In Glasgow during COP26, naturally, the central theme of exhibitions is climate change. As with most media and artworks about the climate, diagnosis of the problem is very strong, but it tends to stop there. Of course, I don’t think an artwork should offer false hope about climate change but exhibitions that are unremittingly depressing don’t achieve much. In fact, depression maintains the status quo.
Lots of contemporary art concerned with such an overwhelming issue often becomes elegiac or impotently panic-stricken. Protest art can fall into the panic-stricken camp where a literal message is displayed but the visual noise does nothing apart from confirming the artist’s view. Peter Kennard’s CODE RED exhibition at the Street Level Photoworks was interesting because some works in the series of photographs altered the famous 1972 photo The Blue Marble. I found the series to be graphically strong at first but curiously affectless after a while. I realised Kennard’s work didn’t stick with me that long because of the ubiquity of similar images (likely influenced by Kennard’s work thus rendering it toothless due to its absorption in culture).
As images are co-opted and assimilated into the mainstream, they lose their resonance as sources of revolutionary potential as Mike Watson says in The Memeing of Mark Fisher. How do we create art that revives; that envisages new futures? He claims that a change could occur within meme-based and artistic production which encourages a slowing down of looking, reading for longer, and absorbing images over time, through the manipulation of visual objects. The gallery provides this space for slow absorption which can reverberate into other aspects of our lives. Watson overtly suggests restricting computer use to certain days of the week if possible. I think this is a helpful idea as we deal with so much online stimuli, perhaps the punk art response is to reject the further encroachment of it into our lives. Another obvious point is that the less we are online and the more we enter public and natural spaces, the more we recognise how precious these things are and fight to protect them.
Unashamed soft luddism!
I want there to be climate-based art. There should be some punch to an artwork, as we learn from the strengths of protest art, but it needs to go beyond this and enrapture the viewer for longer if it is to have an effect. Refocusing on the value of craft skills in art production may help. Artists need not depict saccharine scenes of bucolic heaven, but the challenge of cultural production in the Anthropocene involves a different way of absorbing images and making new ones.
Image courtesy of Peter Kennard.