Art and climate change: an unlikely duo

Photo Credit: Brianne Casey

Photo Credit: Brianne Casey

It is hard to turn on the TV or scroll through any social media account without finding something about the global climate crisis. On September 27, 2019, students in Niagara organized a global climate strike in response to Greta Thunberg’s call for action. Climate change increases the severity and frequency of storms, melting ice caps and rising sea levels. Chemicals are polluting our bodies, lakes and land. Record amounts of trash are accumulating in landfills around the world. Single use plastics are polluting the seas and killing wildlife. Trees are being lost due to deforestation and wildfires. Carbon dioxide continues to pollute our air.

Edward Burtynsky’s Anthropocene art projects have informed the world of the mass overpopulation issue and the damage humans are doing to the planet at an alarming rate.  As humans, we affect the world more than anything else in history. Burtynsky’s famous work show us that art can make an impact globally. Burtynsky’s artwork is an example of how art can help bring the climate crisis to the foreground.

Like Burtynsky, three other artists in Niagara also address climate change. Climate change and the global crisis are not new topics, and certainly are in the foreground today, but Elizabeth Chitty has had an art career which focuses on environment since 1975. Newer artists incorporating climate issues include J.E. Simpson, who graduated from Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD) in Toronto in 2014 and Brianne Casey, a fourth-year Brock student in Visual Arts. Casey in particular is currently working on apocalyptic art this school year.

Elizabeth Chitty has been an artist for 44 years. She is an interdisciplinary artist with her preferred artistic discipline in installations and performances. An installation is a large scale mixed media production used to transform perceptions in the viewer. Chitty’s work focuses on video and audio. Much of her work has been about water and more specifically the Great Lakes basin but she is interested in expanding her opportunities to other bodies of water.

“I talk about being place based and water is so much a part of being in the Niagara area and that was really what drew me to it in the first place and then I became fascinated by the water here. It is about north Niagara almost exclusively and a couple years ago I had an opportunity to do work in the Detroit river,” said Chitty.

The expansion on the topic of water has focused around water governance, treaties, infrastructure and water justice but Chitty rarely wants to teach with a moral message or be didactic.

“I am not interested in making work to show how pretty the water is in Niagara; I want to make work which provokes thoughts and emotions about that water. I distance myself from doing overtly didactic work. I have never been interested in manipulating an audience. I have never been interested in trying to make something that points people to a specific position. I am more interested in a more open invitation to an audience to experience the work and their reactions to it,” said Chitty.

Though in one specific series Chitty has been purposefully didactic. This series is her Guardian of Niagara series. This series of The Guardian of Niagara: The Great Lakes (2007), The Guardian of Niagara: The Soft Fruit Industry (2009) and The Guardian of Niagara: The Creative Economy (2018) feature the Guardian of Niagara where she speaks of economy, loss of soft fruit agricultural land, DDT, climate change and more, yet asks questions of the viewer such as “can we fix our issues in time” and “can we save this land in time?”

As an artist, Chitty addresses these important questions in this time of global crisis.

“Art is of this world and of the society that the person making it lives in, so as a global citizen and in this tiny area called Niagara, I can not see another option to include an awareness of our environment and climate,” said Chitty.

Climate issues and the global crisis are seen everywhere but awareness of our environment and climate is not new.  Elizabeth mentions that 30 years ago there was a push to cut down on water bottle usage and prior to that the hippies of the 60’s worked for social change, but they were considered strange back then.

“Now it is socially acceptable but not mainstream enough and I am happy to see young people picking up the activism around plastics,” said Chitty.

Newer artists like J.E. Simpson and Brianne Casey are picking up activism and expressing climate crisis through their works today.

“It is on everyone’s mind especially now the politics are pushing it into our minds, but it has had a lot of attention. The whole collective psyche is buzzing with this stuff.  I think,” said Simpson

J.E. Simpson works in sculpture and has been working on mechanical pieces as well as his pieces on found tree branches. His most recent work echoes the conversations on climate change today. His newest sculpture “Fracturing the Central Narrative: In Conversation with N. Sachse” features conversations he had with another artist, Nathan Sachse. This different approach on representing the present narrative on climate change is unique. The conversations and texts according to Simpson are etched onto the wood done with a three millimetre letter punch set hammered in one by one and is like a run on sentence.

“But the more direct work is the new piece I have been working on is this ‘Fracturing the Central Narrative’, a conversation which was kind of dialogue, poetry, texts and different things coming up between us as we discussed the contemporary issues going on right now, especially with the focus being on the climate crisis issue,” said Simpson.

Like Chitty’s art, Simpson’s work is not trying to be didactic.

“There is a device I am using, which is more of the art angle, to talk about the climate in a subtle way while sneaking it in … The Canadian Sculpture Gallery isn’t particularly edgy but I would say this work is and I would say a lot of people interacted with it in the last month.  There are pieces of historical facts on the there that deal with Indigenous issues and how they are in context with environmental problems. There is definitely a lot of information regarding the historical perspective of Canada and the postcolonial element of that and so it is an all encompassing dialogue with this piece. Kind of like an essay,” said Simpson.

As an artist, J.E. Simpson stresses the importance of addressing climate issues through art.

“I think art making — young or old — is a very empowering way to recognize that agency and that power we have to advocate for change and make our voices heard. So if anything we are in a more privileged position than many people in society because we have a special vocation of ours and I think it is important for us to use it,” said Simpson.

As a newer artist, Brianne Casey looks at the apocalyptic world through the technological trash we are accumulating through her Astronomical Anomalies, which includes sculpture and surrealist paintings. Casey’s work looks at the overall effects of polluting and destroying the earth.

“I have been seeing the apocalyptic realm in the art and social media and what the world is going to look like when those devastating effects actually change everything.  We can’t go back after the pollution has changed and taken over so there is no reversing the effects of what we are doing today.  In a surrealist style I wanted to recreate our own world looking at the toxic mess of broken technology looking at the night sky as comfort,” said Casey.

One of Casey’s pieces that is currently untitled is made on a sphere painted with neon paint that glows in the dark to give it a toxic and according to Casey poisoned effect. Lyrics from Bastille’s “Doomsday” are painted on the piece. The electronic parts were all taken from a discarded vintage Apple computer. Her work speaks to the discarded technology piling up in space and around us.

“We are in the 21st century and it is all about technology and we are always looking for new things and the new trend that will be viral. That is actually a vintage apple computer that my dad salvaged for me. I took it for my art piece and I painted a person on it because we are  addicted to technology and toxicity… the piece is a reflection of us being sucked into technology and the world is broken and poisonous to us,” said Casey.

What is interesting about Casey’s work is the contrast with swirling night sky pictures of purples, blues and blacks which glow in the dark.

“The sculpture [illustrates that] as we look at this disgusting world that is not perfect, destroyed and robotic we face the night sky to look for comfort,” said Casey.

It is important to Casey to address the global crisis through her art today because it helps to draw attention to issues.

“I think it is important just because it brings so much attention to the global crisis. Maybe people will stop and think about what they are doing wrong, how they can contribute to the environment and how can they contribute to recycling properly … I feel like the art grabs in a different way. It makes you stop and think,” said Casey.

The importance, urgency and reality of climate change can be expressed through art not only  globally but in towns, communities and regions where we all live. These Niagara artists’ work helps to remind people that the climate crisis is important not only in our present time but has been important for many years and will be for years to come.

To learn more about the artists work visit Elizabeth Chitty at Elizabethchitty.ca, J.E. Simpson at cargocollective.com/jonathanedwinsimpson and Brianne Casey on Instagram @bcaseyarts.

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