Plunging Towards Shishmaref

The following article was originally published by The Democracy Chain in October 2021.

We stand on the cusp of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) as this is being written. Senator Joe Manchin fights to retain fossil fuel subsidies in President Biden’s budget plan; pipeline disputes continue in the Midwest; and pledges to cut carbon emissions fall well short of what scientists say is needed to avoid global catastrophe. In the midst of that political push and pull between what is necessary to maintain a disposable fossil fuel economy and the effort required to pivot towards a viable future, extreme weather incidents proliferate in the news — wildfires, flash floods, heat waves, atmospheric rivers, to say nothing of the inevitable displacement populations face as their homes become ever less hospitable. 

In that context, multiple contemporary art institutions internationally are addressing climate change and social justice through exhibitions, symposia and more. Some examples include: Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s (HKW’s) roving years-long conference program, the Anthropocene Curriculum which just met in Venice; “Seeing Into the Heart of Things: Earth and Equality Within Indigenous and Ancestral Knowledge,” a live-streaming conference in Basel Switzerland produced by the Institut Kunst Gender Natur HGK FHNW (November 3-5, 2021); Flights of Materiality: Sculptural metaphors of the Anthropocene at the Indian International Centre, in New Delhi; “We are History: Race, Colonialism, and Climate Change“ as part of I-54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Somerset House, UK; the online symposium “Biotic Resistance: Eco-Caribbean Visions in Art and Exhibition Practice” (November 4-29, 2021);  the Nevada Museum of Art’s streaming conference “Land Art: Past, Present, Futures” (September-November 2021). 

Chicago alone is bursting at the seams with such projects. There is “The Human Environment“ at the Art Institute of Chicago; “Earthly Observatory“ at the SIAC Galleries; “Overflow“at two venues, CoProsperity and Watershed Art and Ecology; and “Toward Common Cause‚” a multi-venue series of exhibitions examining the theme of resources in tandem with the 40th Anniversary of the MacArthur Fellows Program [See Margaret Hawkins’ recent TDC article—Ed].

Shows like these are proliferating around the country. At Project Row Houses in Houston there is “Round 52: Gulf Coast Anthropocene.” At Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts is “Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology.” Both focus explicitly on the toll environmental devastation (and industrial extraction) takes on indigenous populations and people of color. Artists, academics and activists are convening to sound the alarm around humanity’s heedless plunge towards catastrophe. In the real world the most vulnerable towns and cities are already being pushed towards oblivion, such as the Alaskan town of Shishmaref. No doubt responding to the pressure of our era, these exhibitions and their participating artists take up the challenge of our moment, calling for change as earth’s ecosystem becomes increasingly and irrevocably more unstable and toxic for future generations.

One of these projects, “Exposure: Native and Political Ecology,” includes the work of thirty-six indigenous artists from around the world, focusing expressly on nuclear pollution and the toll it has taken on national and international Indigenous communities. As co-curator Manuela Well-Off Man writes in the show’s accompanying catalogue (Radius Books, 2021), “The artworks in this exhibition also reveal a deep expression of the artists’ Indigenous identity in connection with the suffering, pollution, and destruction caused by uranium mining and nuclear exposure.” “Exposure” is further contextualized as a project developed during the seventy-fifth anniversary of the first detonation of the atomic bomb, opening intentionally on the ten-year anniversary of the Fukushima disaster. Featuring media ranging from installation and painting to photography and film, many works serve as meditative memorials to indigenous food sources that sustained respective communities’ health, independence, and culture until compromised by atomic pollution. “These works are a reminder of the fatal consequences of being exposed to decades of nuclear colonialism,” writes Well-Off Man.

The work that opens the show is a visceral figurative painting by Bolatta Silis-Høegh (Inuit) in which a nude, almost monochromatic woman grasps her stomach within a landscape of darkness. Instead of a human head, she wears the head of a skinned sheep, its gaze blank and dead-looking. The most concentrated area of pigment is blood red, a color echoed only in the pale skin of her stomach. Silis-Høegh comes from the “pantry” of Greenland, the southern part of the country where sheep farming is possible and uranium resources are rich. Whereas the country had previously maintained a zero-tolerance policy for uranium mining, it overturned that decision in 2015, inspiring this self-portrait in which Silis-Høegh anticipates toxicity, deformation, infertility, and the devastation of one of the country’s primary sources of food. The dripping, energetic brush strokes allude to the direct transfer of toxicity between land, livestock, humans, and — in the painting — sky, through this chimeric specter.

Australian artist Yhonnie Scarce (Kokatha/Nukunu) visualizes a similarly enmeshed toxicity in “Nucleus (U235)” (2021), an installation of portable medical cabinetry and four blown glass bush plums, or “yams.” The translucent blue-green orbs collapse in places, like deformed anthropomorphic fruit that once again call attention to the transmission of poison that is unearthed from the ground, leeching into to the air and water, where it is absorbed by animals and plants, arriving finally in the human body. Reminding us once more of the colonial context for this experimentation, Scarce’s choice of glass references the extreme heat of the British atomic blasts in Maralinga that blew over to her grandfather’s tribe on Kokatha land. Those blasts transformed surrounding sand into glass, and have since continued to devastate the local population, generations after the British left. Scarce describes the uncanny stillness of the bomb site in the catalogue. “I’ve previously visited sites of genocide, internationally as well as here in Australia, and usually you get a sense of the energy that has been left behind … Whereas at Maralinga, there is nothing there. It’s weird and you feel nothing.”

Pacific Island artist Alexander Lee’s (Hakka/Tahiti) installation, “Te atua vahine mana ra o Pere (The Great Goddess Pere)” (2016–2017), is a richly patterned red curtain hanging amongst a tableau of porcelain objects displayed in charred wooden vitrines. The curtain pattern references, once more, the local and traditional food of breadfruit, creating a juxtaposition between what is necessary to sustain and nourish the human body with the imposition of atomic toxicity that breaks an otherwise functioning life cycle. The deep red color references the volcanic power of Pere (Pele in Hawai’i) — a central figure in Hawai’i’s creation story — to the powerful and destructive nuclear tests conducted by the U.S. and France. Whereas a Tahitian legend describes a father transforming his body into breadfruit to feed his children, Lee’s association points to the impossible danger of such a gesture, articulating the heartbreaking tragedy of older generations no longer able to provide for the future. Instead, capitalizing forces leverage and extract from the landscape, poisoning local space, and rendering its inhabitants dependent on colonial infrastructure.

In “Containment,” a 2017 documentary about attempts to store nuclear waste long-term, directors Peter Galison and Robb Moss point out humanity’s inability to conceive, much less handle, unstable pollutants with half-lives like 703.8 million years. Bureaucracies are equally ill-equipped. As recently as August 2021, officials voted to “cap and cover” waste in Los Alamos rather than shoulder the astronomical costs of removing the waste and disposing of it elsewhere (wherever that might be). Never mind that the “cap” is expected to last 1,000 years over waste we anticipate being radioactive for 42,000 years. Or the adjacent aquifer, which officials anticipate becoming especially vital given the pressure of climate change.

It’s hard to imagine how artists or writers might enact real change within billion-year timelines catalyzed by the corporate interests whose sights are trained on the next quarter. But perhaps in the case of “Exposure,” the exhibition’s emphasis lies in producing objects to embody memory, imbuing them with a physical expression of how things have been and should be otherwise. Toxicity is not “normal.” Humanity did not always live at odds with the environment. “Containment” documents a curious exercise in which people attempt to conceive ways to mark the burial sites of nuclear waste for future generations. Their proposals attempt to create a universal warning that would deter (rather than dare) a future being — human or otherwise, with or without linguistic capabilities — from walking over nuclear waste burial sites. The project is fraught and the resulting proposals clumsy at best.

Artworks in “Exposure” suggest an alternative method, one that relies on human continuity and survival, such that the impact and significance of atomic pollution can be embodied in discrete works of art and conveyed between generations. As with David Neel’s (Kwakwaka’wakw) traditional Northwest Coast-style cedar mask, “Picturing Nuclear Disaster” (1993) with three nuclear power plants (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima) carved onto the figure’s forehead, works in “Exposure” aim to create a narrative legacy around atomic transmission, communicating the clear-eyed knowingness of our predicament such that we might acknowledge our accountability.