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At Storm King, artists contemplate the threat of climate change

Contemporary artists have filled the 500-acre sculpture park with pieces that tackle the changing natural landscape

Justin Brice Guariglia, We Are the Asteroid

The summer of 2018 has just begun, but New York City is already dangerously hot. Temperature records have been breaking since the start of the year, and the state government has started to issue the first of many heat warnings. The past three years have been the hottest ever recorded worldwide, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as global warming continues to boil our planet.

If all of this makes you want to flee our urban heat island, and to seek solace in cooler, greener pastures, you’re in luck. This summer, one of the best upstate escapes from the city, Storm King Art Center, has opened an exhibit where visitors can contemplate how climate change is reshaping the planet, while also enjoying the shady woodlands of its 500-acre campus.

On view until November, “Indicators: Artists on Climate Change” features a broad selection of works by 17 contemporary artists. The exhibit “engages with some of the many challenges—scientific, cultural, personal, psychological—that climate change has brought to humankind.” Eleven of these artists have created outdoor installations, which will be on view throughout the entire sweltering summer.

On a recent weekend, as temperatures soared above 90 degrees, the concrete parking lots at Storm King were overflowing with cars, and crowds of out-of-towners were packed onto the tram that endlessly loops around the hilly campus’s manicured fields and well-tended forests. Located just an hour drive from Central Park, the grounds of Storm King feel like the private estate of a ridiculously wealthy Hudson Valley art dealer. A small golf cart even circles its pathways, offering sips of ice water to perspiring guests.

Tracking down all of the outdoor pieces of “Indicators” involves hiking across a wide swath of Storm King, and rewards viewers with an interesting array of installations, which range from the hidden and mysterious to the not-so-subtle. “CLIMATE DENIAL IS A HOAX” blares one banner flying above a traffic loop, while a highway message sign in the middle of a hay field blinks “WE ARE THE ASTEROID.”

As the exhibit notes, climate change is an “enormously complex” topic, and 500 acres is probably not enough space to hold all the art needed to address it. However, “Indicators” does an admirable job of looking at several issues related to environmental degradation, including pieces about arctic ice melt, superstorms, endangered birds, and species migration.

Because of the limited acreage provided to this temporary exhibit, though, many of the installations in “Indicators” are simpler gestures, especially when compared to Storm King’s permanent works, like Andy Goldsworthy’s 1998 piece Storm King Wall, a barricade of 1,579 tons of fieldstone stretching 2,278 feet long. Also, perhaps due to their short-term nature, none of the projects in “Indicators” are as sweeping in scope as other climate artworks like Eve Mosher’s HighWaterLine, which has traced out potential sea level rise in communities along the Atlantic coastline, or as deeply researched as works like the 2014 Sayler/Morris installation Eclipse, which, with assistance from Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, considered the extinction of the passenger pigeon.

Still, a walk through the grounds of Storm King is an excellent opportunity to contemplate some of the ongoing creative responses to climate change, and the manifold problems caused by humanity’s interference into natural landscapes.

A visit to Storm King is always an interesting study in contrasts, with its sweeping vistas of fields and forests punctuated by enormous steel monuments, forged from iron ore stripped out of open-pit mines. The tension between these human-made objects and the somewhat natural landscape surrounding them is palpable throughout the campus, where wooded glens are interlaced by snaking stone walls, and families of geese wander over hilly earth works.

These contradictions are highlighted by the artworks included in “Indicators,” which inspire serious questions about the materials and methods that are being used to create climate-related art. While wandering across Storm King’s freshly mowed lawns, visitors may find themselves wondering: How is it possible to create an artwork about climate change, while using environmentally unfriendly materials?

Almost all of the works presented in “Indicators” include materials whose manufacturing processes have greatly contributed to environmental pollution, including plastic polymers, refined metals and solar panels. These materials range from polyvinyl chloride and polypropylene mesh, to bronze, gold, steel and aluminum. One example is the installation General Assembly, created by the artists collective Dear Climate, which presents a collection of flags asking viewers to “Consult The Landscape.” Ironically, these flags are printed on nylon, a synthetic fiber made from petrochemicals, which will never biodegrade.

Similarly, viewers contemplating Maya Lin’s installation The Secret Life of Grasses will be simultaneously considering the root structures of native prairie grasses, while also looking at the 10-foot-long PVC tubes they are enclosed in. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) has been called the “single most environmentally damaging type of plastic” by Greenpeace, and the EPA has fought a long battle against the cancers linked to its production.

The most interesting pieces in “Indicators” deal with Storm King’s manufactured materials and altered landscapes head-on. These include Jenny Kendler’s many-layered Underground Library, which buries discarded, biocharred climate books in the ground; Mary Mattingly’s Along the Lines of Displacement: A Tropical Food Forest, whose only materials consist of relocated Florida palm trees; and Gabriela Salazar’s Matters in Shelter (and Place, Puerto Rico), which reflects on the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria.

Salazar’s work, which creates a peaceful meadow sanctuary out of a diaphanous blue polypropylene mesh tarp, makes it explicitly clear that its troublesome materials are integral to the work. Inside this plastic enclosure is a collection of concrete blocks and handmade coffee bricks, and the artist’s statement points out that concrete is “increasingly necessary in Puerto Rico for its resiliency against dangerous tropical storms and hurricanes, but is itself one of the leading causes of climate change due to the significant carbon emissions generated in its production.”

“Indicators” may only take up a small portion of Storm King’s sprawling grounds, but the explicitly environmentally-conscious works that it includes are a welcome addition to the more abstract geometric and architectural works that otherwise dominate the landscape here. In this era of climate crises, more and more artists are sounding the alarm about how we have misused the earth, and in this exhibit, Storm King has taken an important step towards reconciling some of the environmental tensions present in its own makeup.

Happily, in the near future, New York City may become home to a dedicated exhibition space focused exclusively on climate change. The Climate Museum, which has already mounted a number of events around the city, is now working toward finding a permanent home with the capacity to handle up to 1 million visitors annually. As part of that process, it will be presenting a host of public programs this fall. In the interim, if Storm King is too far away, or if you are worried about the air pollution caused by driving out of the city, there are several other opportunities to view climate-related artworks within the five boroughs.

Mary Mattingly’s floating barge garden Swale is once again mooring around the city for the summer, and can currently be found at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. The SculptureCenter has a fascinating exhibit titled “74 million million million tons” with several pieces considering environmental collapse. And the Queens Museum has a retrospective of work by Mel Chin, which includes considerations of endangered species, plastic pollution, and ecological damage. All are accessible via public transportation.

The manicured grounds of Storm King’s 500-acre campus are dotted with numerous small-scale artworks created for the exhibit “Indicators: Artists on Climate Change,” alongside monumental steel installations by artists like Richard Serra and Mark di Suvero.

Upon descending from Storm King’s visitor center, viewers are confronted with one of the first works from the exhibit, Birds Watching by Jenny Kendler, which includes images of the eyes of 100 endangered birds, printed onto aluminum in the same manner as a street sign.

At the nearby traffic circle, which the Storm King tram loops around, the collective Dear Climate has installed a collection of 20 nylon flags titled General Assembly. Each flag is printed with an exhortation about the Anthropocene era.

Located on a nearby hillside is one of the only pieces in “Indicators” not made with manufactured materials. Mary Mattingly’s installation Along the Lines of Displacement: A Tropical Food Forest has planted three species of palm trees, imported from Florida’s hotter climate, into the Storm King landscape, as a sort of ecological architectural folly.

Nearby is another artwork which imposes unnatural processes onto plant species. In The Secret Life of Grasses by Maya Lin, three types of prairie grass are encased inside 10-foot-long PVC tubes, allowing humans to watch their root growth through a sheen of plastic.

Continuing in this theme of manipulated plants, Meg Webster’s installation Growing Under Solar Panels has assembled a collection of native plant species and wildflowers underneath a solar array. At the end of this temporary installation, they will be relocated around the grounds of Storm King.

Out on the far side of Storm King’s campus, Justin Brice Guariglia has installed We Are the Asteroid, which invites visitors to view a large highway message sign, located in the middle of a freshly mowed hay field.

The highway sign is solar powered, but has also been gilded with gold. It is programmed to display several messages about the Anthropocene era on an endless loop, which were written by Timothy Morton, the author of Ecology Without Nature.

Across the road from the highway sign, Allison Janae Hamilton has installed towers of tambourines, titled The peo-ple cried mer-cy in the storm. The title of this work is a reference to a hymn about the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926.

Another weather related tower, Vital Signs by Hara Woltz, includes nine aluminum cylinders that are meant to reference the melting of the Arctic ice sheets. They encircle a weather station mounted on a pole.

Gabriela Salazar’s Matters in Shelter (and Place, Puerto Rico), one of the most fully realized artworks in the exhibit, is located in a meadow encircled by carefully placed trees. The structure is built using widely available construction materials, and is meant to reference the aftermath of the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Inside the plastic enclosure, the artist has installed a collection of concrete blocks and handmade coffee blocks, contrasting the nature of these two materials. “The artist’s mother grew up on a coffee farm in Puerto Rico, and coffee had been resurgent in Puerto Rican agriculture—gains that were decimated by Hurricane Maria,” according to an exhibit text.

Nearby is one of the enormous stone walls created around Storm King by Andy Goldsworthy, which highlight the many alterations that have been made to the landscape here over centuries of human habitation. It replaces an old farm wall that once ran through the area.

Scattered throughout the woods of Storm King is an engrossing installation by David Brooks titled Permanent Field Observations. It consists of 30 bronze castings of small biodegradable objects found on the grounds, with each sculpture placed next to its original inspiration. The installation is intended as a “time capsule” of the current landscape, which visitors will stumble across for centuries to come.

Emerging from the woods at the southern end of Storm King, visitors stumble across The Field Station of the Melancholy Marine Biologist by artist Mark Dion. This wooden cabin is installed at the edge of one of Storm King’s ponds.

The field station is one of the most elaborate works included in Indicators, but its interior is off-limits to visitors, unlike a similar installation created by Michael Oatman at Mass MoCA in 2010, titled All Utopias Fell.

Inside the field station, maps, nets, and jars of fish hint at an imagined story about the cabin’s occupant. “It is a space that embodies a moment where someone studying the natural world realizes that the future’s not looking so good,” according to the artist.

One of the most densely layered works of Indicators is Jenny Kendler’s Underground Library, which can be seen inside Storm King’s gallery space. It presents a collection of forgotten and discarded climate change books from the past 50 years, which the artist has “biocharred” and turned into carbon bricks.

A collection of these burned books is displayed for visitors, while others have been buried underground, sequestering their carbon and serving as a food source for microbes. If the knowledge contained in these overlooked volumes has not proved useful to humans, at least it can benefit some other species, while enriching the environment.

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City’s abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.

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