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The contemporary art scene is amplifying a pressing environmental narrative

In the vast span of Earth's 46 billion-year history, Homo Sapiens' existence is only a moment. Yet, our activities have thrust our planet into a precarious state in this brief span. Climate change poses significant risks to both human welfare and the health of our planet.

The contemporary art scene is amplifying a pressing environmental narrative. With an influx of exhibitions highlighting climate change and ecological concerns, art is becoming a potent medium to foster environmental consciousness. Mori Art Museum's 20th Anniversary Exhibition, "Our Ecology: Toward a Planetary Living," aims to bring to light the urgent concerns of global environmental issues while simultaneously illustrating the art of the future. The exhibit, through the work of 34 artists spanning 16 countries, brilliantly displays the intricate relationship between human activity, nature, and the larger ecological system.


Photos: Matteo Belfiore


The exhibition champions environmental responsibility, designed to minimize its ecological footprint. Limiting transportation and utilizing everyday materials for artwork creation are among the approaches taken. The commitment to eco-friendliness is evident in the exhibit design too, with recycled walls from past displays and the introduction of the world's first 100% recyclable plasterboard.


On the downside, it is somewhat jarring to see that some artists, though talented, appear to use the theme as a platform for creative expression rather than a call for meaningful action. It is crucial for artists to not only depict the dire state of our environment but also to inspire and provoke tangible solutions for the same.


I had the chance to enjoy this exhibition slowly and peacefully thanks to the press preview opening. The narrative is developed into four chapters, each containing some artwork that impressed me particularly, stimulating a solid reflection on the topics deployed.


The first chapter - entitled All is Connected – delves into the profound connection between ecology and various facets of our lives, from the economy to social aspects. The chapter highlights contemporary art pieces that offer a tangible representation of ecological processes. Artists such as Hans Haacke provide insights into the interplay between nature's elements since the late 1960s. Jochen Lempert explores the relationships among different life forms, while Cecilia Vicuña integrates ancient Andean and Korean traditions into her art. Her work touches on themes of indigenous erasure in today's globalized world. Emilia Skarnulyte's film interlaces past and future, suggesting a broader perspective on civilizations. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's film captures the coexistence of different species and the nuances of their interconnections.


Nina Canell's work in this chapter particularly stands out for its emphasis on material transformation and time scales. Her installation, "Muscle Memory (5 tonnes) (2023)", beautifully encapsulates the process of creation and destruction, calling attention to the constant cycles of life and the human role within them. The piece comprises five tons of seashells from Hokkaido that envelop the floor, inviting audiences to tread on them. As they do, the shells gradually shatter and crumble into powder, resonating with a symphony of sounds. This tangible auditory experience parallels the natural process of limestone formation, primarily used in the production of concrete. The use of seashells, which are often discarded in massive amounts, presents an urgent commentary on waste and environmental concerns. This engagement, both physically and mentally, elevates the experience beyond mere observation.


The second chapter Return to Earth - under the expert curation and supervision of Professor Bert Winther-Tamaki - explores different facets of art and ecology. "Return to Earth" is a phrase inspired by ceramicist Koie Ryoji, encapsulating the dual sentiments that permeated Japanese art and ecology during four decades, from 1950s to 1980s. The chapter underscores the profound connection between art and ecology in Japan during a transformative period and showcases the power of art in voicing environmental concerns and advocating for change.


Long before the globalization of contemporary art, artists were addressing these ecological challenges within their specific cultural spheres. Japan, since the 1950s, has witnessed a myriad of environmental issues due to factors such as industrial pollution, urban sprawl, radioactive contamination, and natural disasters. While some artists turned to nature and ancient forms of spirituality to understand the fundamental forces of the Earth, others critiqued the relentless drive of capitalist progress. A variety of visual media, from oil paintings to documentary photography and conceptual art installations, were utilized to communicate the pressing concerns of a society grappling with imminent environmental degradation.


Artists profiled include Kimura Tsunehisa - highlighting the concept of "image pollution" – and Fujita Akiko with her noyaki projects. Fujita aimed to make a bold statement against the ethos of rampant economic growth. Her creations, blending ceramics, sculpture, architecture, and performance, stood as testaments to unity with Earth.


In this section stands out the work of Tonoshiki Tadashi, a victim of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. Tonoshiki's art is both a commemoration and a warning. His piece is a vivid representation of the consequences of environmental neglect. By collecting and burning plastic garbage, he not only highlights the issues of plastic pollution but also creates a powerful juxtaposition between the environmental destruction and the nuclear devastation. The melting of the plastic, fusing with the soil, serves as a symbol for the irreversible damage humans inflict upon the Earth, paralleling the radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons. Tonoshiki's work serves as a potent reminder of the interconnectedness of environmental and nuclear issues.


The third chapter – named The Great Acceleration – draws a comprehensive picture of the juxtaposition of humanity's progression and nature's endurance that has inspired the minds of countless artists. Humankind has always relied on Earth's abundant resources for survival. In the rush of progress that started since the late twentieth century, a time when human activity rapidly expanded, the natural environment, once revered, became a mere resource to be analyzed and used. Astonishingly, the amount of anthropogenic mass has now exceeded the global biomass. As a result, human-made materials like concrete, plastic, and steel now predominate the planet's "biosphere."


Julian Charrière's captivating film is a metaphor for the pitfalls of unchecked economic growth. Yasura Takeshi's installation, crafted from marble and industrial waste slag, underscores the intricate relationships between organic and non-organic entities. Contrarily, Monira Al Qadiri's focus on the history of cultured pearls and the oil industry tends to overlook deeper ecological concerns, offering a more superficial critique of luxury capitalism. Ali Cherri's three-channel video highlights the plight of individuals forcibly moved to make way for a massive hydroelectric dam in Africa, casting them as the preservers of ancient traditions.


Daniel Turner's work stands out with its profound and poetic reflection on the impacts of the climate crisis on nations, especially those less developed. His work revolves around a Japanese chemical freight vessel named Cynth. Turner elegantly uses a copper barometer from this ship and integrates it, after burning it, into the Mori Art Museum's wall. By doing so, he silently comments on the unforeseen atmospheric challenges posed by industrial advancements. Turner's art is, in essence, an archaeology of the invisible, pointing towards an impending darkened horizon.


The fourth and last chapter - entitled The Future is Within Us - is a contemplative journey that urges viewers to consider alternative futures that stem from a symbiotic relationship with nature, rather than one of exploitation. This chapter presents a plethora of artistic visions that offer insights into potential pathways towards such a future. The purpose is to reframe our vision of the future through the transformative power of art.


Artists like Agnes Denes have been ecologically inspired for decades. In 1982, Denes transformed a landfill in New York into a wheat field, making a statement about the environment and urban development. Ana Mendieta's works are rooted in feminist and diaspora perspectives, embracing the Earth's festive and fertile qualities. Sheroanawe Hakihiwe’s works aim to preserve the Yanomami tribe's indigenous environmental knowledge, while Martha Atienza supports threatened fishermen in the Philippines. Matsuzawa Yutaka’s installation from 1970 prompts viewers to think about death. Kate Newby created terrazzo tiles with materials sourced in the areas around the museum, symbolizing a public space that emphasize collective care and accessibility.


Two artworks, in particular, that stand out and demand special attention are those by Jef Geys and Asad Raza. With his profound artwork, "Quadra Medicinale Roppongi", Geys transforms the mundane into the magnificent. Based around the exhibition venue in Roppongi Hills, Geys orchestrates a compelling narrative, wherein local weeds transform into symbols of potential healing. By comparing these plants against their inherent remedial properties, he transforms the local topography into an art gallery.


Asad Raza closes the exhibition with his "Komorebi (dappled sunlight)". Raza's vision suggests that the Mori Tower itself is a participant in the exhibition. The artist suggests a radical transformative change, infusing the museum with sunlight that's been missing since its opening. The intent is unmistakable: a plea for visitors to advocate for a balanced relationship with the earth that has sustained us for so long. It begins with a basic yet profound gesture: pull back the curtains and let the sunshine energize our existence.