How should culture respond to the climate crisis? Can you provide a wake-up call that isn’t so brutally loud and depressing that we don’t break the alarm clock and go back to sleep?
Exhibit A in such debates right now is Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay’s disaster comedy film about two astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) trying to warn of an Everest-sized comet hurtling toward Earth. . The star-studded allegory of distraction and denial has been panned by critics but praised by climatologists.
Don’t Look Up zooms out on a stellar scale; FloodZone: Photographs by Anastasia Samoylova approaches the hyperlocal effects of sea level rise, tidal flooding, and coastal erosion in Florida. But the exhibit, at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, points to the same human flaw of cognitive dissonance.
Samoylova he is well positioned to explore it, having been born in the Soviet Union in the 1980s and seeing the gap between the utopian images of his government and the grind of everyday life. When he moved to Miami Beach in 2016, he again found a disconnect between idealized visions of tropical paradise and the reality of flooded construction sites, rusting infrastructure and endangered wildlife.
After surviving Hurricane Irma in a mandatory evacuation zone, Samoylova wandered through the deserted city and photographed gleaming high-rise condominiums towering over flooded streets. His show juxtaposes giant billboards that offer a rosy picture of the future with scenes of decay and decay, testament to a rapacious real estate market determined to keep partying on the eve of the apocalypse.
“He talks a lot about looking at Soviet propaganda images of the good life and how that countered his personal experience of things and that, I think, is what he first found in Miami as well,” he says. Seth Feman, Deputy Director of Art and Performance and Curator of Photography at the Chrysler Museum.
“You have the wrap-around privacy screens that they put up over construction sites and those will have images of what is to come: beautiful minimalist condominiums with happy people lounging in them. It is propaganda at its core.”
But before climate anxiety turns to despair, museum visitors will find a companion exhibit: rising waters, which includes scientific models, video simulations, photos and artwork that examine sea level rise in coastal communities in Norfolk and other parts of the Hampton Roads region, and some possible solutions.
The show, a collaboration with the Coastal Adaptation and Resilience Institute at nearby Old Dominion University, offers a series of action steps including practical advice on green electronics, light bulbs and laundry and how travelers can reduce their carbon footprint.
Says Feman, “We really wanted to put this in people’s hands to give them the feeling that they’ve seen something pretty horrible, but they can leave the museum thinking about what they can do.”
He adds: “It also goes beyond that, because I wanted people to try to come to an agreement on how to express what’s going on. As someone who lives in front of the water every day, I often feel like I don’t have the terms to describe what we’re facing because it’s a slow catastrophe.
“It’s not like a volcano erupted or an earthquake happened. It is this slow wear and rise of the water. One of the installations in the exhibition focuses specifically on language and how we can develop new terms to express the strange feelings we have when confronted with it.
“That really goes hand in hand with Anastasia’s work because she visually expresses this strange emotion of fear and anxiety, but there are also moments of real beauty. How do you keep all this together at the same time?”
The threat to Norfolk from sea level rise is comparable to that facing Miami and New Orleans. The Chrysler Museum overlooks an inlet of the Elizabeth River, a tidal estuary at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay. During storms, the museum itself can become isolated, effectively becoming an island.
“Every day I have to look at the weather and make a decision about how I’m going to get into the office, how I’m going to walk my dog,” says Feman, 42, who lives four blocks away. “There are roads that are impassable depending on what is happening.
“If there’s a flood or if there’s been heavy rain or sometimes there’s been strong winds, it can cause water to pool in certain areas. So sometimes I have to go right instead of left because I can see where I came from that the road will be impassable if I continue down that road. It’s anecdotal, it’s not scientific, but in my opinion it’s much worse than it was nine years ago when I got here.”
The museum houses a two day symposium examining themes and issues raised by the exhibits on February 12 and 13. Feman welcomes the ways that artists are trying to think and feel about the climate crisis differently.
“There is an important role for the document to play here, but I am also interested in images that can help us move our minds and our actions. Part of the motivation here is that we wanted people to take the time and look closely at a problem and it’s very difficult to show people images of disasters and motivate them.
“Sometimes fear works, but often people just turn the page or look the other way, and finding artists who can really invite people to think seriously and effectively about the world around them is immensely valuable.”
The curator points out that Samoylova’s exhibition includes two photos that are not from Florida but from the island of Tangier, a Virginia fishing town of about 400 people with a rich seafaring culture that seems Doomed to sink underwater.
“She presents two very beautiful images of Tangier and gets to the point that since we know it’s about when no yes, how could we live differently now? Are we going crazy, the sky is falling, so let’s do what we want? – Or do we meaningfully connect with people?
“Do we find another way to move forward in time in the places we have? Those images represent things but they are, in essence, about absence. They’re about loss and there’s no escaping when you look at them.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism