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Once, it was common for artists to accompany scientists on voyages of discovery, including Charles Darwin’s expedition to the Galapagos.
David Buckland is on a mission to resurrect such collaborations. As the creator and director of Cape Farewell, the English artist organizes expeditions to remote places where the effects of global warming are easiest to observe. He invites artists to participate alongside scientific researchers to instigate “a cultural response to climate change.”
That phrase is the subtitle of this exhibition, which showcases the work of 25 artists, musicians and writers who participated in Cape Farewell trips to the Arctic and the Peruvian Andes between 2007 and 2009.
Curated by Buckland and artist Chris Wainwright, the exhibition gains celebrity cachet from contributors like Robyn Hitchcock and Feist. However, there is a refreshing minimum of shallow political sloganeering. Instead, many works in “U-n-f-o-l-d” employ text with unusual thoughtfulness, and the curators fully integrate songwriters’ and poets’ words and recorded performances with artists’ photographs and videos.
The exhibition catalog proclaims “the intensive experiences of seeing the effects of climate change firsthand were instrumental in creating a greater awareness” among the artists. But there’s a problem: Climate change unfolds in geologic time. Its effects are not immediately perceivable to a casual observer who journeys to the Arctic for just a few days. So, the Cape Farewell artists had to rely on the testimony of local inhabitants who had observed changes over several years and of researchers who measure change using scientific instruments and data analysis.
Artist Michèle Noach addresses these issues of observation and perception. Her series of lenticular photographs Through the Ice, Darkly (2010) pairs pictures of Norwegian glaciers from century-old tourist postcards with images of the same places today. The identical visual treatment of the images—vintage and modern—blurs the line between past and present. The aesthetic recalls Eadweard Muybridge’s early stereoscopic views of Yosemite. Noach admits that her images of shadowy human figures confronting sublime nature are “intentionally romantic.” Yet the pairings serve an educational purpose, too, revealing the melting of glaciers over the past 100 years.
Not all of “U-n-f-o-l-d” is as strong. In Daro Montag’s installation RANE-CHAR, 12 bags of biochar (a natural carbon-based soil fertilizer) spill out of a wooden crate. Straightforward text printed on the crate’s lid explains the material’s uses, but it’s hard to tell if this is art or product placement.
Sam Collins’s Sometimes the Journey Is Better than the Destination tackles a thornier issue. The artist mounts a monitor with a GPS tracking system on a pile of large wooden shipping crates. The monitor displays the coordinates of “U-n-f-o-l-d” as it travels the world. Collins critiques the carbon footprint of the show itself, forcing us to ask how the organizers and artists contribute to global warming by shipping this large exhibition—and themselves—around the planet.
As with all successful expeditions, the voyagers have returned with new information and new perspectives. But it’s not always easy to inspire the folks at home. During the past decade, there have been many exhibitions on climate change featuring photographs of icebergs and polar bears—which have given viewers a certain degree of “melting-ice fatigue.” These shows also seem to suggest that global warming affects only the Arctic and other places far away from civilization.
Though "U-n-f-o-l-d" is far better than most in this genre, much of the Cape Farewell artists’ subject matter still seems impossibly remote to most of us. Perhaps Buckland’s next challenge is to organize an expedition that interprets the effects of climate change on our own doorsteps.