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Exploring climate change through art

By Will Sloan

 Hicham Berrada

Documentation view of Hicham Berrada’s Celeste, 2014. Photo credit: Amandine Bajou. Courtesy of the artist and kamel mennour, Paris.

In Hicham Berrada’s 2014 video Celeste, a lush, green forest landscape is interrupted by a small puff of blue smoke. Then the smoke grows larger, and larger, and the flowering clouds of smoke begin to consume the image. Soon, the green and the blue are intermingling—it’s hard to tell when one colour ends and the other begins.

What does this video mean to you in the context of the Ryerson Image Centre’s new exhibition, The Edge of the Earth: Climate Change in Photography and Video (opening September 14)? Is it an apocalyptic vision of nature destroyed by pollution? Does it suggest that humankind is transforming the world into something different than the one we inherited? Or is it simply an ominously beautiful image?

For Montreal-based art historian Bénédicte Ramade, curator of the exhibition, the image defies easy categorization. “It makes you think, ‘What should I expect from this picture? What can I project on it? What is my fantasy about climate change? If I see a blue cloud, is it good or bad?’ This type of poetic artwork dialogues with more precise activist works, and it’s the dialogue between these diverse perspectives on climate change that make you think and feel differently.”

The Edge of the Earth looks at the subject of climate change through a range of artistic and photojournalistic works, both recent and historic. It contrasts work by more than 20 visual artists (including Edward Burtynsky, Jean-Pierre Aubé, Adrien Missika, and Paul Walde) with press prints from the Ryerson Image Centre’s Black Star Collection, and invites us to consider how artists have used climate change for both aesthetics and activism.

“It’s mixing artists with a political agenda—like Edward Burtynsky, for example—with artists who don’t have such an agenda, who make art that is very poetic or abstract,” said Ramade. “We’re trying to avoid didacticism about the subject, because a lot of people are already aware of climate change. Art is very different from news reports. What does it mean to talk about climate change when you’re an artist?”

The contrast between the artistic and journalistic images is key. “It was important to show that photojournalists have been aware of climate change issues and wanted to show the consequences even before the genral public was able to admit it,” said Ramade. “These pictures have been very familiar to us since the ’60s and ’70s, because they have built our relationship to the subject of climate change. Those photographs gathered in each section operate like a baseline and timeline. Because we first interact with climate change through the news.”

Through the images, Ramade hopes to find new ways to provoke thoughts and conversations about climate change.

“We haven’t done much in 10 years, the situation is really not good, and scientists say we’ve entered the era of Anthropocene. So maybe we have to change our climate change aesthetic. Maybe we have to do something more imaginative with climate change. For the moment, it’s still connected to news, facts, ‘reality’—but what if we had more space for fiction and fantasy? Literature does this, and cinema too.”

The Edge of the Earth: Climate Change in Photography and Video runs September 14 to December 4 at t the Ryerson Image Centre. For more information, go to www.ryerson.ca/ric/index.html.