As waters rise, artists answer a call to action

Ben Luke, The Art Newspaper, December 8, 2017

Florida is on the frontline of global warming—a crisis that demands creative thinking


The artist’s unique power to address the major issues of our time was behind the Brooklyn-based Justin Brice Guariglia’s decision to move from photojournalism to making art. His exhibition Earth Works: Mapping the Anthropocene (until 7 January 2018), at the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach, features 22 works, many informed by a series of trips to Greenland with Nasa scientists working on Operation IceBridge—a mission to study the impact of melting glaciers on sea levels.

His concern for the environment was born out of the “very visceral” experience of pollution in China amid the “great Asian acceleration”, as Guariglia calls it. After this, it was a natural progression to move beyond his documentary work. Photography, he says, “has been eviscerated by social media and it has lost a lot of the power and oomph it used to have”. He criticises photographic artists who respond to climate change with spectacular images of the environment. The issue “cannot be addressed by heroic, pretty pictures of icebergs”, he says. “It’s the absolute wrong conversation in this day and age.”

So what is the right conversation? “Responding to climate change is the moral imperative of our time, and as artists we have the ability to shape public opinion,” Guariglia says. “The only way to do that is to come at [the audience] in a very subversive, visceral way, in an impactful, emotive way, that gets them to really feel something. You’ve got to reinstil that feeling that gets them to either feel complicit or annoyed, something that can take root.”

This is why Guariglia’s images of glaciers are mounted on that most polluting of synthetic materials—polystyrene. “It breeds this sense of complicity when you realise what it is you’re looking at: that this thing on the wall has already outlived the glacier that is on the surface of this material. The biggest work in the Norton show [Jakobshavn I, 2015-16]—that piece of ice is in Miami. It’s water molecules—it’s all gone—it melted two years ago, a couple of months after I photographed it.”

Guariglia will participate in a climate change symposium at the Norton in January, along with the academic Timothy Morton, who has written extensively on ecological theory; Josh Willis, a Nasa scientist; and Tiffany Troxler, the director of the Sea Level Solutions Center at Florida International University.