A life-size installation featuring real and plastic flowers and decorations scavenged from the trash cans of Chicago’s cemeteries, Selva Aparicio’s “Our Garden Remains” is a powerful altar that brings issues of collective mourning, the commodification of death and the environmental footprint of loss to the foreground. Luftwerk’s “White Wanderer” is inspired by the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica, which broke off into the Weddell Sea in July 2017, forever altering the landscape of that continent. Using real-life recordings of the sounds and frequencies of melting and moving glaciers, artists Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero create a haunting, contemplative soundtrack of climate change. Right in the middle of the gallery sit Jean Shin’s “Waste River Beds,” three sculptural installations that bring islands to mind. A closer look reveals an intricate mosaic of materials sourced from Philadelphia’s waste stream and encrusted with clusters of freshwater mussel shells. Atop each sits a sample of unfiltered water sourced from the local watershed (in this case, they’re collected from Lake Michigan and the Chicago River system)—a commentary on how quality of water is directly linked to local ecologies.
“At the Precipice,” on view at the Design Museum of Chicago, is an exhibition where sadness, fear and anger collide. Climate-change anxiety becomes all too real and at times it’s hard to watch. From the fragility of porcelain busts and the everlasting nature of plastics to video art and expansive wall installations, the exhibition—also featuring work by Morel Doucet, Zaria Forman, Nathalie Miebach, Chris Pappan, Redemptive Plastics, The Tempestry Project (Chicago Collection) and Migwa Nthiga—serves as a clarion call, urging the viewer to recognize the role of art and design in shaping and potentially altering our collective future.
In a conversation with Newcity’s design editor, Grace Ebert and Christopher Jobson of Colossal, co-curators of “At the Precipice,” talk about the intimate and profound relationship between design, emotion and the future of our planet. By emphasizing the “feeling” of the climate crisis, they present a narrative that bridges data-driven realities with the emotional responses these realities invoke, highlighting the ways (and mediums) the climate crisis can be understood, interpreted and acted upon.
“At the Precipice” delves into the emotive aspects of climate disaster. How did the idea to explore physical and emotional reactions in this context originate, and why do you believe it’s vital to highlight these perspectives at this moment in time?
Grace Ebert: This came about naturally as we were considering who we wanted to work with for this exhibition and what each artist was saying about the climate crisis. Experiencing all of the works together, we realized that there was an underlying thread that dealt with either tactility or emotion or both, so the idea of “feeling” the climate crisis emerged.
There are several works that are based on translating data and real-world documentation of the damage occurring because of climate change–these include rising temperatures, melting sea ice, floods and drought. Discussing the impact of these events is undeniably important, and yet we wanted to ensure that anyone could walk into the exhibition and immediately engage with the topic without needing to read the wall text or have any prior knowledge. Focusing on feeling and emotion was a way to make such difficult, complex topics more accessible.
The climate crisis is a global emergency, and there are infinite ways to engage. “At the Precipice” highlights a fraction of those and emphasizes the importance of creatively conveying information and stories so that more people feel empowered to take action.
The featured artists employ a myriad of art and design methodologies to encapsulate different dimensions of the climate crisis. Could you expand on a few standout pieces that exemplify the diversity of interpretative approaches and their impact?
Christopher Jobson: Morel Doucet’s stunningly fragile porcelain busts depict members of Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood, a community of some 100,000 residents that faces the impact of climate gentrification: the area rests several feet higher than sea level and is becoming a prime target for developers.
Nathalie Miebach’s expansive wall installation personifies the dizzying, almost overwhelming impact of several major floods in the Louisiana post-Hurricane Katrina. Encoded in the work’s thousands of objects are depictions of different manifestations of flooding: rivers overflowing their banks, sea level rise, storm surges and rain.
Luftwerk’s shattered-mirror installation “White Wanderer” evokes broken ice, while simultaneously reflecting the viewer’s own image and incorporating a harrowing soundtrack. The audio was recorded by University of Chicago glaciologist Douglas MacAyeal and captures the literal fragmentation of the famous Larsen C ice shelf.
How does “At the Precipice” contribute to the ongoing discourse about climate change, while balancing the portrayal of the stark realities of climate degradation with elements of hope or potential solutions?
Grace Ebert: The climate crisis is depressing and can very quickly inspire fatalism. Many of the works in this exhibition reflect the artists’ grief as they confront the data and realities of our changing planet. And yet, the works are beautiful, visually striking and colorful. We wanted viewers to understand that while we can’t shy away from the difficult realities the human population faces, we also can’t forget that there’s still beauty, community and even joy to be found in our futures. There’s a balance between the discussion of environmental degradation and destruction while also highlighting what we stand to lose and what we can still save.
The exhibition emphasizes the role of art and design in understanding and, potentially, altering our collective trajectory. How do you envision the impact of this exhibition prompting viewers to reconsider their perspectives and actions regarding our planet’s future?
Christopher Jobson: Conversations around climate change need to be commonplace and engage people everywhere, from coffee shops and schools to art exhibitions and courtrooms. We hope this exhibition helps people understand that we need to use every tool available to us, whether a pen and pencil, a social media account, or a vote, to impact policy and lifestyle changes. Artists and designers play a pivotal role in doing this by helping us collectively understand the wide array of threats caused by global warming, imagine its trajectory, and perhaps offer solutions–though we believe the focus should remain on policy and not always personal responsibility.
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