are encouraged. Yet, there still remains an exclusionary distance in institutional art and a disconnect with others, that replicates exclusions in the environmental movement. So instead, art must become more inclusive and intersectional, so it can produce spaces of environmental activism for us all to urgently address the current climate crisis together.

This exhibition is being displayed from 8 February 2019 to the 1 September 2019 at Copenhagen Contemporary, Denmark

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