How America got into this climate predicament, through the lens of art history

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Walking into “Nature’s Nation,” an art exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum that researched climate alter through history, I got goosebumps. The collection is composed of greater than 100 functions of art in a variety of media, including modern pieces like Hegarty’s “Fallen Bierstadt” — which I had noticed previously, but just in photos.

Looking in Hegarty’s tattered canvas, in which an image of Yosemite’s famed Bridalveil Fall was painted and then ruined, its rust clearly stood out as opposed to its neighboring namesake — Bierstadt’s 1871 painting of the identical setting. Seeing them side-by-side, the two functions spoke volumes about Americans’ evolving attitude toward character finished the previous couple of centuries.

Hegarty’s “Fallen Bierstadt,” pictured alongside Bierstadt’s “Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite.” Princeton University Art Museum

“Nature’s Nation” has been eight decades in the making, according to Karl Kusserow, curator of American art in Princeton’s museum and a single of the main creative forces behind the traveling exhibit, which is currently on display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. It contains works from 70 creditors — which, to get somebody in the tradition world, amounts to “Oh my god, that’s insane,” Kusserow said.

But by bringing these functions of art together, “Nature’s Nation” collectively informs the narrative of our coming to grips with the existential threat of climate shift, the reduction of natural sources, and the troubled national history which got us .

Mohawk artist Alan Michelson’s contribution to the exhibit — “Home in the Wilderness,” a log cabin statuette, written of rolled-up pieces of parchment that spell out the Treaty of Fort Wayne — highlights one particular component of which history: colonization. He sees the “unsettling settlement of the country” as one of the root causes of our present climate predicament. The cabin is displayed beside the painting which inspired itThomas Cole’s 1847 “Home in the Woods.”

Michelson’s “Home in the Wilderness” juxtaposed with Cole’s “Home in the Woods” at Princeton Art Museum.Michelson’s “Home in the Wilderness” juxtaposed with Cole’s “Home in the Woods.” Princeton University Art Museum

Cole’s work depicts white settlers taking up residence in an expansive, inviting wilderness. Cole was a renowned landscape painter and conservationist. Like other famed landscapers of the time, his paintings tended to reveal the property as idyllic and untouched. Native individuals, if recognized in any way, were depicted simply as a part of the scenery. Paired with Michelson’s cabin, Cole’s work takes on a new meaning. The roots of climate change include “attitudes not only towards nature, but towards people who were not considered fully human, who were massively dispossessed and displaced,” Michelson said.

In Michelson’s view, the 2016 Standing Rock protests represented a kind of turning point for the environmental movement, which, much like the tradition world, has mostly been associated with well-to-do white men and women. Standing Rock “brought the environmental thread and the ongoing colonial thread together in a graphic way for people,” he said.

One piece comprised in the exhibit had a powerful connection to Standing Rock. Two “mirror shields” by artist Cannupa Hanska Luger were on display at “Nature’s Nation. ” Fashioned outside of plyboard and coated in reflective mylar, the shields actually served as protective equipment for the water guards at Standing Rock. When protesters held up the shiny planks, the police could see themselves in the reflection.

The Mirror Shield Project at Oceti Sakowin camp near Standing Rock, North Dakota.The Mirror Shield Project in Oceti Sakowin camp close Standing Rock, North Dakota. Concept by Cannupa Hanska Luger. Drone operation / functionality organization by Rory Wakemup

Born and raised on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, Luger is of Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, Austrian, and Norwegian descent. “My relationship to the land has less to do with an artistic process and more to do with my upbringing, my heritage,” he said. He expects the exhibit will ignite further conversations around land issues, justice, and history.

“The degree of indigenous voice in [‘Nature’s Nation’] is enormous,” Luger said. He was pleased to be included. Still, he’s worries about the occurrence of casting Native Americans as mystical land guards — and assigning them the burden of repairing damage to the property.

Michelson shares these issues. “I’m also leery of Native people, indigenous people now being ‘noble savaged’ into icons of environmentalism,” he forfeited. Think of the “Crying Indian” PSA from 1971. Giving distance to marginalized voices can help break down these caricatures of identity, while also shining light on other important issues. “What I think indigenous contemporary art does actually pretty well is to offer examples of critiques that are connecting all these things that need to be connected and looked at holistically,” Michelson said.

The exhibit was on display at Princeton out of October to January. During its display at the Ivy League university, many visitors already looked to be on board with climate action, said Kusserow, the curator.

“In a way, we’re kind of preaching to the choir around here at Princeton,” Kusserow said. “I think most people came to the show with some knowledge of what we were trying to do, what climate change is, what the Anthropocene is.”

But that audience will soon change. In May, after leaving Salem, Massachusetts, in which it is presently on display, the exhibit will lead to its final destination: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Unlike the 2 Northeastern locations, Bentonville is in a fairly red continent. The museum, based on Walmart heiress Alice Walton, brings a huge number of visitors — above 600,000 annually. More viewers are expected to view the exhibit there than anyplace else.

“Art carries ideology,” Michelson said. “And so it can shape public opinion.” He says that he believes that environmental art may be the right medium to convince those less familiar with the science of global warming. It strikes a balance — powerful enough to inspire change, and subtle enough to not dissuade nonbelievers.

“It’s not like somebody standing on a soapbox and arraigning you, or trying to stuff a handout in your hand,” Michelson said. “It just sits there. And you can look at it or not look at it, you can be bored by it and pass it by, or you can just sit there and take it in.”

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