A Story of Climate Change: Artist Statement
The air was clean and the earth was as it had been for tens of thousands of years when I was born. I was 11 years old when I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle titled "The Greenhouse Effect". It described how environmental changes would play out over my lifetime. I believed it. In fact, it made such an impact that I decided then not to have children. As it turns out, that article predicted accurately what is happening now.
I think about how exceptional and unlikely it is that you and I happen to be alive at this time. We are contributors and witnesses to the catastrophic environmental change taking place. The world is becoming more dangerous for most living things as we experience increasingly devastating floods, fires, droughts and unexpected events exacerbating hardship for humans, animals and plants to the extent that we are now experiencing the sixth mass extinction.
This photographic series is a personal expression of my understanding of the history and current state of climate change. I show the progression of human impact on the earth, both literally and conceptually, starting with when people began using tools and ending with one possible future outcome.
The work is inspired by the Dutch version of the Renaissance still-life paintings known as Vanitas. A Vanitas painting conveys the essential meaninglessness of earthly goods and pursuits when compared with Christian values. For me, a more modern interpretation is that we need to remember the meaninglessness of wealth and possessions when compared with what really matters, which has become especially clear for many of us as we’ve reckoned with the Covid 19 pandemic. From a moralistic point of view, we could conclude that focusing on things leads to greed and ignoring that what really matters is our connection to each other and the natural world. Modern humans have treated the earth with reckless disregard and we are now facing the consequences.
The Renaissance was a time of cultural and intellectual growth in the realms of art, mathematics, science, music, education and medicine. It was an exciting and heady time. The Renaissance Vanitas still lifes were in part a response to that enthusiasm, which included objects that symbolized the transient nature of life or a judgement about the emphasis on earthly goods and pleasures. The paintings were a reminder, a teaching, or a preaching that meaning is not brought to life with simple pleasures and material wealth. It seems that we have warned each other since the beginning of intellectual reasoning to be careful about human greed and desire yet as a world society, we still haven’t gotten the message.
I have photographic experience with the Vanitas genre and I think it lends itself well to telling the climate-change story. The object symbolism used in the paintings is still provocative and relevant. I have used many of the objects traditionally used in the Dutch Renaissance paintings and stayed mostly true to their symbolism. I’ve also added objects that weren’t around in the 17th century but that are symbols of our current times.
The foreground of each of my five images holds the symbolic objects while there is a more literal framed image in the background that suggests how humans have related to the natural environment and how the earth has responded over the time that humans used and often abused it.
In the first image, we see a painting on the wall depicting indigenous people living in harmony with the land. In the foreground there are fresh flowers and an hourglass just starting to release the sand, symbolizing a beginning for this story.
Each of the three subsequent images includes a background framed image depicting our relationship to nature at a general point in human evolutionary history and objects for that time are added to the still life in the foreground. The first image is overall colorful and harmonious and they get darker and muddier as the earth becomes more distressed.
The final image suggests one possible outcome that nature takes back the world on earth, which becomes uninhabitable for people. People may still exist in some form somewhere, but this as of now, is part of our unknown future …