Before the Flood
Art in the age of climate change
Raymond Pettibon’s recent retrospective at New York’s New Museum, ‘A Pen of All Work’, was filled with monuments: pyramids and gothic churches, an obelisk and even a Sphinx. There were also many Statues of Liberty. In one drawing, the emerald lady looks forlornly past a chilling footnote: ‘But don’t try to pass for white.’ While the words on the original statue’s pedestal grant no exceptions to its radical message of welcome to the tired, poor, huddled masses, the country that inscribed them often has.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the contradictions of a society that erects a monument to its own hospitality, but turns away Syrian refugees at its airports and builds a wall along its southern border. Can such symbols still be meaningful in a culture of spectacle, flooded daily with images? And how can they be rescued from attempts to co-opt them for the exclusive few?
Nearly two years ago, I moved to New York from Los Angeles, a city mostly without monuments. LA’s best-known landmarks are leftover movie props and filming locations; its most iconic emblem, the Hollywood Sign, was erected to sell hilltop real estate. New York, though, is chock full of equestrian statues and war memorials: busts of famous generals dot the shady groves of Central Park and, occasionally, I encounter one that commemorates a dead white man I’ve never heard of. Fitz-Greene Halleck, Victor Herbert, William T. Stead: how many of these names have we already forgotten, existing now just as bronze faces foisted on granite plinths?
Napoleon Bonaparte had the Luxor Obeslisk toppled and hauled back to Paris – the ultimate imperial castration. Now, we build skyscrapers heavenward, as if to prove market mojo. Lady Liberty poses against a curtain of glass and steel, each downtown Manhattan tower a monument to the capitalist system for which it stands. Today, London may be defined less by Big Ben than The Shard, that totem of international wealth. I take perverse pleasure in imagining future alien visitors, unaccustomed to ruthless capitalism, finding our skylines no more legible than Stonehenge.
On a recent cold morning, I boarded the ferry to Bedloe’s Island, the Statue of Liberty’s home in New York harbour. As we sailed around her left flank, I thought of The Day After Tomorrow, the 2004 film that envisioned the onset of a new ice age after global warming has caused polar ice to melt, disrupting the North Atlantic Current. (In January 2017, researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography concluded that, given our current rate of CO2 emissions, this is a real possibility within the next 300 years.) In the film’s banner image, the Statue of Liberty is submerged to her temples in snowdrift. The vista recalls the famous final frame of the buried statue in Planet of the Apes (1968) or a memorable scene from A.I. (2001), in which alien visitors carve out the film’s bionic protagonist from the frozen, sunken wreckage of Coney Island. (In the short term, it’s more likely the statue will serve as a reef for an acid-bleached tropical lagoon, as glacial melt floods the Hudson archipelago.) What will Liberty’s message of hospitality mean to future travellers, when New York is no longer inhabitable and they stand before her like the pilgrims in Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s etchings of classical ruins? How will she continue to represent a country whose coastlines have shifted and whose population has fled for higher ground? ‘We have made monuments to ourselves,’ Pettibon writes in an untitled and undated drawing, ‘therefore they shall serve as tombstones.’
Our climate is a runaway cart, already chasing us down an ever-steepening hillside. Humans can no longer consider themselves at the centre of this equation, as we are pushed back from the earth’s physical margins. What will become of the art world when the streets of Chelsea flood and Venice sinks into the sea? Land art and immersive sculpture, concrete and Cor-Ten steel: the art world loves monumentality. History celebrates the big and the bold, though grand scale favours those with means. (No matter how large the pediment, its space for names will always be limited.) Abandoning anthropocentric thinking, though, might encourage artistic practices that are smaller, nimbler and more ephemeral. Global warming is a great equalizer: it threatens to transform our understanding of permanence and our relationship to place. We need an art that thinks of the future by turning to the present – built not to last but to shape the here and now. We need art that is locally sourced, conscious of its ecological footprint. Monuments are erected in times of stability and power; now, we must create for a time when none are left.
At the southern tip of Manhattan lies an unusual monument: a memorial to Ireland’s Great Famine of 1845–52, erected in 2002. Stairs of Kilkenny limestone lace across a terraced hillside of lush green moss and overgrowth, held in a terrine resembling stadium benches. The memorial will one day be devoured by its own wildlife: it moves the spirit as only nature can. It reminds me of another Pettibon drawing, one of his many Ladies Liberty, which bears the following inscription: ‘She can see Central Park starting in the distance, with its threadbare winter coat of scraggly bushes and leafless limbs […] out of which the long arm of a June rose (Damask), probably grown halfway round the world (perhaps along the Karun or Euphrates rivers) during their growing season and traded with hers – or passed like a torch – to get here; and held aloft to the nations on the earth.’ Pettibon finds this improbable bloom – an Iraqi import, no less – to be a far more potent symbol than the Statue’s flaming beacon. Things that move us need be no greater than a flower, no more complex than a wasp. We can learn much from nature, as we can from the resilience of a rose.
First published in Issue 187