An Apocalyptic Warning: Art’s Take on the Environment

By Heather Findling When you walk into the "Defining Sustainability" exhibition at the Arizona State University Art Museum, you are thrust into a world of warning. The exhibition challenges viewers to step out of their day-to-day bustle, examining events such as industrialization and natural disasters, and to consider that the human existence is based on a limited supply of natural resources.  Artists convey themes of conservation, decay, and survival.

The exhibition starts with older, more historic pieces, gradually bringing the viewer to the present with contemporary art. Some pieces depict land as an untouched utopia, while others challenge the notion of industrial "progress." Some render apocalyptic messages of environmental abandonment and collapse. The quiet and serene atmosphere of the gallery allows visitors to let their mind wander, with sustainability texts ever-present to bring back ones’ focus.

Oscar Oiwa’s "Black Snow II," Oil on canvas 227 x 444 cm (90"x180"), 2003, Arizona State University Art Museum collection, Tempe, Arizona. Reproduction courtesy of artist Oscar Oiwa and P.P.O.W. Gallery, NY, NY.

As I enter the gallery space, one piece in particular catches my attention: Oscar Oiwa’s multi-paneled Black Snow 2, painted in 2003. The visual attraction does not come from the painting’s size (90" x 180"); instead, it derives from the painting’s mysterious and illusive oranges, yellows, reds, and blacks. There is a peaceful quality to the painting. Yet at the same time, a sense of uneasiness pulls at me.

Oiwa depicts his composition--an abandoned sun-washed suburbia intertwined with commercial-like buildings--from an aerial point of view.  From this vantage point, I observe the scene below in the safety of my own space. A dark, twisting river cuts through the center of the picture from top to bottom, flowing with apocalyptic reds and electric yellows. It seems as though lava has replaced what was once fresh water.

Black spots of all different sizes cover the piece, and seem to confirm my sense of uneasiness. I see these dark blotches as ash falling on the town below, and as the slow decay of the piece itself.  I wait for the spots to grow bigger and engulf the whole surface into one black mass--a representation of what is to come in a world both abused and neglected.

Black Snow 2 is devoid of human presence. It is as if everyone vanished in a recent moment. The silver car and red van in the right foreground are not rusted or demolished. There are no broken windows, no determining scenes of violence or chaos, which escalates a sense of peculiarity. It is as if the absence of human life affirms the crumbling aftermath of industrialization. One wonders, where did they all go?

Although Oiwa’s painting has no human populace, one cannot help but notice that there are still some living plants lining the river’s contours and dotting the corners of homes. Although these plants are not healthy or lush, some life still exists. There is hope yet that the environmental degradation humans have caused can still be remedied.

During my visit to the exhibition, I had to ask myself, what does art have to do with sustainability? Can looking at a gallery full of paintings and sculptures really change a person’s outlook on the environment?

Of course, it will take much more than visual warnings to compel people to live more sustainably. An art exhibit can only do so much; it cannot, for instance, force viewers to care about recycling or global warming. It can, however, send an important message. The visual arts are a powerful instrument for raising consciousness and awareness of particular issues, especially if organized in an innovative and interesting manner. Exhibitions such as "Defining Sustainability" at the ASU Art Museum can help spur much needed political and social discourse on issues relevant to sustainability.

This exhibition has the potential to be extremely useful in bringing awareness to those who are willing to stop, take a close look, and contemplate how these works parallel their own existence. Overall, I sauntered out the exhibition thinking, when all of our resources are exhausted, artists will be the ones who say, "Hey, you can’t say we didn’t warn you."



Contributor's Biography:

Heather Findling is a first year graduate student in Art History at Arizona State University, and has lived in Arizona for over fifteen years. Heather recently participated in the fall 2009 course entitled, "Ecology, Systems, Art" at the ASU Art Museum, discussing sustainability and the environment. Heather is interested in combining her heritage from Austria with her art history scholastic career and is currently a Windgate Intern at the ASU Art Museum working on the Family Fun Day exhibition. When not in school, she loves taking her three year old border collie, Shylo, to the park with her boyfriend Josh.