The problem with climate change is that it’s abstract. We’ve all heard that carbon dioxide levels are rising, along with the average global temperature, but we can’t feel these changes like we can the effect of a space heater on a chilly room. Add a bitterly cold Boston winter, and the threat of global warming doesn’t seem so urgent. Magazines and newspapers try to move us with photographs of polar bears, pollution, and the carbon cycle, but this is an issue that needs more than a thousand words.
“Greed, Guilt & Grappling: Six Artists Respond to Climate Change” at the Boston Center for the Arts‘ Mills Gallery does a satisfactory job of making global warming relevant and visible, but sometimes at the expense of making visitors feel guilty about their lack of eco-awareness. The exhibit, co-organized by visual artists Mags Harries of Cambridge and Clara Wainwright of Brookline, will run through March 30 and is free to the public, although a donation of $5 is suggested.
The most interesting works allow visitors to see the impact an individual can have on environment. Instant Noodles by Michael Sheridan uses 400 empty noodle packages tossed into a corner to symbolize the mass of waste even a simple meal can accumulate over time. (He also asks visitors to factor in the use of palm oil to make the product, another serious environmental issue). On the ceiling above the main gallery is Carbon Footprints by Lajos Heder, drawings of shoe imprints created from a mix of acrylic paint and the carbon released from the 2007 California wildfires. The piece is powerful because it turns the invisible – our carbon dioxide emissions – into a black substance we can see, taste and touch.
Visitors are asked to write their own reactions to climate change on the wall where the foot path begins, part of the exhibit’s goal to encourage dialogue on the topic. While some of the messages seemed right out of the Greenpeace handbook, such as “Luxury living perpetuates global warming” and “I want my kids to build a fort in the woods one day,” others were permeated by eco-guilt. Phrases like “I hate relying on public transportation” and “I feel guilty for enjoying my cab ride,” even caught the attention of Boston Globe reporter Amy Farnsworth.
The exhibit goes quickly from depicting abstract environmental concepts to climate change activism. This was most evident in The Eco-Shaman Robes by Clara Wainwright. Visitors are meant to put on one these well-crafted and colorful garments, each portraying some kind of endangered critter, walk outside and engage strangers in conversation about climate change. While audience participation does bring an issue like global warming to life, because of the politics and the obvious bias, the robes come off as oddly cultish. (Greg Cook at the Boston Phoenix offers another perspective on this example in his review of the exhibit).
Most frustrating of all was Global Yawning for a Small Planet by Jay Critchley, a video exhibit in which two side by side projectors screened footage of people yawning. His argument is because yawning is a social act that can be shared, so should the act of fighting global warming. The problem with this logic is that yawning is instinctual while changing one’s behavior requires thought, consideration and a plan.
Overall, the exhibit is an interesting fusion of art and science, admirable for engaging the public in a dialogue about global warming. Creating work that maintains a balance between reflective and didactic without making exaggerated scientific claims is an effective way to leave visitors beaming with eco-excitement.