Climate-Related Exhibitions Tell Us: Mobilize

By Jean Schiffman

Photo exhibitions walk the fine line between beauty and devastation.

In the immersive, climate-change-themed photography exhibit “Coal + Ice,” the fine line between beauty and devastation can be disturbing; the curators chose the works with an urgent mission in mind that includes, but also transcends, aesthetics. The exhibit, on display during the international Global Climate Action Summit, along with a smaller, two-part, similarly themed photography exhibit, “10,000 Fahrenheit” and “Wildfires,” at San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries, is part of a larger arts component of the Summit, which includes MTT conducting Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” at the SF Symphony and many more offerings (see sidebar on Page 5 for current list of events).

“Coal + Ice,” comprising the work of more than 40 photographers and videographers from around the world, originated as a project in China. Renowned New York-based documentary photographer Susan Meiselas (whose “Susan Meiselas: Meditations” is at SFMOMA through October 21) was invited, by Orville Schell (director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations), to take a photographer’s-eye look at coal production there. Over several visits together, Meiselas examined the work of Chinese photographers who’d documented the conditions of coal mines and miners over time. As a connection emerged between the human and environmental consequences of coal mining and the impact of melting icecaps, it formed the visual arc of the exhibit.

Meiselas and her co-curator, Jeroen de Vries, a prominent exhibition designer and curator based in Amsterdam and Belgrade, mounted an exhibit in Beijing that has ultimately led to the much larger and more inclusive San Francisco premiere of what is poised to be a potent examination of the global effects of climate change (“We can’t just blame China!” says de Vries, only partly joking). Those effects are depicted not just through photos but largely through enormous video installations enclosed within a series of cubicles in the cavernous, bayside space of Fort Mason’s Festival Pavilion. On the four surrounding screens in each cubicle images rotate, are animated, are juxtaposed in short sequences with accompanying soundscapes, so that, says de Vries, “a story unfolds, different for each individual visitor.” But the images are not illustrations of a story—they are the story, told in four sections, he notes. Accordingly, there is little wall text. Says Meiselas, “Coal + Ice” is unique in the sense that it’s “not a fixed exhibition of prints on the wall, there’s no fixed frame, everything will be shifting as you move through it.” The timeframe is wide: “The show actually starts with photography from the beginning of the 20th century,” says de Vries, “people carrying big cameras and glass plates,” and at the other extreme are images of hurricanes and their aftermath shot on smart phones.

First come the human faces, past and present, of coal miners and their families, not just in China but also in Germany, Wales and West Virginia. Meiselas says that one image that haunts her is that of a naked man dragging a heap of coal behind him through a very narrow tunnel. “Coal,” observes de Vries, “has emitted the lion’s share of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, triggering what we now know as climate change.” Included are fragments of films, for example Joris Ivens’ 1933 film of a mining strike in Belgium.

“You start with miners, their working conditions, then you go on to landscapes,” continues de Vries. Accordingly, the second section showcases, for example, mountaineer David Breashears’ compare-and-contrast series: panoramic visions of vanishing glaciers of the Himalayas alongside historical photographs of the same site, pristine, revealing the shift in the glacier within a century. You also see landscapes transformed by coal-mining, by floods in six different parts of the world (notably Gideon Mendel’s Bangladesh images), by hurricanes, by drought (mostly Africa but also Matt Black’s images of California).

The third section shows how human beings, resilient as we are, live with those changes in the landscape, coping with floods, enduring forced migration.

A fourth section proposes global solutions, a display created by postgrads in a pioneering telecommunications program.

In the center of the space is a stage for conversations and events with a wide spectrum of participants—including, perhaps incongruously, a comedy hour.

It was purposeful to guide viewers first through the images of miners, says de Vries. More than in a normal exhibition about climate change, humans, symbolized by two groups—the miners in the first section and people living within the midst of climate change in the third—are the most important part of the show.

Magnum Foundation’s “#Reframe Climate, accompanying off-site “pastings” located in various neighborhoods, is a photographic display of global scenes, each one with an interactive prompt that enables viewers to listen on their phones to the photographer describing the story behind the work.

“We’re obviously choosing work with as strong an aesthetic as we can, in a documentary tradition, with a range of approaches,” muses Meiselas, “classical portraiture, reportage—not conceptual by any means, very much anchored in the real. Of course, it’s stunning to see the Himalayas, shocking to see the diminishing of them, but it’s a subtle shock.” Says de Vries, “Landscape photography is often very aesthetic. Beautiful pictures of awful situations: how do you escape that? It’s for you, when you’re in the show, to manage.” He and Meiselas agree: a strong feature of “Coal + Ice” is its emphasis on the strength and resourcefulness of human beings, and the goal is not to scare or shock but rather, as Meiselas says, to mobilize: “to focus people’s feelings on what they’ve seen or read about or heard about. We still can and we still will do something.”

The San Francisco Arts Commission’s (SFAC)exhibit, with its twin themes of heat and light, remind us of how global warming affects us locally, says curator Meg Shiffler.

Photographer Young Suh’s timely “Wildfires,” like “Coal + Ice,” presents ravishing images of devastation, in this case burning landscapes. He shot the photos over eight years in Northern California, not as documentary work, but, says Shiffler, “as fine art photography, and poetic in its own way.”

The title “10,000 Fahrenheit,” a group series, references the estimated temperature of the surface of the sun. Among the photos and video installations is Linda Connor’s sun-exposed contact prints using glass negatives of solar eclipses recorded between 1889 and 1918 (they have been housed at Lick Observatory)—“Collapsing time!” exclaims Shiffler.

She adds, “Artists love to play on beauty in order to get people into difficult subject matter—to utilize people’s visual interest in smoke, in sunsets”—images that, gorgeous as they are, can also connote the eerie and unsettling.

Sept. 4 → 23

Coal + Ice

Fort Mason Center, San Francisco

Sept. 14 → Nov. 17

“10,000 Fahrenheit” and “Wildfires”

Veterans Building, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco