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Climate Exhibitions Look Beyond Declarations of Calamity

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This article is part of our latest Fine Arts & Exhibits special report, about how art institutions are helping audiences discover new options for the future.

The extreme weather, human migrations and exploding forest fires brought on by climate change are here, and museums are searching for more nuanced and effective ways to address the new post-climate reality.

In exhibitions opening this fall, visitors to museums in the United States will encounter images of life in the rapidly changing forests of the polar North, which collectively contain the largest carbon store, locked in the soil, of any forest, as well as artistic responses to living in proximity to fire. There will also be an audiovisual experience that immerses visitors in the sounds of thousands of animal species, many of them facing diminishing ecosystems.

At the Anchorage Museum in Alaska, where climate change has already led to the relocation of a whole village, the director Julie Decker has made the climate and its impact on local populations one of the institution’s core themes.

“It’s important that museums not be episodic in how they talk about climate change,” Ms. Decker said. “We need to make it part of our programs everyday.”

One of two climate-related exhibitions opening at the museum this fall, “Borealis: Life in the Woods” is a photographic and textual record of the photographer Jeroen Toirkens and the journalist Jelle Brandt Corstius’s journey through the boreal forests. They are a band of mostly pine, birch and spruce trees that stretches across Alaska, Canada, northern Scandinavia and Siberia, and is home to hundreds of Indigenous communities like the Innu and Cree.

The boreal region, or taiga, is threatened by rampant fires and logging.

With “Borealis” and the Anchorage Museum’s other climate initiatives, Ms. Decker hopes to avoid what she sees as the tendency of climate exhibitions and programs to make simplistic statements that amount to a “collective declaration of calamity,” or to separate environmental and human impacts.

“Borealis” offers no easy narratives, telling the stories of loggers and Cree hunters, as well as nonprofit interventions into the environment (both good and bad), and tracking changes in the ecosystem and their effect on people’s lives.

“I always search for these stories where there’s a big gray area, it’s never black and white,” Mr. Toirkens said. “You can find this nuance by talking to the people.”

Another display at the Anchorage this fall will speculate on future places of refuge in a burning world, albeit in abstract terms. John Grade’s torched wooden sculpture, “Spark,” is carved with crevices that allow flames and gas to pass through them without setting the object alight. The sculpture refers to underground voids created by incinerated root systems that are often large enough to provide provisional shelter for human bodies.

Mr. Grade also plans to place a sculpture in the path of a boreal fire next year, with the charred remains putting audiences into visceral contact with the ferocity of a fire and its impact on the environment.

Elsewhere in the United States, exhibitions are approaching the environmental crisis with a pragmatic eye toward climate-change mitigation and resilience.

California’s forest fires have become urgent subjects for environmentally inclined artists in the region. The Center for Art and the Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno has been sending artists to work with scientists and firefighters at the Sagehen Creek Field Station, a research and teaching center run by the University of California, Berkeley, and based in a 9,000-acre forest. The Air Quality Index in the area reached almost 500 in August because of regional fires. (Levels above 100 are considered unhealthy).

Some of the resulting works will be on view at the Truckee Recreation Center, from Dec. 10. “Forest Fire,” a project by the artists Michael and Heather Llewellyn, tells the story, through documentation and artwork, of the cultivation by Indigenous people of old growth forests through controlled burns, the current threat to these ecosystems and research-driven solutions to the problem.

“Dao-Lulelek,” 2012 by Judith Lowry, is being shown at the Truckee Recreation Center.Credit…Judith Lowry, The Autry Museum of the American West

One artwork by the Pit River Tribe artist Judith Lowry will show godlike, flame-headed creatures, manifesting an Indigenous worldview that includes harnessing fire to sustain forests.

The exhibition “is one of the most direct responses to climate change in our local area, even as it has international repercussions,” said William Fox, director of the Nevada’s Center for Art + Environment, which is adding “Forest Fire” to its extensive archives of environmental and climate change-focused art.

Mr. Fox added that the center had been working for years on tracking — through various art projects — the links between the fire protocols practiced by Aboriginal Australians and Native Americans in the American West.

Solutions and adaptation are also on the mind of Erik Neill, the director of the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va. The museum has already had its ground-floor galleries raised by 10 feet to protect the building against floods. Two exhibitions at the Chrysler this December, “Waters Rising: A View From Our Backyard” and “FloodZone,” will offer artistic and documentary responses to living in floodplains in two of the country’s most climate-vulnerable cities — Norfolk and Miami.

“Chairs on Dock” by Greta Pratt, from the series “Tidewater,” 2020, at the Chrysler Museum of Art’s exhibition “Waters Rising: A View From Our Backyard.”Credit…Greta Pratt

Inevitably, curators are eager to offer some hope, as well as new perspectives on the environment that might galvanize people to act. For Jane Winchell, director of the Peabody Essex Museum’s Climate + Environment Initiative in Salem, Mass., that means avoiding the overwhelming data and inviting a more visceral connection to the environment.

“Climate change is one of those issues where it doesn’t take much for people to feel like they’re being preached to,” Ms. Winchell said.“And that’s very off-putting.”

When the artist Bernie Krause’s “Great Animal Orchestra” opens on Nov. 20, visitors will be able to step inside a chorus of animal sounds “that will open a window for people to connect with this whole issue, not so much from the thinking mind but more from an embodied experience,” Ms. Winchell said.

The idea, she added, is “to give the sense of: This is part of me.”

Despite the daily barrage of environmental news and data, some effects on climate may be less known, if no less catastrophic. And there are exhibitions shedding light on those issues.

With “Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology,” open now through July 2022, the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, presents responses from Native artists to nuclear exposure as a result of uranium mining, nuclear tests and accidents on or near their sacred land — as well as the erosion of containers for nuclear-waste deposits caused by global warming.

In Greenland, the rapidly melting ice cap is uncovering dangerousuranium deposits that threaten the Inuit people.

Jessie Kleemann, “Arkhticós Doloros,” 2019Credit…Jessie Kleemann

In the video-recorded production Arkhticós Doloros(2020), the Inuit artist Jessie Kleemann performs a ritual near a pool of glacial melt in Greenland. Wearing little more than a dress in brutal conditions of cold and wind, Kleemann offers an emotional response to the anguished climate that is painful to watch.

It also suggests, perhaps, something of the endurance required to live in harsh climates and the will needed to stave off the very worst climate change outcomes that are still in humans’ power to prevent.

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