The exhibition To the Elements! Aesthetic Phenomena of Climate Change, curated by Alfons Hug, presents several video works by different artists and their vision on the topic of climate change. The weather has always inspired artists and poets and it gave ordinary people an informal start for a conversation. In our days, however, the focus of both conversations and artistic activities shifts from the weather to the climate: Curator Alfons Hug, born 1950 in Hochdorf, Germany, studied comparative literature and linguistics in Fre... Read more
The exhibition To the Elements! Aesthetic Phenomena of Climate Change, curated by Alfons Hug, presents several video works by different artists and their vision on the topic of climate change. The weather has always inspired artists and poets and it gave ordinary people an informal start for a conversation. In our days, however, the focus of both conversations and artistic activities shifts from the weather to the climate:
Alfons Hug, born 1950 in Hochdorf, Germany, studied comparative literature and linguistics in Freiburg, Berlin, Dublin, and Moscow. He was director of the Goethe-Institut in Lagos, Brasilia, Caracas, and Moscow. From 1994–98 he was head of the visual arts department at the House of World Cultures, Berlin. In 2002 and 2004 he was chief curator of the Bienal de Sao Paulo and in 2003 and 2005 of the Brazilian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In 2009 he curated the Bienal del Fin del Mundo in Ushuaia/Argentina. Currently he is director of the Goethe-Institut Rio de Janeiro.
Simon Faithfull (England) http://www.simonfaithfull.org
Gianfranco Foschino (Chile) http://www.gianfrancofoschino.com
Laura Glusman (Argentina) http://www.lauraglusman.com/site.php
Agnes Meyer-Brandis (Germany) http://www.forschungsfloss.de/index_e.html
Thomas Mulcaire (South Africa) http://www.thomasmulcaire.com
Reynold Reynolds (USA) http://www.reynold-reynolds.com
Michael Sailstorfer/Jürgen Heinert (Germany) http://www.sailstorfer.de/index.html
The exhibition was presented as part of the exhibition Return of the Landscape at the Akademie der Kuenste in Berlin (March – May 2010) and at Intempéries in Sao Paulo (March – April 2009). To the Elements! will be on view until July 3.
To the Elements! Aesthetic Phenomena of Climate Change
An essay by Alfons Hug
My Ariel, chick,
That is thy charge: then to the elements
Be free, and fare thou well!
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
In the old days, weather used to be simply weather. Things smelled of dry hay or wet rubber boots. For ordinary people and artists, it appeared as a gloriously colorful sunset or a sublimely shaped snowdrift. When you met a stranger, the weather gave you an informal start to a conversation, and if you were late it served as an acceptable excuse: Yes, the rain….
The weather was a kind of second skin to people, and despite its occasional harshness you could feel part of a greater order within nature.
But now the weather has become the climate, a frightening, anonymous physical quantity which can lead to catastrophic events at any time. The ancient Greek meaning of the word was “bending,” after all. Climate change has turned weather into storm. Climate is weather without poetry or esthetics. Unlike weather, the climate has no aura, that “strange web of space and time.” (W. Benjamin)
What used to be common property has now become the domain of engineers, scientists, even politicians. Normal mortals – who just a moment ago were enjoying the freshness of the dew and a gentle breeze during a stroll in the park – now experience the weather as a mess of CO2, CFCs, and soot particles. They have to be meteorologists to calculate future rainfall, farmers to compare the energy yields of rapeseed and sugar cane, car mechanics to use biodiesel correctly, economists to steer the worldwide flow of goods, zoologists to make sure the zoos keep polar bears in a way that is appropriate to the species – and soldiers to wage wars over raw materials.
An explorer who wanted to visit the North Pole in the middle of an Arctic summer would have to swim the last few kilometers. Even the experts were astounded last August when an icebreaker discovered open sea at the Pole.
A hundred years after the futurist opera “Victory over the Sun,” featuring Kazimir Malevich’s epoch-making “Black Square” as part of the stage design, what must be feared today is the victory of the sun over its little planet earth. And if the Russian avant-garde saw in Malevich’s modern icon a never-failing energy field which would initiate the transformation of the world via boundless technological progress, we now seem to be heading for a precipice.
The sky and the old idea of heavenly perfection, as manifested in pre-climate weather and depicted by the German Romanticists, has made way for the satellite image and Google Earth. Even tourists traveling in the Antarctic or Greenland are no longer searching for borderline experiences, but see themselves as embarrassed witnesses of climate change.
The weather’s metaphysical and symbolic qualities cannot, however, be represented by diagrams or statistical surveys.
Changes in the climate, whether caused by man or nature, always go hand in hand with cultural changes. Our attitude toward ourselves and to others also changes when the climate changes. The body and the senses are exposed to new experiences.
Heat is a category like color, sex, or intoxication, indeed like art itself. Heat makes us lose our sense of so-called reality and forces us to return to our own body, which has always been our most reliable thermometer.
In Walter Benjamin’s story “In the Sun,” which he wrote on Ibiza in 1932, the author describes the noonday heat of the Mediterranean island as follows:
“The traveler is already too tired to reflect, and as he loses control of his feet, he notices that his imagination has freed itself from him. The sun scorches his back. The air is heavy with resin and thyme, and he believes they will suffocate him as he struggles for breath.”
The traveler in Benjamin’s portrayal of Arcadia no longer sees, but feels. After the heliophilia comes the heat stroke.
Heat forces even time to change its inexorable rhythm; it elapses less perceptibly, more viscously, less measurably.
Climatic phenomena, which are being increasingly medialized, therefore need to be “reculturalized” by measuring the aesthetic temperatures of a new feeling for life. However, the kind of aesthetic treatment of weather and landscape we are proposing could possibly contribute more to preserving both than a purely scientific approach.
Climate is an invention of the modern city and its research institutions. By contrast, when you talk about the weather, there is always a hint of landscape in the air, too. No one described this subtle interaction better than the Romantic writer Adalbert Stifter, who is to accompany our exhibition because his stories trigger almost visual associations:
“One day there was a particular heat in the stones. Although the sun had not come out all day, it had nevertheless penetrated the faint veil covering the whole sky to the extent that its pale picture was always visible, so that an unreal light surrounded all the objects of stoneland without adding shadows, and the leaves of the few plants that could be seen hung down; for although barely half of the sunlight came through the foggy layers of the dome, there was as much heat as though there were three tropical suns in the blue sky, and all three were burning down.” (Adalbert Stifter, Kalkstein [Limestone], 1851)
Whereas the climate is prone to abrupt changes, disasters even, philosophically speaking the weather is a constant, timeless category. In the Latin languages – as in the Portuguese word “tempo” or the Spanish “tiempo” – atmosphere, i.e. sunshine and rain, and time in the chronological sense have even entered into a happy symbiosis. Here, every question about the weather always implies a notion of time. German and English, however, make a distinction between “time” and “weather.” The latter comes from Old High German wetar = wind.
“The time now, that I see on the clock: what is this ‘now’? Now that I am doing it; now that the light is going out here, for example. What is the ‘now’? Do I have the ‘now’ at my disposal? Am I the ‘now’? Is everyone else the ‘now’? Then I would be time myself, and everyone else would be time. And in our togetherness we would be time – no one and everyone. Am I the ‘now’, or only the one who says it? With or without explicit clock? Now, in the evening, in the morning, tonight, today: here we encounter a clock that human existence has always given itself, the natural clock of the change between day and night.” Martin Heidegger, The Concept of Time, 1924
In Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos (1845) the weather not only had to do with temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure, but also with the “transparency and brightness of the sky, the sky being important not only for the increased radiation of the soil with heat, the organic development of the plants and the ripening of the crops, but also for the human being’s feelings and our entire psychological mood.”
No wonder the weather, and not the climate, has always inspired artists and poets, because weather is mood and spirituality. Rilke spoke of “blond, old warmth.” In recent decades environmentalists have never tired of telling us what we must not do. The artists will now offer us a vision of what we can do.
Natural phenomena such as sun, rain, heat, snow, ice, drought, and floods have always found expression in visual arts. One need only recall the sun cult among the Incas in Peru, the rain and wind god of the Aztecs, or the statues of the Baule in West Africa imploring the coming of rain. On a 5th-century terracotta from India the river goddess Ganga symbolizes fertility and abundance, and an 18th-century miniature shows Krishna swallowing a forest fire. The Nigerian Mumuye sculptures were used as a medium by rainmakers in ceremonial acts. Fertility rites, which played an influential role in pre-modern cultures, were also closely linked to the climate and its vicissitudes.
Pieter Bruegel’s painting “Hunters in the Snow” reminds us that in the 16th century there was a minor ice age in Europe which is now used by meteorologists to make retrospective weather forecasts. The German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich gave ice floes a metaphysical dimension. William Turner’s and Frederic Edwin Church’s breathtaking sunsets had the same effect in the 19th century. Here, the landscape is still part of a harmonious view of the world.
Yet Félix-Émile Taunay was already pointing out the dangers of deforestation in his painting “Mata reduzida a carvão” at that time. In Brazil Candido Portinari even made drought the subject of his work. This was also the case in many “Cinema Novo” films and classics of Brazilian literature such as Euclides da Cunhas’ Os sertões.
The weather breathes life into Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and is enthroned in the spectacular sunset that Claude Lévi-Strauss saw at the Equator during his Atlantic crossing.
And when Cézanne was sur le motif, as he described his working style, and painted the windswept “Great Spruce” (1892) or a still life with apples, the weather was never far away.
The weather is the main character in “Chimborazo” by Frederic Edwin Church and in Caspar David Friedrich’s picture of the Arctic Ocean, which is more a symbolic than a real landscape. After all, Friedrich had challenged artists to paint not only what was in front of them, but also what they saw in themselves.
In all these cases, the issue is not scientific analysis, but an esthetic approach seeking to draw attention to the interdependence of nature and human activity in a form that can be experienced by our senses. The critical mass of art is well-suited to setting awareness processes in motion among the public.
To the Elements! Aesthetic Phenomena of Climate Change is part of the German Weeks “Climate Initiative United States & Canada.”