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Can art help us understand environmental disaster?

April 7, 2011

From the Deepwater Horizon spill to earthquakes and emission clouds, can art shine a new light on environmental catastrophes?

Deepwater Horizon by HeHe

Compulsive viewing … Eco artists HeHe’s recreation of the Deepwater Horizon disaster

It is 6pm on a chilly March evening in Cambridge and a group of onlookers are gathered around Jesus Green Lido to watch an ambitious recreation of BP’s nadir, the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, by eco artists HeHe. The miniature oilrig is the kind of model a Lego enthusiast would be proud of. There is a tiny gas flare, rows of green lights and a tugboat bobbing beside it on the murky water. When a man wades through the water and sets off a firework, it hisses and crackles then explodes. Clouds of grey smoke fill the air, the green lights jitter before dying and a mechanical order to “Abandon ship” rings out above the “Wah!” of an emergency alarm.

As recreations go, it is no Hollywood disaster epic, yet there is a certain horror in this comic spectacle. Perhaps it is the way the water turns as black as oil as the sun sets, or the moment the rig’s lights splutter like an electronic death rattle, but it is compulsive viewing.

HeHe are not a household name, and their art is not the kind to make the headlines, but that is set to change. Until recently, art about man’s impact on the environment, spearheaded by the land art movement in the 1960s, was largely fatalistic and sought to reveal its grubby beauty. Think of Richard Billingham’s amber-lit photographs of a deprived industrial backwater near Coventry, The Black Country, or Tomoko Takahashi’s seemingly chaotic installations of modern detritus. But artists such as HeHe are becoming more pertinent as society becomes increasingly aware of its impotence in the face of environmental disaster.

Tania Kovats is another such artist whose sculptures focus on land mass and erosion. Her studies of earthquakes led her to the San Andreas fault line in California, and her creative response was to recreate shifting tectonic plates out of wax in a seductive collection of globules that rise and buckle like thick strands of licorice. She recently retraced the journey made by Darwin around South America on the Beagle, which revealed just how much the landscape has changed, not just because of erosion but through manmade industry, over the last 200 years.

Read more at:  Can art help?

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