Take Me to the River: How this online exhibition put climate change in the foreground
The show, curated by Lebanon's Maya El Khalil, brings catastrophes of mankind to attentionn
If the power of art used to be abstract – the power to move its viewer emotionally – it has now become concrete: to highlight criminal misdeeds, to call attention to corporations poisoning the air we breathe and to help indigenous populations find legal protection for their ways of living. The power – or at least the ambition – of art in the 21st century has moved far beyond the confines of the exhibition space.
This dynamic is perhaps most clear in artists’ responses to the environmental crisis, in which activism and collaboration with marginalised communities are becoming major modes of production.
For the past three years, the Goethe Institute and the Prince Claus Fund have collaborated to support artists creating works in response to climate change. The project, under which 35 artists were funded, has now come to an end. A selection of the supported artworks were launched in the online exhibition Take Me to the River. Put together by Lebanese curator Maya El Khalil, the show runs until Saturday, July 31, and provides insight into the scope of artists as well as the stories they have brought to light.
“A lot of these artists are giving people the ability to speak in the first person, so these are indigenous voices that you are hearing,” says El Khalil. “And a lot of the changes are happening in communities that themselves have committed no crime.”
Take Me to the River is organised into five major themes, from the idea of rights, as something to be given to rivers and animals as much as to humans, to the notion of nature biting back, in the form of floods, tornadoes and other extreme weather events.
The project Sandstorm – And Then There Was Dust, for example, investigates the increasingly frequent sandstorms blighting Turkey, Iraq and Iran, bringing together artists, activists and researchers. El Khalil chose maps and a VR rendering from the work Al Mashoof, by the Tehran Platform collective, which looked to the depletion of the marshes shared by Iraq and Iran.
Known as Hoor Al Azim, their size has shrunk by more than 85 per cent over the past 50 years. The local economy of fishing, hunting and planting has been destroyed, while the environmental costs have been equally drastic. The wetlands help maintain healthy air quality, control floods and operate as a bulwark against sandstorms.
Mohamed Mahdy’s photography series Moon Dust documents communities in Alexandria that were affected by the dust from a nearby cement factory. The Egyptian artist’s series, which was also shown during Gulf Photo Plus’s Photo Week in Dubai in 2019, traces the invasion of the dust into the living spaces and bodies of the local population, who have vastly higher rates of asthma, lung cancer, and eye, ear and throat infections.
Many of the projects are the result of long-term engagement with communities. Secret Sarayaku, by photographer Misha Vallejo, tells the story of the Kichwa people in Ecuador. Vallejo lived among the Kichwa for three years, and uses his photographs and videos to show the mindset of the indigenous group. Their ideas of the forest as a source of wealth and balance are the opposite to the mode of extraction by which corporations approach the area.
When you visit this platform, first of all, there’s nothing that stands out. It’s not about the artist, it’s not about his particular name, it’s not about a particular project
Maya El Khalil, curator
In 2012, the Kichwa successfully sued the Ecuadorian government over the contamination of their land by oil companies – a spirit of resistance that Vallejo also documents throughout his work, which forms a major part of El Khalil’s exhibition.
The format of Take Me to the River, and other recent shows on the subject of climate change, raises important questions about how best to frame research projects on ecology, animals and indigenous communities. Last year, El Khalil also put climate change at the centre of I Love You, Urgently, for Jeddah’s annual 21, 39 exhibition that she curated.
When commissioning for the show, she challenged young artists to make work on the subject of environmental crisis, which was new to many of them. The diversity of approaches was startling, and El Khalil points to her continuing conversations with the artists as one of the show’s lasting contributions. But in comparison to Take Me to the River, the two projects feel very different: one offered a biennial-like glimpse at a growing art scene, and another functions as something more akin to an archive of voices.
An online exhibition was necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic; the original invitation was to curate two separate shows in Brussels and Berlin. But El Khalil seems energised by the potential to think differently about how to show works.
“When you visit this platform, first of all, there’s nothing that stands out. It’s not about the artist, it’s not about his particular name, it’s not about a particular project,” she says. “Instead everything has been broken down and brought back together.”
The website allows the viewer to scroll through images and video excerpts, organised into chapters. The design is intuitive to the web and crosses over into stories at different points on a narrative of loss, resistance and recovery.
“If you want, you can dig deeper into each project; you can visit the individual websites,” she continues. “But here, it’s really about compounding these voices and rethinking what type of space art can occupy.
“These are artistic initiatives – but they open questions for policymakers in politics and science.”
Take Me to the River is available to view online at takemetotheriver.net until Saturday, July 31
Updated: January 28, 2021 07:47 AM