Art Review: Climate Changing: On Artists, Institutions, and the Social Environment
It’s fair to say that the current exhibition at the Wexner Center for the Arts is more focused on exploration than exposition; more inclined towards discovery than didactics. Given that Associate Curator Lucy Zimmerman has based the entirety of the exhibition on a series of expansive questions, this isn’t altogether surprising. Determining the purpose of museums, understanding who museums serve, and recognizing the role artists play both in our communities and our culture are at the heart of Zimmerman’s queries. They are questions that rightly demand examination.
We live in a time when cultural institutions in particular must stake out their role in both reflecting and shaping the world we live in. Recognizing this, along with an acknowledgement of the social responsibilities museums have, is the springboard from which Climate Changing leaps. The exhibition opens outside the galleries themselves with Chris Burden’s 1990 work, Wexner Castle. Originally commissioned as part of the exhibition New Works for New Spaces: Into the Nineties, Burden’s ad hoc battlements offer an examination of architecture as a form of cultural history while wryly acknowledging the museum’s traditional role as a cultural fortress; protective, imposing, unyielding, and impenetrable.
Inside, those walls break down.
Climate Changing offers an array of viewpoints touching on all manner of societal constructs, from racism to income inequality to disability justice to colonialism. It’s an exhibition that examines our shared social environments and asks us to look beyond our accepted systems. It eschews what’s prescribed for what’s possible and offers a means of imagining new ways forward. To that end, Climate Changing invites the kind of exploration, reflection and dialogue that supports creative problem solving. It’s been said that two conditions most critical to creativity are exposure to a wide range of ideas, and the time to reflect and establish connections between those ideas. From that perspective, Climate Changing is something of a master class, presenting a dizzying array of concepts along with ample space to reflect. Multi-disciplinary in its approach, Climate Changing rewards viewers who give it the time and attention it deserves.
In Baseera Khan’s striking Column series the artist calls attention to that ubiquitous emblem of Western power, the fluted Corinthian column. An architectural staple of financial institutions, government buildings, and college campuses, these columns are synonymous with power and authority. In Khan’s hands though, that power quickly evaporates. Hollowed out, constructed of lightweight foam, and wrapped in patterned prayer carpets, the authority of these columns becomes much less inherent. Like Burden’s Wexner Castle, the power is illusory, holding exactly as much sway and meaning as we are inclined to provide.
Pope.L’s A Vessel in a Vessel in a Vessel and So On presents an examination of a similarly potent cultural icon; in this case, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Attaching a bust of the late civil rights leader to the body of a curvaceous female pirate, Pope.L illustrates exactly how far we can remove persons and their ideas from their original context. While there’s something absurdist in Pope.L’s representation of Dr. King, it’s perhaps no more absurd than those who would invoke King’s words and legacy while actively subverting the ideals he stood for.
Carolyn Lazard’s Pain Scale consists of six identical smiley-faced decals evenly spaced across a gallery wall. The images are similar to those stylized renderings used by medical professionals to assess a patient’s level of pain. In presenting each face as smiling, and rendering each as a person of color, Lazard removes the patient’s agency and highlights the discrepancies in how pain is addressed and how care is administered to African Americans.
The main gallery space contains the work of Torkwase Dyson, recipient of the 2020 Wexner Center Artist Residency Award. Dyson employs sculptural and geometric abstraction imbued with a sense of cultural history to represent space, history, and our relationship to both.
In her sculpture Dark Black (Bird and Lava) each piece denotes the story of a particular slave’s journey to freedom. Originally displayed as individual sculptures spread across the space, these pieces were assembled halfway through the exhibition to create a single towering sculpture. It’s a powerful piece that highlights how discrete stories and pieces of history can come together to create something powerfully cohesive.
This willingness to challenge our social environments and question established practices is perhaps best summed up in the charcoal mural created by the artist’s collective Futurefarmers. The work suggests that we do not need museums to preserve varieties, but rather to grow them. This is one of the central tenets of Climate Changing; the idea that a museum shouldn’t simply showcase ideas, but should incubate them, nurture them, and spread them.
The pandemic has forced individuals and institutions to reevaluate what’s important; to redefine what they do, how they do it, and perhaps most importantly, ask why they do what they do. It would be a missed opportunity indeed if we, as individuals, institutions, and as a society, came out of this pandemic the same as when we entered it. Our social climates should change. We should change. Events of the last twelve months have brought that necessity into sharp focus. Climate Changing: On Artists, Institutions, and the Social Environments shows us how we might.
Climate Changing: On Artists, Institutions, and the Social Environment is on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts through August 15 (the show has been extended from its original close day of May 9). More information is available here.
All photos by Jeff Regensburger unless otherwise noted