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Copenhagen's Biggest Art Exhibit Gets It Wrong

Can a normal art exhibit possibly do justice to the massive issue of climate change? This is part two of a GOOD mini-series...




Can a normal art exhibit possibly do justice to the massive issue of climate change? \n

This is part two of a GOOD mini-series by the Canary Project's Ed Morris on the cultural happenings surrounding COP15.

I find myself waiting for the violence. I want to see something, anything that expresses real urgency and physicality. It's in the air, one of the many crosscurrents blowing across the cultural landscape. The Bella Center, where the conference is being held, seems like a distant planet toward which we orient ourselves in expectation. Winds blow from there too, carrying this or that rumor. What will happen? And what will happen when nothing happens? The actual weather is a constant gray sky. Occasionally you notice it is raining. When did it start? Will it ever resolve into a storm?

Perhaps this pent-up desire for violence stems from having spent a large part of the past three days checking in and out of a conference called Culture/Futures. The point of the conference was to develop guiding principles for "an international collaboration of organizations and individuals who are concerned with shaping and delivering a proactive cultural agenda to support the necessary transition towards an Ecological Age." A more meaningful gesture would have been to light ourselves on fire-the guiding lights, so to speak, of "the cultural sector."

Then today: a stamina-building tour through the three museums hosting ReThink: Contemporary Art & Climate Change (The National Gallery of Denmark, Den Frie Centre of Contemporary Art, Kunsthallen Nikolaj). Twenty-one pieces by 20 different artists or art teams in three different locations. (One artist, Henrik Hakansson, had two pieces in the exhibition).

Look, I gave the wrong impression in my first entry in this series. The eco-art mistakes I outlined in that post were merely putative. There are no real mistakes, just misallocations of human capital. I want to overcompensate for any impression of negativity by declaring in this post that I love everything! I do.

And I loved every piece in the ReThink show in some way. But as an enterprise, as a totality, it fails to live up to the moment. This was an exhibit explicitly designed to contribute to the discourse around the Climate Conference and to "offer its interpretation of the colossal challenge the globe is facing."

I did not find this aspiration fulfilled in the complacency of the exhibit's overall organization for any number of reasons: Its predominantly gentle tone. Its predilection for name-brand artists. Its inclusion of so many gee-whiz projects (twirling lights, hanging raindrops, and so forth.). The general lack of participatory projects (People Speak and Superflex provided two notable exceptions). The cliché of investing art with the "power" of "questioning," yet steering that questioning energy-which is not to say criticality-to such corny artspeak topics as "the implicit," "relations," and "kakotopia." A fourth part of the show not located in Copenhagen, but elsewhere in Denmark, at least urges us to ReThink something recognizable that might actually have a bearing on the climate discussion: Information. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to see that one.

The purpose of this series is to explore what cultural responses feel like a vital contribution to understanding what is happening here at Copenhagen. This enterprise by these cultural institutions isn't it (despite the many truly wrenching, evocative, beautiful, searing, elegiac, crystalline, affecting pieces in the show and the production of an excellent catalog). This post is not about those individual pieces. And perhaps this was the biggest problem of all-the sheer number of works defeating the institutions' opportunity to say something coherent and strong (heaven forbid). Or perhaps this number of works is symptomatic of a more fundamental problem: The show is called ReThink, but it seems the sponsoring institutions forgot to rethink their own function and search for humility in the face of a problem that threatens to completely belittle the human race and such achievements as art museums.

I wonder what it would have been like had the museums employed the same resources to do something more radical, such as give the entire space over to one or two artists capable of meaningful transformation, or have Erroll Morris put together a single series of messages from the art world to the people deciding our fate in the Bella Center, or simply shut off all the lights and let people cogitate that: "No more culture, only nature, from now on people."

Or maybe this just isn't the right time for the museums. The curators and framers were just doing their job. It's a big conference, they have to do a big show. But, of course, that was precisely the problem. Meanwhile, I am noticing more and more of these little stickers and messages indicating that inaction might really, truly have its consequences.

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