3 weeks ago
Text by Renée Reizman
“Climate change is violence,” writes Rebecca Solnit in her essay of the same name. Receding coastlines, severe droughts, and violent hurricanes aren’t just happenstance, the environmentalist author insists. They are decisive, human acts of violence.
Solnit wrote these words in 2014, four years before the United Nations released its harrowing report on climate change that urges the world to scale back carbon emissions. We have just 12 years, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to mitigate the irreversible damage already done. Solnit’s essay argues that the question is not whether climate change will harm the earth, but how severe this harm will be: “Under the milder version, countless more people, living species, places will survive. In the best-case scenario, we damage the earth less. We are currently wrangling about how much to devastate the earth.”
A Body Measured Against the Earth, an ongoing exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, invites us to counteract this violent relationship with empathy. The show — which earns its title from a sentence in Solnit’s book, Wanderlust — was curated by Jared Quinton and offers different glimpses into how the human body can interact with the natural environment in personal, peaceful ways.
Artists investigate the possibilities through diverse interventions, from Ana Mendieta’s series Siluetas — ghostly impressions of her silhouette that merged her body with the earth — to Michelle Stuart’s laborious drawings, created by grinding and rubbing rag paper into soil. The works, most of which were made in the 1960s and 1970s, capture landscapes before they’ve been transformed by industrialization. The two galleries on the MCA’s fourth floor are full of ghosts; the artworks, incidentally, are memorials to pieces of land before they were lost to violence.
“We have to think about big systems and structures,” Quinton says, “but art that tries to do that often fails.” In other words, many exhibits tackle environmental issues as a big-picture problem, pointing to the effects of climate change instead of to humans’ individual interactions with the Earth. The former approach, Quinton feels, leaves viewers with little understanding of what violent actions even look like. A Body Measured Against the Earth instead examines the one-to-one relationship between humans and land and shows viewers nonviolent acts that could preserve the Earth rather than destroy it.
In cities like Chicago, empathy towards the environment can be especially difficult to nurture. The Chicago metropolitan area, which sprawls across 10,000 square miles, is limited in undeveloped, green space; this physical distance can cause humans to disregard any personal responsibility to preserve nature. A Body Measured Against the Earth tries to collapse this emotional distance by presenting land art and earthworks created in environments more familiar to Chicagoans.
Unlike land art exhibitions that write love letters to the dreamy frontier of the American West, the exhibition focuses its attention on less isolated and more accessible locations. Swamp (1971), set in a marsh in New Jersey, shows the artist Robert Smithson calling out directions to his partner Nancy Holt, who is disoriented and lost in the thickets, suggesting that even our own backyards can become dangerous territory. A photograph by Maria Gasper, Disappearance Suit (Marin Headlands, CA) (2017), captures the Chicago artist lying in a field of tall grass, camouflaged in a handmade suit in which she becomes one with the landscape. Vito Acconci transports us to New York City’s Central Park through his playful photographs that he took while standing in one spot. He documented scenes while holding his camera at arms-length to each side, overhead, and upside-down between his legs; the composition suggests that there are always new ways of seeing the environments we know best.
Connecting and caring about the land requires physical, embodied interaction and forgoing any sense of urgency. One photograph in the exhibition, France on the Horizon (1976), captures the country’s hazy shoreline from across the English Channel, where its creator, Hamish Fulton, stood. Fulton, who exclusively produces his artworks while walking, had taken a fifty-mile trek through the Dover Cliffs, carefully recording his route, the time of day, the season, and his surroundings. By embedding himself in the field, Fulton’s approach to art production borders upon anthropology, but rather than studying another society, he examines his own impact on the land.
Most of the artists represented in the exhibition try to leave their environment untouched, opting to document their personal experiences rather than install a permanent structure for others to find. These works that thread together environmentalism and urbanism help us turn our attention back to this city. When viewing the show, it’s hard not to wonder how our own lives leave marks on the shores of Lake Michigan. The waters are hazardous, as evidenced by a chemical spill that left Great Lakes surfers with a rash of health problems; harmful algae blooms, which release toxins that find their way into drinking water; and plastic debris that kills fish and litters beaches.
Five Quarts (2011), a video by Elizabeth M. Webb, shows the artist grappling with her individual impact on the environment. She stands inside a tank partially submerged in a riverine somewhere in Virginia. Over the course of roughly 16 minutes, five quarts of white liquid — approximately the same amount of blood flowing through the average human body — seep out of the tank and invade the waters, shockingly visible before eventually dissipating. Webb’s work seems ephemeral, but we know that the liquid is still in the water, changing its composition.
In the world of museums, the slow, subtle video can be a slog; but mapped on the timeline of the universe, her single act of pollution is a lightning-quick gesture. Those two different senses of time reflect the human reaction to climate change, where the real-time effects feel invisible, although scientists speak about the issue with urgency. A Body Measured Against the Earth engages with these coinciding timelines, making visitors slow down and try to determine what traces the artists have left upon landscapes. Their works might capture an action that has long passed, like Dennis Oppenheim’s Negative Board (Detail) (1968), which maps the location where the artist cut a deep path through snow. Or they might make us wait to see the full force of destruction take hold, like in Regina José Galindo’s video, Tierra (2013), which documents the artist standing in the nude, stoic and still for over half an hour, as a bulldozer tears out the ground around her.
The Earth is reaching an average global surface temperature that’s 0.9°F warmer than the 1986-2005 average. That difference might seem small, but it corresponds with environmental upheaval. Many cities, including Chicago, are all-too-familiar with the consequences of climate change, from more frequent heat waves to flooding and drought. Ecology is so precariously interconnected that every action we make, no matter how subtle, has the potential to haunt the planet for centuries.
The artworks at the MCA capture this symbiotic relationship between body and earth. A Body Measured Against the Earth earnestly presents moments of pure, empathetic connection between humans and landscapes. Climate change is self-inflicted violence, and we need to attend to our wounds.
A Body Measured Against the Earth runs through April 7, 2019.