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Climate change themes everywhere in Canadian art

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Brett Story made a film about climate change that doesn’t once use the phrase.

Instead, “The Hottest August” walks a camera down everyday streets and asks people: “How do you feel about the future?”

“I was reflecting on my own disinterest in watching climate change films, despite a very profound investment and sense of the stakes,” said the Toronto-based filmmaker, whose work has won awards around the world.

“One of my own frustrations with a lot of climate change films is that they assume the problem is that we don’t have information. For me, there’s a different set of questions I wanted to ask.”

Canadian artists from singers to sculptors are doing the same. From writer Margaret Atwood’s climate fiction, or cli-fi, “MaddAddam” trilogy to an upcoming album from singer/songwriter Grimes, climate change permeates Canadian art.

“Climate is a hugely prominent topic and has been for a little while,” said Julian Carrington, programmer for Toronto’s Hot Docs and Planet In Focus documentary festivals. “It’s not niche anymore.”

“Absolutely,” said Mia Feuer, a Winnipeg-born sculptor teaching at the California College of the Arts. “As a grad student, I don’t remember climate issues being addressed in people’s work. I would say now, it’s absolutely everywhere.”

The challenge is to make work that addresses an inescapable fact of modern life without churning out agitprop.

“We’re not just getting together and making signs to take to the protest,” Feuer said.

For some, climate change is a new lens through which to look at some old themes.

“Where do we as individuals fit with society? Where does society fit with nature?” asks Edmonton poet Alice Major, whose most recent collection is titled “Welcome to the Anthropocene.”

“That just kind of grew constantly in me and that’s what the title poem is about — where do we belong?”

For others, the work itself raises the issue.

Feuer often uses petroleum-based materials such as Styrofoam. One afternoon, she was sitting on the banks of the Suez Canal watching tankers glide by.

“It was almost like a light bulb fired off in my mind. I needed to understand where these materials come from.”

Eventually, that led to work such as “An Unkindness,” an assemblage of what looks like oil-soaked industrial detritus that has shown in Washington’s prestigious Corcoran Gallery.

Whatever the inspiration, art isn’t a lecture, said Marcus Youssef, a Vancouver playwright whose one-hander “Dust” has been performed across North America.

“We as humans have a natural resistance to being hectored,” he said.

“(Art) is a perspective that isn’t didactic. It reflects some sort of human response to the question that has the potential to affect people more deeply or in a surprising way.”

Not that artists are averse to changing people’s behaviour. They just think there’s a better way than haranguing them.

“I like to make films that respect audiences and give people space to do thinking and feeling on their own terms,” Story said.

“That’s what art can do — make us both feel alive and also able to see things differently. I think that’s a precondition to being political actors in the world.”

“There’s a potential through the arts to connect in an emotional way, in a spiritual way,” said Feuer. “That might be how people might be moved to seek out change, to ask bigger questions.”

Major agrees.

“Poetry is not a screwdriver. It’s not something you have clearly defined results from.

“Poetry comes out of something happening in our hearts and good poetry does connect. That connection — you have no idea what comes out of that, but it could be a small motivation to pay attention.”

Audiences are receptive. Major said “Welcome to Anthropocene” drew reviews and attention as far afield as Los Angeles.

When Feuer showed her work in Calgary, “it was very positive.”

“I was hesitant to show it, (but) it had a great reception.”

Good art, including art about climate change, brings people together, said Youssef.

“One of the places where political art can fall is that it makes it easy to go, ‘Oh, that’s the bad guy.’ I actually don’t believe there is a bad guy.

“It’s trying to find the humour and humanity in everybody, the recognition of the degree in which we are all complicit.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 29, 2019.

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Separating the art from the artist, now that we know more than ever – University of Virginia The Cavalier Daily

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Many of us are familiar with the sinking feeling of discovering your favorite artist is actually a terrible person. Sometimes shocking, sometimes predictable, it is always uncomfortable. 

With the overwhelming accessibility of information granted by modern technology, it is more difficult than ever to conveniently ignore the harm done by individuals who create great art. We have been grappling with the complex relationship between art and artist for hundreds of years, but as we become increasingly aware of the people behind the art we love, and increasingly concerned with our potential complicity in all they represent, we question ourselves with heightened urgency. If we know of an artist’s offenses but continue to appreciate their work anyway, does this approval of the art extend to an implied approval of the artist? Can the two be distinguished, and if so, how? 

Some advocate a total disavowal of the art of any condemnable artist, while others, equally vocal, prescribe a detached mode of analysis that privileges the work itself and minimizes its context. The question of separating the art from the artist has no simple answer, but there are many factors that can help us to critically engage with art once we know of the transgressions of its creator. 

One consideration in answering the question of separating the art from the artist is the extent to which an artist’s reprehensible qualities are exhibited in their work. The racial slur by which American writer H.P. Lovecraft referred to his cat is not a peripheral detail, but simply one real-life example of the racism deeply embedded in his work, including a reference to the “primitive half-ape savagery” of non-white characters in “The Horror of Red Hook.”

Another consideration is the extent to which engaging with art directly benefits its creator. When an English teacher reads “The Tell-Tale Heart” in class, it is unlikely that this action functions to normalize the author Edgar Allan Poe’s marriage to his 13-year-old first cousin. However, when Roman Polanski wins a Cesar award for best director despite being wanted in the United States for the rape of a 13-year-old, this acknowledgement is difficult to justify. 

A final consideration, one more instinctive than logical, is the way in which knowledge of an artist informs an audience’s feelings towards their work. While working on “The Shining,” Stanley Kubrick famously forced Shelly Duvall to work to the point of exhaustion and reflect on personal pain to further the authenticity of the onscreen horror. Can you truly appreciate Duvall’s performance when you are aware of the genuine terror behind her expressive eyes? Many can. However, if this insight makes you uncomfortable, your response is as legitimate as any critical conversation surrounding the film’s artistic merits, or indeed any debate of the ethics of celebrating the film despite Kubrick’s mistreatment of his leading actress. 

Stripping the initial question of its complex connotations, the answer is, of course, no. Art does not exist in a vacuum, and an artist inevitably leaves traces of their personhood on even the most impersonal of works. 

Still, it’s essential that the critical consumption of art is not confused with simple denial of all we find objectionable. There are ways to engage with the work of a morally questionable artist without ignoring their unfortunate qualities, or punishing yourself for your appreciation of their work. 

If you are aware of an artist’s offending characteristics, proceed with cognizance. For example, if you know of a writer’s personal misogyny, take note when you encounter a negative portrayal of a female character in his work. How does this character link to what you know about his real-life relationships to and thoughts about women? Does this character serve an agenda? To what extent can she be considered an individual case versus an allegorical relic of a patriarchal society, or the artist’s beliefs about gender? The answers to these questions may vary, but the act of asking them helps you to reckon with the ways in which the artist is reflected in their own work. 

Furthermore, be wary of the impact of the art you consume. If you spend your whole life absorbing images and words created by terrible people, these things will shape you, particularly if you accept them uncritically and with a complete dismissal of the role of the terrible artist in your experience of their art. Art is a powerful tool of persuasion in part because the source is somewhat obscured and your subconscious experience is engaged. You may be resistant to persuasive messaging when it comes out of the mouth of a politician, but when you laugh at a hateful joke on a sitcom, your guard is down. Don’t think you are immune. 

It is impossible to completely distinguish the art from the artist, but it is also unnecessary. In fact, if you want to continue consuming the art of a controversial figure, it is crucial that you don’t deny their moral complexity. Instead, when you discover the offenses of the artist behind a beloved work, take a moment to reflect. Think about how this aligns with or departs from your expectations of who they are based on their art. When you experience their art, take note of the elements that stand out to you now that you have a better understanding of the person who created it. Discuss and debate this with other ambivalent audience members. Ultimately, you have to trust your own instincts. 

The vital thing is not to reject every work of art created by a reprehensible artist. It is to honestly engage with the subtle and sinister manifestations of prejudice, violence and hatred in our culture, and to either affirm or reject works of art within their context.

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Eco-art, design and architecture can be agents of environmental change in the public realm – The Conversation CA

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Many of us are aware of the environmental crisis, and the need to change how we operate. On a daily basis, a variety of media offer images that depict the effects of climate change to help us understand the extent of environmental damage — for example, in the form of scientists’ endless data and metrics presented in graphs or in news photographs.

Visual imagery has been central to how people develop a sense of the meaning of the Anthropocene — the era we are living in, the first time that human activity is the dominant influence on climate.

In the past few decades, new practices of art, design and architecture in the public realm have helped raise awareness about ubiquitous waste, pollution and global warming, and their associated social injustices.

With my colleagues, I am cataloguing public art, design and architecture projects in Canada that aim to teach about the environmental crisis, to reveal what eco-lessons are conveyed to the public and what the public can learn. Our work is informed by drawing on art and design that has helped launch both expert and community dialogue about what kinds of visual imagery and artistic practices might engender positive action for our environment.

Green arithmetic

Environmental historian and professor of sociology Jason W. Moore has explored how environmental researchers and policy makers have aimed to help the public understand how global warming is affecting Earth through data and metrics about environmental change — what he calls “green arithmetic.”

Even if these quantifiable methods of representation have been a powerful model for understanding the “what” of our planetary condition, it’s unclear if people have understood the effects of the present crisis on biological and socio-economic aspects of our interconnected world — or what changes we need to change course.

Graphical charts show exponential damages, but who can understand what a kilogram of carbon dioxide is or what it does to the environment? This format of visual imagery is far too abstract and the information depicted is set at a scale that is difficult for many to imagine.

As T.J. Demos, professor of art history and visual culture, has argued, graphs developed by environmental organizations or researchers rarely motivate people to take positive environmental action.

A photograph of tall towers on oil fields.

‘Edward Burtynsky’s ‘Oil Fields #19ab,’ chromogenic color print, taken in Belridge, Calif., in 2003, seen at the Nevada Museum of Art in July 2019.
(rocor/Flickr), CC BY-NC

Sublime images of catastrophe

Some artists have created sublime imagery depicting situations of catastrophe. Photographer Edward Burtynsky and other artists have developed artistic investigations that tell stories that reflect on what environmental transformation means.

Photographer J. Henry Fair is another artist who uses magnificent pictures to document “the hidden costs of consumption.”

This type of art is often placed in museums, which in most cases, isn’t an open public space. And only a small portion of the population ever sets foot into a museum.

However, it is not only museums that exhibit such images. Media outlets reaching the general public sometimes share photos about climate change disasters that they package as “beautiful” and “stunning.”

Such images may indeed be “stunning.” The problem is, however, that such pictures, whether generated by professional artists, photojournalists or by people sharing on creative forums, are often so sublimely produced that audiences want to consume more of them. Yet, there isn’t much certainty that this will help raise awareness of real causes of environmental damage, let alone engender change. These types of artworks, which can become highly popular cultural products, may be counterproductive to the aim of enabling change.

Public eco-art installations

On the other hand, the public art installation Ice Watch by
Icelandic Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, first created in 2014, was a seminal work intended to provoke immediate responses to our ecological crisis.

In the words of the artist, this work saw: “12 large blocks of ice cast off from the Greenland ice sheet are harvested from a fjord outside Nuuk and presented in a clock formation in a prominent public place.”

In its second installation, the work was placed in front of the Place du Pantheon in Paris in 2015, when an international meeting on climate change, COP21, was taking place.

The installation was simple, yet it made climate change immediately felt for those present, as people could see and touch the massive chunks of melting ice. It also connected people all around the world through its Instagram feed.

A statement about the artwork noted that the ice sheet from which these blocks were harvested is “losing the equivalent of 1,000 such blocks of ice per second throughout the year.” There were no graphs showing data about melting glaciers. Yet witnesses had a resonating experience about climate catastrophe.

The installation helped people confront the environmental crisis in a direct and personal way, since people saw, as writer Rebecca Solnit noted, a “beautiful, disturbing, dying monument.” A feeling of dread and eco-anxiety is at the core of this experience, a concept termed “solastalgia,” in 2005 by professor of sustainability Glenn Albrecht.

Public digital art

Another example is Particle Falls, by digital media artist Andrea Polli. This work was first publicly projected in 2010 and has been shown in a variety of places, including Philadelphia in 2013.

Particle Falls projects a visualization of air pollution data of the surrounding area and projects this as a waterfall. When the waterfall is calm, the air pollution is low. When pollution is high, the waterfall resembles an agitated boiling sludge seeping down the side of the building. Anyone walking on the city streets can encounter this visualization and be directly affected since it displays real-time data that can be seen and acted on.

Particle Falls projected in Philadelphia.

Getting to systemic change

These public works are successful in their capacity to make catastrophic situations, which are invisible to most people, visible. They may even activate some small behaviour changes.

Are such creations successful in empowering systemic change? Combining real-time data with visceral experiences in public spaces is a first step. Perhaps the ability to also deeply engage civic society in these public works may enable the necessary transformational changes.

Eco-art and design projects in public spaces are about offering powerful experiences to passersby and where they become witnesses to a devastating world situation. Through these experiences, people move a step closer to situations they may otherwise not have been able to imagine. And, having imagined these situations, people may then perhaps be motivated to solve them.

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Marlene Dumas: The art exposing the evil in the ordinary – BBC News

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The painter Marlene Dumas has transformed the way we see the world, writes Deborah Nicholls-Lee, as two new exhibitions of her work open.

A child smeared in paint lingers sheepishly in the foreground of a stark white canvas. The aftermath of an unsupervised art session is a recognisable image of family life, but in The Painter (1994) by Marlene Dumas, the girl’s sinister stare and blood-coloured hands disrupt the trope, taking us somewhere darker.

The Painter (1994) by Marlene Dumas (Credit: Marlene Dumas/Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven)

The Painter (1994) by Marlene Dumas (Credit: Marlene Dumas/Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven)

Perhaps the painter in the title is in fact Dumas, engaged in what she calls “the power struggle between the artist and subjects”, and her daughter – the painting’s focus – merely an accessory to broader questions of innocence and identity. “Art is not a mirror,” Dumas has said, writing that “a good work of art is essentially elusive”. In a ground-breaking departure from the conventions of portrait painting, feelings, rather than fixed representations, dominate.

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A decade earlier, with self-portrait Evil is Banal, Dumas interrogated her own duplicity as a white girl brought up in South Africa under apartheid. In this portrait, a black-stained hand and face, within an otherwise peaceful pose, explores the symbolism of the light-dark dichotomy, and suggests a malign complicity contained in the outwardly ordinary. Later, the scarred face in The White Disease (1985) would provide an even bleaker evocation of the moral decay of the apartheid regime and its disfiguring of her homeland.

Evil is Banal (1984) by Marlene Dumas (Credit: Marlene Dumas/Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven)

Evil is Banal (1984) by Marlene Dumas (Credit: Marlene Dumas/Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven)

Leaving South Africa behind and moving to Amsterdam in 1976 afforded Dumas tremendous artistic freedom. She could wander the city in relative safety, see masterpieces close up, and there was easy access to pop culture and media − the basis, no doubt, for the collages that formed part of her early work.

Returning to portraiture, she shunned formal sittings, instead conjuring diverse, often transgressive, subjects – from sex workers to pop icons and playwrights − from the myriad newspaper cuttings, books and Polaroids that cluttered her Amsterdam studio − images that she says “are familiar to almost everyone, everywhere”. This detachment from the original subject, described by Dumas as “the transformative magic of portraiture”, created space for artistic interpretation, while drawing out the commonality of the human condition. “I deal with second-hand images and first-hand experiences,” she writes.

Night Nurse (2000) by Marlene Dumas (Credit: Marlene Dumas/Photo: courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp)

Night Nurse (2000) by Marlene Dumas (Credit: Marlene Dumas/Photo: courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp)

Texturally, Dumas has always worked unhindered by expectation – producing dynamic, confident brushstrokes in unpredictable colours, and displaying a vigorous freedom of expression that differentiates her from most of her predecessors. Being painted by Dumas is no vanity project. Her works provoke compassion and aversion in equal measure, and prioritise a thickly meshed meta-text over an immediate likeness. Babies feature in morbid blue-green oils – alien arrivals with baffling dimensions, while the ephemeral beauty of a top model dissolves and warps as water bleeds into the ink.

Dumas’s recent work includes a series of 15 paintings, exhibited at the Musée d’Orsay from 12 October 2021, to mark the bicentenary of the radical 19th-Century French poet Charles Baudelaire, who shared her fascination with the interplay of beauty and evil, eroticism and disgust. The works illustrate prose poems from Baudelaire’s posthumous The Paris Spleen (1869), and demonstrate Dumas’s extraordinary range, from her perceptive portrait of the brooding poet’s genius, to the abstract melancholy of The Old Woman’s Despair.

Charles Baudelaire (2020) by Marlene Dumas (Credit: Marlene Dumas/Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven)

Charles Baudelaire (2020) by Marlene Dumas (Credit: Marlene Dumas/Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven)

Donatien Grau, advisor for contemporary programmes at the Musée d’Orsay, worked with Dumas on the exhibition. “As opposed to other artists, there is no one way in which she paints,” he tells BBC Culture. “She’s consistently redefining, reinventing, trying things. What’s really striking with the Paris Spleen, is it’s really an encyclopaedia of her ways of painting, rooted in an engagement with Baudelaire.”

With the exhibition, Dumas – now 68 – becomes the first living artist to present her work in the museum’s celebrated Impressionists Gallery, where three of her pieces will be hung in dialogue with paintings from the museum’s collection, including Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night.

This unprecedented honour is a mark of the esteem in which Dumas is held and the pivotal role she plays in art history. “It’s really extremely rare to see paintings that have such extraordinary charisma,” says Grau. “She is a master, in the classical sense: she makes masterpieces.”

“There aren’t many artists who can match historical paintings,” Grau adds, pointing out “the density of time” abundant in Dumas’s multi-layered work. “That is an extraordinary challenge to certain preconceived ideas, according to which, it wasn’t permissible – or even possible – for women to tackle history,” he says. “Every painting she makes is a contradiction to that preconceived idea.”

The Trophy (2013) by Marlene Dumas (Credit: Marlene Dumas/Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven)

The Trophy (2013) by Marlene Dumas (Credit: Marlene Dumas/Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven)

Dumas’s overtly political or historical pieces are partly governed by a desire to make visible the under-represented. As such, her broad oeuvre includes all that touches her. Paintings relating to Palestinian-Israeli relations and gay rights show how Dumas does not shy away from battlegrounds that are not strictly her own, while The Trophy and The Widow, painted in 2013, both set in her home continent of Africa, speak universal truths about female oppression.

“Marlene has such unbelievable empathy and sensitivity,” says Grau. “And that is apparent when you meet her, and that is apparent when you look at her work.” Like Baudelaire, whose essay on photography advocates for art based on imagination rather than empty reproductions, Dumas seeks our emotional engagement, taking us somewhere beyond prosaic materiality – a rat, a stripper, a celebrity – and showing us something new.

Sad Romy (2008) by Marlene Dumas (Credit: Marlene Dumas/Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven)

Sad Romy (2008) by Marlene Dumas (Credit: Marlene Dumas/Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven)

In Sad Romy (2008), for example, the tragic life of actress Romy Schneider is evoked by the lachrymose grey paint, while Dumas’s unexpectedly benign portrayal of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden (2010) suggests an uncomfortable shared humanity. Here, as with her 1985 masterpiece Die Baba − a ghoulish-green baby with a quizzical eyebrow, unflinching stare and disturbing resemblance to Hitler – the question again imposes itself: what does cruelty look like, and is it in all of us?

In the frame

Dumas is probably the first woman artist of the post-war generation to have made portraiture and figure painting the focus of her work, says Theodora Vischer, senior curator at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, where the exhibition Close Up recently opened, showcasing nine pieces by Dumas, alongside key works by eight other pioneering women portrait artists, including Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman.

Teeth (2018) by Marlene Dumas (Credit: Marlene Dumas/Photo: Kerry McFate)

Teeth (2018) by Marlene Dumas (Credit: Marlene Dumas/Photo: Kerry McFate)

On show will be Teeth (2018), an example of the intimate and confronting close-ups favoured by the artist, and typical of her fast and free − but highly controlled – style. “It’s a pure, energetic painting composed of colour and gesture that merge somehow to form a face… that seems almost to hurl itself at the viewer,” Vischer tells BBC Culture.

The painting is based on a photograph of opera singer Maria Callas, but this is less important than what the piece says about human existence. “Her portraits no longer seek to capture a person in his or her unique, independent individuality,” explains Vischer. “They show people closely connected with the events and the world that’s around them. A face, a portrait by Dumas, contains a variety of experiences, a plurality of knowledge and truth, but all have a real, lived origin, and at the same time are of a timeless nature.”

“As an artistic personality, Marlene Dumas is certainly a role model for many artists,” Vischer says. Speaking to The Independent in 2015, US-born British artist Chantal Joffe (born in 1969), for example, described her as “the greatest living painter”. For Joffe and her contemporaries, Dumas had blown open the canon of portrait painting, paving the way for new forms of expression. “Even though I always painted figures, she gave me a freedom,” Joffe says.

And if the value of work is also what buyers will pay for it, then Dumas has also helped trailblaze for women. In 2005, The Teacher became the most expensive work created by a living female artist when it sold for £1.8m at Christie’s. Three years later Dumas broke her own record when The Visitor fetched £3.1m at Sotheby’s.

The Teacher (Sub A) (1987) by Marlene Dumas (Credit: Marlene Dumas/Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven)

The Teacher (Sub A) (1987) by Marlene Dumas (Credit: Marlene Dumas/Photo: Peter Cox, Eindhoven)

Dumas, for her part, admires among others Edvard Munch, Francis Bacon, and the US portraitist Alice Neel (1900-1984), who also features in Close Up at the Beyeler Foundation. Neel’s expressed desire “to catch life as it goes by, hot off the griddle”, and to paint “people” – body and soul – rather than models, made a mark on her, and she acknowledges in hindsight The Painter’s debt to Neels’s Andy Warhol (1970).

As the Musée d’Orsay exhibition prepares to open, Grau cannot emphasise enough Dumas’s influence on “every young painter”. “She belongs to that great generation of artists who are women and who have completely shaped the way of art history,” he says.

Sensuous but cerebral, cruel but tender – Dumas’s work has overturned the aesthetic of portraiture, stripping back the veneer to reveal something loathsome and visceral but also sublime.

“There is no beauty if it doesn’t show some of the terribleness of life,” Dumas writes. “Art is there to remind us that all laws about what is beautiful and valuable were made by humans and can be changed by them.”

Close Up is running at the Beyeler Foundation, Basel until 2 January 2022.

Marlene Dumas, The Paris Spleen and Marlene Dumas, Conversations are showing at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris until 30 January 2022.

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