In honour of Earth Day (Friday 22nd April 2022), Christopher Templeton takes a look at the phenomenon of art when it turns its attention to climate change. Each artist, each medium, each response of our three artists, is enthralling in its own right. Ingenious ideas, elegant execution all lead to a greater understanding of climate and its effects on the earth’s delicate architecture.
The history of humankind has been shaped by climate. Even though we claim to be in charge of our destiny, most of our behaviour over time has been governed by outside forces. Everything we do is a post-hoc rationalisation of things we really do for other reasons.
The effects of climate change appear impossible to relay. People can’t conceive it in advance or prepare for it directly. Scientific evidence is one thing but artists boil the numbers down and reform the same points with grit and power. Step forward three heroes with an art lesson worth taking.
Hayao Miyazaki – Film Animator
Olafur Eliasson – Installation Artist
Bon Iver – Composer & Lyricist
Drawn together, their art is a call to arms, evoking more response than any single politician can muster. Combating ignorance and in many cases, helping to motivate and drive policy, rectifying misconceptions with originality of thought. Measuring just the right level of outrage to make people care.
Artists are people who zag when the world zigs. Some of their work is spellbinding but also acute about the threats that face the planet. Valuable, because they precipitate response. Meticulous, original, allowing a difficult subject to enter the mind.
In the case of film animator Hayao Miyazaki and installation artist Olafur Eliasson the rendering is intense enough to hold the eye. In the case of musician Bon Iver, to command the ear, turning the overwhelming notion of climate change into a new genre of folkloric notations.
Hayao Miyazaki – Film Animator
You could spend a year drawing one vivid picture of the challenges posed by climate change, or like animator Hayao Miyazaki render a million smaller ones.
Miyazaki’s output is a fusion of Japanese history, magical realism and folklore, with stories that are often helmed by young, strong female leads. Alongside his protagonists are ranged a pantheon of adorable creatures; and a powerful environmental message, the hallmarks of all Miyazaki’s work.
In 1999, one of the most iconic anime films ‘Princess Mononoke,’ first hit international screens, introducing us to a stark, bleak world where humans are in an all-out war with one another and their natural environment. Arguably his bloodiest film remains one of his most politically striking. As Miyazaki himself said at the time:
“What do children see in this film? I think you’ll have to wait for about 10 years for them to be able to grow up sufficiently to be able to articulate their emotions about it.”
Miyazaki’s output is more relevant today than ever before, its message about environmental protection a reflection of our current bleak, perhaps even doomed relationship with the earth, a forewarning about the dire consequences of our accelerated ecological destruction.
Art has everything to do with reality, in Miyazaki’s case his cartoons engage younger minds in a deep understanding of abstract concepts. They all exhibit hyperbole, exaggeration, even distortion in order to create an effect that most children find authentic and convincing.
Underpinning his films’ narratives are themes of purity and harmony in Shinto. ‘Mononoke’ operates on the level of fantasy, yet at its core lies a complex, very adult narrative about the fine line we are treading.
Watch the video below for more about Hayao Miyazaki:
Olafur Eliasson – Installation Artist
If you’ve ever walked along the path of destruction from a tornado, it’s almost impossible to adequately describe. That is the job of the artist. Words might fail but the artist will render a simple image, perhaps of a finger, drawing a line through the icing of a decorous cake, speaking volumes about the concept of destruction.
Eliasson’s art raises the world’s temper on climate change. His installations are physically immense, manufacturing fake stars, suns and waterfalls, challenging your perceptions with their presence. Indeed, when viewing his work ‘Ice Watch’ you can sense people’s brains groping for a solution to his perceptual riddles.
The temperature about climate change shifts as much as the weather itself, yet the subject shouldn’t be an ideological thing. He says:
“I’m afraid we can’t wait for governments to do the work for us. They are not going fast enough.”
Whilst his installations are seismic, Eliasson does not approach his subject like a Hollywood screenwriter, all cataclysm and doom. Decode his work and reflect upon its magic. It’s about the less detectable things. In other words, the climate risks we should fear most, are the risks we can’t imagine.
Bon Iver – Composer and Lyricist
Artists, through trial and error, through intuition, through genius, have ignited figural, primitive feelings in us to care more about climate. Tapping into these feelings so that what emerges is a caring, proactive response from the observer.
Bon Iver is a musician and because he’s a composer and a lyricist, we are now adding language as part of the artist’s armoury in the fight against apathy. Bon employs subtleties and nuances and a recursive embedding of phrases and words, creating a new, sophisticated musical art form.
Bon Iver has always had a singular relationship with the environment. He emerges from the ranks of musical folklore, recording solo songs that create a pathway of consciousness about the effect of climate change, tempting the observer to abandon old thinking for new.
The relationship between people and their government is always problematic. Personal identity has shifted away from the ‘citizen’ to the ‘consumer.’ This makes communicating the effects of climate harder. He lyrically ‘faces off’ the listener with hyperbolic language. On the track ‘Jelmore’ he challenges:
“How long will you disregard the heat?”
A lyrical invocation to the planet as it slowly chokes beneath our feet. Exploring how ecological equilibrium has been destabilised and indicting governments who have yet to make serious economic sacrifices to improve the situation.
You can hear some of Bon’s work here.
Pulling the lens back, all three artists play a key role, able to make the more difficult, specific points as opposed to the more prosaic, generalised ones. Leave that to the politicians. To them, managing climate change is an act of the imagination. They understand that people only react to a crisis that has happened, less likely to react to a crisis before it happens.
It’s in that intimate space that our artists operate to great effect.
Our three artists are simply scratching the surface of a subject. However, don’t be glum. The aesthetics of climate change have now been born, bridging the huge gap between the reality of climate change and our inaction.
What do you think of Christopher’s reflections? Share your thoughts with him in the comments below.