Conveying climate change through art

Artists around the world are engaging people in important discussions about climate change through their art.

by Aisiri Amin

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Arctic Melting, July 2016, 2 © Diane Burko

Contemporary artists are blurring the lines between art and activism by illustrating the perils of climate change on the canvas. Using art as a way of expression, they are exploring unconventional ways to voice their concerns.

American painter and photographer, Diane Burko, has gone to painstaking lengths to document the rapid melting of glaciers around the world, one of the many consequences of climate change. Through her paintings, she conveys the urgency of those changes.

“I care about the environment and I needed to do more than just paint beautiful landscapes,” says Burko. “Initially, I would contrast my photograph with a painting from the 1930s to highlight the profound effect of climate change. Over the years, I wanted to explore more so now a lot of my work uses map-like symbols.”

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Columbia Glacier Lines of Recession 1980-2005. © Diane Burko

From explorations in the Antarctic Peninsula and the Patagonian ice field of Argentina to expeditions in the Polar Regions, Southern Patagonian ice field, and Antarctica, Burko has extensively travelled to capture the profound effects of climate change on glaciers.

Fortunately, Burko is not the only one. There is a wave of artists addressing the issue of climate change in their art. One such organisation is Climarte, an alliance of arts organisations, practitioners, patrons, academic administrators, and academics who have come together to take immediate and effective action to create a sustainable environment.

Co-founded by Guy Abrahams, Fiona Armstrong and Deborah Hart, Climarte has undertaken a number of projects including the ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE festival which was inaugurated in 2015.

The festival attracted over 75,000 visitors and hundreds of artists, public museums, private galleries, corporate and government partners, universities and volunteers participated in it.

This year, the ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE festival will be held from 19 April to 14 May 2017.

The collaboration between art and science is not a recent trend. “Throughout history, the art has played a major role in recording and reflecting the state of human society and its relationship with the natural world,” explains Climarte co-founder Guy Abrahams.

“Many times, it was only through art we learnt about our past. But now we needed the art to be a catalyst for change, a call to action, a pricking of humanity’s collective conscience.”

Diana Burko strongly believes that working with the scientists is important to convince people to take you seriously. “When I speak about the aesthetics and the fact that I have learned about from the scientists, people use me as a resource because I’m dealing with an important issue and communicating with through my language of being an artist,” she explains.

“Art is compelling and there is an emotional response that people have especially with large paintings and people get seduced. Hopefully it makes them think.”

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Diane Burko’s Politics of Snow exhibited at Locks Gallery. © Locks Gallery/Diane Burko

Artist David Fitzjohn who is a lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University also believes that it is important how artists convey their messages.“Art helps in changing people’s attitude towards it,” he says.

“It’s not propaganda, it doesn’t work in those terms. It depends on how we use the imagery and it’s very subjective.” In his paintings he depicts his ideas regarding climate change and economic imperialism.

Many artists feel that exhibitions are a way of provoking explorations of the creative power. Burko explains that “bringing people together from diverse backgrounds whether in galleries and museums, outdoor events, or at the festival’s public programs, gives everyone an opportunity to engage in these important conversations.”

For this juxtaposition of art and climate change to bring a change, it is important for people to come out of their comfort zones and understand the need to take relevant immediate actions.

As Fitzjohn puts it, people are concerned in “a very safe way”. He says, “I think people don’t take it seriously. Some say they are concerned but they are concerned like something we should be concerned about. People have to change the way they live and no one is willing to do that. Everybody is responsible. Not just the government.”

But the good news is that an increasing number of artists are joining the climate change campaign and they have taken up the responsibility of bringing about change.“I am no longer just a landscape painter,” concludes Burko. “Now I’m a landscape activist.”

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