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The World to Come

In the photograph, a woman stands submerged in opaque, green-tinged water that rises to her waist. She is framed by the crumbling remains of a door and the skeletal remnants of pale blue, exterior walls. Behind her, we see the devastated interior of a home still several feet underwater. Twisted metal hinges on either side of the doorframe suggest the door was likely pried free from the structure by remorseless, hurricane-strength winds. The woman is wearing a tangerine orange top with intricate, white embroidery at the neckline; her gaze unflinchingly stares into the camera, emphasized by her pronounced under eye bags and sweat gleaming skin. 

Haiti - Climate Change - Portrait of a hurricane victim

Gideon Mendel, ​Adlene Pierre, Savanne Desolée, Gonaïves, Haiti, September 2008​, from the series ​Drowning World​, 2008. Chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist and Axis Gallery, New York and New Jersey.

The woman is Adlene Pierre, a Haitan native from the Gonaïves region in northern Haiti. Gideon Mendel photographed Pierre in September of 2008, shortly after Hurricane Ike, Hurricane Gustav, Hurricane Hanna, and Tropical Storm Fay flooded Gonaïves during the peak of the Atlantic Basin’s hurricane season. The storms displaced more than half of the town’s 300,000 residents and receding waters left behind three millions tons of mud. This photograph is from Mendel’s series Drowning World, which features subjects from some of the poorest and wealthiest communities on the planet, all exposed to the floodwater that envelops them.

Mendel’s portraits are presented alongside the work of 40 international contemporary artists such as Sammy Baloji, Huma Bhabha, Liu Bolin, Dana Levy, Pedro Neves Marques, Gabriel Orozco, Trevor Paglen, and Andrew Yang in the DePaul Art Museum’s (DPAM) exhibition The World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene. Opening for its third iteration at DPAM on March 20, 2020, the show aims to awaken viewers to the “physical and social effects of the Anthropocene.”

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Gideon Mendel, Mushaq Ahmad Wani and Shafeeqa Mushtaq, Jawahar Nagar, Srinagar, Kashmir, India, October 2014, from the series Drowning World, 2014. Chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist and Axis Gallery, New York and New Jersey.

The Anthropocene, a much-debated term used to define a new geological epoch shaped by human activity, was proposed as a new geological epoch at the International Geological Congress by the Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA) in 2016. This collective of 34 geological scholars urged that humanity’s impact on the Earth is so profound that it has caused the mass extinction of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans, and significantly altered the atmosphere.

During an interview with political economist C. J. Polychroniou and economist and climate authority Graciela Chichilnisky, Noam Chomsky warns: 

“There is concern—to quote a statement by 150 distinguished scientists—that ‘global warming, amplified by feedbacks from polar ice melt, methane release from permafrost, and extensive fires, may become irreversible,’ with catastrophic consequences for life on Earth, humans included—and not in the distant future. Sea level rise and destruction of water resources as glaciers melt alone may have horrendous human consequences.”

We are already seeing the extent of what the consequences of global warming could be in the coming decades as wildfires scorch countless square miles of California and Australia, rising sea levels flood the streets of Jakarta and Venice year after year, and hurricanes devastate Caribbean islands like Puerto Rico, Haiti, and Barbuda. We are unquestionably in the midst of a global climate crisis—a crisis that becomes more and more insurmountable every day.

According to The Fifth Assessment Report, produced by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2014, we are beyond the point where we can simply reduce carbon emissions. Instead, CO2 has to be removed from the atmosphere. However, the likelihood of this happening before the effects are irreversible seems unlikely as profit-hungry corporations and demagogic governments refuse to address this reality.


Liu Bolin, Hiding in the City, No. 95, Coal Pile, 2010. Chromogenic print. Loan courtesy of Eli Klein. Image courtesy of Eli Klein and the artist. © Liu Bolin.

Due to its close ties to the fossil fuel industries and financial institutions that rely on an economic model of overconsumption and debt, the art world is paralyzed when it comes to addressing the climate crisis and implementing policies to reverse the damage being done to our planet.

Recently, activist groups like BP or Not BP? have protested the ties between cultural institutions and oil and gas companies, calling on the British Museum to cut ties with BP, one of the world’s seven “supermajor” oil and gas companies. BP sponsored the museum’s exhibition Troy: Myth or Reality.

However, leaders in the arts industry like Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, and Ian Blatchford, director of the Science Museum Group, deny culpability of their institutions. Hunt argued that the Victoria & Albert Museum’s funding had been cut by 28% in the past ten years and asserted that fossil fuel companies lobbying, political acts, and their muddying of science about climate change have been “criminal,” but that these companies “will be part of the solution to dealing with climate change.”

Ironically, BP committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050, but leading UK environmentalist Jonathan Porritt—who spent years working on sustainability projects with BP and Shell—has said that it will be impossible for today’s oil majors to change at the radical speed required to exit fossil fuels. For an industry that has made nearly $2 trillion dollars in profit since 1990 and has known the dire consequences of fossil fuel extraction for more than three decades, it is naive to believe that any of these companies will have a significant role in mitigating the climate crisis.

Following BP or Not BP?’s protests, Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, made a statement saying, “the British Museum offers millions of people an extraordinary opportunity to engage with the cultures and histories of humankind. Without external support and sponsorship this would not be possible. Removing this opportunity from the public is not a contribution to solving the climate crisis.”

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Allan Sekula, Shipwreck and Worker, Istanbul, 1998–2000. Cibachrome. Harn Museum of Art collection, Museum purchase, gift of Michael A. Singer, 2002.14.

A similar sentiment was expressed last year by the Whitney Museum of American Art’s director Adam Weinberg during a months long protest to remove Warren B. Kanders—owner, chairman and chief executive of the Safariland Group, which sells multiple lines of military and law enforcement equipment including tear gas—from the museum’s board of trustees. “The Whitney is first and foremost a museum,” Weinberg wrote in a letter to staff. “It cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role.”

The Whitney, a cultural institution that regularly accepts philanthropic money made through colonial warfare and the unsustainable pillaging of natural resources, has a set of values that state the museum aims to “lead with integrity” and to “acknowledge the importance of history as a way to understand our past and realize our future.” It would appear that museums are abandoning their own values and morals in pursuit of funding from the same corporations and donors that lobby for policies to shrink state and federal funding of cultural institutions.

The 21st century museum has become a public relations representative for corrupt corporations and their executives, dissuading the public from demanding accountability and protesting by fostering a sense of indebtedness to the industries that knowingly threaten the well-being of our planet.

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Richard Mosse, Stalemate, 2011. Digital chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

While The World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene offers a sobering portrait of the reality of the current climate crisis, its presentation at the DePaul Art Museum feels ineffectual and performative. In a press release from the museum, director and chief curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm says, “there is a tremendous amount of environment-related research and work being done at DePaul University addressing environmental policy and communications, gentrification and sustainable urban development.” She continues, “by presenting The World to Come, we hope to ignite conversations around art and science in an academic setting, to provide teaching and learning resources to DePaul faculty and students, and to underscore our mission of bridging global and local concerns.”

However, this statement offers a rose-colored view of DePaul University’s commitment to mitigating climate change. The institution remains one of the only major Chicago universities that doesn’t have an official sustainability plan. In contrast, Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago have sustainability plans that commit to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.  

The most readily available sustainability information on DePaul’s website can be found on the Department of Housing’s webpage and lists insufficient solutions related to laundry, motion sensor lighting, landfill divergence, and a furniture donation program. Without a clearly articulated sustainability plan, the universities disparate solutions—including being a fair trade institution, implementing a campus-wide recycling program, and installing solar panels on select buildings—lack a clear vision accompanied by actionable and measurable steps to reach carbon neutrality.

For an exhibition that claims to “awaken” the public to the calamitous future that awaits us in the Anthropocene, it is underwhelming that the DePaul Art Museum fails to interrogate their own relationship to the global climate crisis and demand that the university develop a sustainability plan. We have long since passed the time for inaction; the art world can no longer remain neutral in the fight for social and environmental justice if we hope to envision the world to come.

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Nicole Six & Paul Petritsch, Spatial Intervention (1), 2002. Color video, 28 min. Courtesy of the artists. © Bildrecht, Vienna 2017.

The World to Come INFO

The World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene is curated by Kerry Oliver-Smith, former curator of contemporary art at the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida.

EventThe World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene
DateMarch 19 – August 16, 2020
VenueDePaul Art Museum
Address935 W Fullerton Ave, Chicago, IL 60614
HoursW-TH: 11am-7pm F-Su: 11am-5pm
URL The World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene