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DePaul Art Museum Explores The "Climate Of Uncertainty" In New Show

By Caroline O'Donovan in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 12, 2013 4:00PM

Terry Evans, Icefjord that leads to the mouth of the Jakobshavn Glacier, June 27, 2008, morning, (Greenland Glacier: The Scale of Climate Change), inkjet print, courtesy of the artist and the Spencer Museum of Art Lawrence, Kansas, image courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago
The Fullerton Ave. CTA stop whizzes by the windows of the DePaul Art Museum, a fitting and timely sonic interruption for the museum’s new exhibit, Climate of Uncertainty, which opened this week. The show is an unusually technical exhibit for the space. As museum director Louise Lincoln writes, the exhibit is “scientifically complex, politically freighted, and linked to a host of intractable economic and social factors.” Throughout the exhibit, no breath has been spared in making sure the viewer knows that, in order for this exhibit to be made available, artists had to learn about science, and that’s not easy.

Except for some of them. Maskull Lasserre, of Montreal, is the man behind the charcoal gaggle of crows. Except, what I learned from Lasserre is that you don’t call a group of crows a gaggle - you call them a murder. Which, to his credit, makes the title of his piece, Murder, somewhat less pedestrian than I had originally imagined. “I thought it was something everyone knew,” said Lasserre, “like, for example, have you heard of a parliament of owls?”

Lasserre’s piece is the result of having carved more than a dozen crows out of wood, gone out into the Canadian forest, and set them on fire. I asked him if there wasn’t something a little pagan in that, to which he said, “I only make art I don’t understand... As soon as it’s done, it’s not mine anymore.”

In other words, Lasserre is more engaged in the process than in its result. But I couldn’t help wondering if each of the presented artists, after such deep engagement in works meant to commence a dialogue on “a planet upon which the diversity of the flora and fauna is diminishing and its distribution reflects confusingly both natural and cultural forces,” there wasn’t some resonant guilt or anxiety about the environment and one’s personal responsibility to it.

“I use tons of electricity when I’m welding,” Lasserre said, “I don’t pretend to be a paragon.”

Sonja Hinrichsen is a video artist uniquely familiar with this sort of detachment. Her Three Gorges, 3rd Edition, was one of the most effective of the exhibit. Her four-part video projection of a trip up and down China’s Yangtze River spans an entire gallery on its own. When the viewer enters the gallery, their shadow is immediately cast into the projection, calling into question the passivity of the passerby in the narrative of a dying planet.

This is only the second mounting of Hinrichsen’s project, but she calls it a “3rd Edition,” because humans have already created a second edition by allowing for gross pollution and rising water levels to permanently alter the original landscape. Typically, Hinrichsen’s pieces include text, but this one does not, because, as Hinrichsen explained, the Chinese government would not allow her original project in China to include it. She was also unable to speak to any Chinese scientists about the damage being done to the river while she was there; “they were all too afraid,” she said.

“In China, it’s all about money,” Hinrichsen told me, “It’s all about becoming like America.” Of the various crews that shipped Hinrichsen and her cameras up and down the Yangtze, none understood the nature of her project; environmentalism is not a concern of theirs, or even a consideration. Ultimately, she decided to remount the project without the addition of text, but Hinrichsen says she remains shocked, not by the extent of the damage done to the landscape she was recording, but by the extent of the oppression. “This has never happened before,” she said, “I have never been asked not to express myself.”

Before I left, I had a brief chance to chat with Terry Evans, the artist whose work - vivid, exacting photographs of Greenland’s icebergs - could be said to be most expected of an art show on climate change. Evans took those photographs out of the window of a small airplane, an experience which she confirmed to be a very cold one. Aerial photography, she told me, is easy; you set your shutter speed on high, and you’re good to go.

Evans became an aerial photographer after an interest in the prairies of her native Chicago made her question what that landscape, so diverse up close, would look like from far above. For Evans, the project had a lot to do with medieval theology; she called the project “As above, so below,” which reflects a sort of occult idea that regardless of what can actually be seen, what is happening on a distant plane is, nonetheless, still happening.

As with all the other artists I spoke to, I asked Evans about the implications of her artistic work on her day-to-day life; for example, does it make it hard to drive a fossil fuel consuming car after you have been an arm's length from a melting glacial pool? She said it does. Then I asked her if, since environmentalism and the idea of wholeness had been at the core of her work since its inception, the experience had changed over time?

“It’s harder,” she said, “The grieving gets worse.”

Climate of Uncertainty runs through March 24.