For decades, artists have used their talents to direct attention to the social and political issues of the moment. The 1970s saw South African artists creating confrontational murals and posters to protest against apartheid, and a decade later Keith Haring was using his bold, cartoonish art to raise awareness for the AIDS crisis.
Today, creative minds around the world are rallying around the issue of climate change, producing pieces that remind people of the dire environmental consequences if we don’t take action now.
Here are six recent pieces of climate “artivism” that will make you stop, stare, think, and hopefully act.
1. Melting Panthers
American artist Bob Partington created a wax sculpture of a Florida panther and her cub to display at a nonprofit zoo in Tampa, Florida this September.
When it debuted, the sculpture looked like nothing special. But as the wax began to melt under the heat of the sun, the bodies of the endangered species started to disintegrate. Within a couple days, the mother panther’s melting body revealed a simple message: “More heat, less wildlife.”
Together with the message, the sight of the melting panther is jarring. Partington’s work, created in partnership with the climate education nonprofit CLEO Institute, aimed to raise awareness about the impact of climate change on Florida’s wildlife. One of the regions most vulnerable to the climate crisis, Florida has suffered from record hurricane seasons, coastal flooding, rising temperatures, and biodiversity loss in recent years.
2. Lines (57° 59’N, 7° 16’W)
Located off the west coast of Scotland are the Outer Hebrides, an island chain where Finnish artists Pekka Niittyvirta and Timo Aho decided to install their piece, Lines. The installation is composed of lines of light wrapped around buildings or hovering on a grass field. At high tide, the lights turn on, illuminating the serene landscape, and marking the height of future sea-level rise on the low-lying archipelago.
The simple yet striking installation reminds viewers of the catastrophic impact of rising sea levels, an issue particularly relevant to the Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre, where the installation is situated. Due to predicted storm surge sea levels, the centre can no longer develop on its existing site.
3. Birds Watching
Created by environmental activist and artist Jenny Kendler, Birds Watching is a 40-foot-long sculpture featuring the eyes of 100 bird species that are threatened or endangered by climate change. The birds’ stares ask us to consider our responsibility in the devastating impacts of climate change on other organisms and their habitats.
Kendler’s work was inspired by a 2014 National Audubon Society report that was updated last year to reveal that 389 North America bird species are vulnerable to extinction due to climate change. Impacts such as rising sea levels, increasing wildfires, and debilitating heat waves are all reducing suitable habitat for these avian species. The good news is, if we take action now, three-quarters of the vulnerable species will have a better chance of survival.
4. Deep Seads
Hawaiian artist Sean Yoro is known for his poignant, fleeting murals painted onto the surfaces of nature. He has created works on melting icebergs in the Arctic circle, fire-damaged trees in remote forests, and more recently in underwater locations around Hawaii.
Deep Seads is Yoro’s series of three underwater murals painted on concrete and metal structures, which serve as artificial reefs to jumpstart marine growth. Yoro free-dived to the ocean floor to create these pieces, and used only materials that are eco-friendly and safe for marine ecosystems. Through this project, he hopes to raise awareness around the world’s coral reefs, which host 25% of all marine life, but are dying from coral bleaching events caused by marine heatwaves.
As hotter and drier climates strengthen the impact of wildfires around the world, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei is using his creative brilliance to send the world a message. His installation, Roots, is a series of iron sculptures cast from the giant roots of Brazil’s endangered Pequi Vinagreiro tree.
In August 2019, the show opened in Rio de Janeiro, just as fires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest reached their annual peak.
Shown against the backdrop of devastating wildfires, the installation brings attention to the theme of "uprootedness", not only in the case of trees dwindling due to fire and deforestation, but also in the context of indigenous populations that rely on forests for habitat and sustenance. Speaking to the Art Newspaper in December, Ai said, “Roots are the last evidence of what we have: a sad eulogy for human stupidity.”
6. Reduce Speed Now!
In celebration of Earth Day in 2019, American artist Justin Brice Guariglia stationed nine large solar-powered LED signs, typically seen on highways, in the courtyard of London’s Somerset House.
The signs flashed the words of climate change writers, thinkers, and activists, including Indigenous elders from Botswana, Brazil, and Siberia to name a few, as well as Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg, Marshall Islands poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, and more.
Rather than using the words of political leaders, Guariglia chose to feature the true authority figures on this subject: the people who have dedicated their lives to thinking about and acting on these problems, and those who have been on the front lines of the climate crisis.