Encounters with Art
One day last spring, a group of students came to the Colby Museum of Art to study and discuss Maya Lin’s sculpture Disappearing Bodies of Water, Arctic Ice (2013). It was exciting and instructive to watch this group, a class of environmental science students, as they engaged with Lin’s work. Their questions emerged out of a distinct disciplinary perspective—an orientation that one might not readily encounter outside of a college or university museum.
Fashioned out of Vermont Danby marble, Lin’s piece, which is part of the museum’s Lunder Collection, is a representation of the Arctic ice shelf. It shows, through a series of topographic renderings, the severe reduction in its mass from 1980 to 2013 (a period when more than a million square miles of sea ice extent disappeared from the Arctic Ocean).
The professor leading the class, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Benjamin P. Neal, drew attention to the Siberian side of the sculpture, which contained fewer topographic layers than the North American side and indicated the accelerating reduction of the ice mass. A discussion ensued that considered the effects of warming oceans and rising sea levels on the marine ecosystem. The students then began to think about how the sculpture expressed themes of disappearance and loss and how its materials and form—a table of thinly carved marble balanced atop a granite base—might serve as a cautionary metaphor for the increasingly precarious condition of the natural world. Even as they brought their own ways of seeing to Lin’s work, the sculpture in turn offered students new vocabularies with which to explore the environmental topics that they were learning about in class.
The museum regularly fosters these sorts of interdisciplinary encounters with works of art connecting with the scholarly expertise of faculty and students’ wide-ranging pursuits. Our mission as a college art museum is rooted in a commitment to dialogues between art and the sciences as well as between art and the humanities, so we are well positioned to take up some of the most pressing issues facing the world today. One such issue, the ecological threat posed by global climate change, is precisely what the Lin sculpture asks us to grapple with.
In 2017 the Colby Museum and the Lunder Institute for American Art launched at the Colby Museum a new collaborative initiative, dedicating a series of exhibitions and programs to climate change. These efforts are taking place alongside Colby-wide initiatives in the environmental sciences and humanities, including a new Summer Institute in Environmental Humanities, the Environmental Humanities Faculty Seminar, the work of Colby’s Buck Lab for Climate and Environment, and the College’s partnership with the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.
This past summer, for instance, the Colby Museum and the Lunder Institute collaborated with Phong Bui, the founder and artistic director of the Brooklyn Rail, a journal devoted to the visual arts, culture, and politics. As a 2019 Lunder Institute Fellow, Bui organized an exhibition at the Colby Museum titled Occupy Colby: Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, Year 2, part of an ongoing Brooklyn Rail project that began in 2017 at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City. The exhibition and its associated publication examine environmental issues through the work of contemporary artists such as Lauren Bon, Mel Chin, Mark Dion, and Meg Webster; related programs provide an opportunity for scientists, artists, policy experts, and historians to engage in public conversation with one another.
Our summer schedule also included Wíwənikan… the beauty we carry, an exhibition of and by First Nations artists in what is now Maine and Maritime Canada. Curated by Jennifer Neptune, a Penobscot basketmaker and beadworker, and Kathleen Mundell, the director of Cultural Resources, Inc., the show was organized in collaboration with artistic and cultural leaders from the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Abenaki peoples, who are collectively known as the Wabanaki. The exhibition, catalog, and programming featured contemporary artists working in some of the oldest artistic traditions of North America, many of which are now endangered by climate change. Because there are fewer days of extreme cold, for example, the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle, is preying upon the ash trees that serve as the primary material used by Wabanaki basketmakers. Wíwənikan thus gives space and voice to a broader range of perspectives, within the sphere of contemporary art-making, on the global and local impacts of potentially catastrophic alterations in the Earth’s climate.
A third summer 2019 exhibition, River Works: Whistler and the Industrial Thames, revisited a more familiar art-historical milieu but, in line with the museum’s commitment to foregrounding global climate change, offers a fresh and timely assessment of one of the museum’s most admired paintings, James McNeill Whistler’s Chelsea in Ice (1864). The exhibition reflects on how the work of Whistler and other artists responded to environmental changes—such as the miasma and pollution directly related to industrialization—wrought on Victorian London and its primary waterway. Chelsea in Ice, part of the Lunder Collection, has become a touchstone for Colby faculty seeking to understand historical evidence of anthropogenic changes to the climate. For instance, a recent course on biodiversity and global change visited the museum to study the painting as a marker of the early Anthropocene (a geological epoch characterized by human influence on the planet), centering on Whistler’s thickly painted depiction of the smoke that blackens the London sky above the Thames.
Other acquisitions in recent years also address the impact of climate change. Another work by Maya Lin from the Lunder Collection, the wall sculpture Pin River—Kissimmee (2008), has been a constant stimulus for dialogue. Here the artist uses thousands of straight pins to create a topographic view of the Kissimmee River, an environmentally imperiled waterway in the Florida Everglades. On a recent visit, students from an aquatic ecology class considered how the work represents floodplains and the impact of human alteration on these complex ecological systems. In a similar vein, Philip Taaffe’s painting Garden of Extinct Leaves (2006), a gift from the Alex Katz Foundation, points to the sorts of opportunities for interdisciplinary discovery afforded by a college art museum. Working with Robert A. Gastaldo, the Whipple-Coddington Professor of Geology and an expert in paleontology and taphonomy, we identified the extinct fossil flora from the Late Cretaceous and Early Tertiary ages (70 to 35 million years ago) represented in the painting.
In partnership with the Lunder Institute, the museum is committed to bringing together artists and scholars to delve into the urgent issues related to the Earth’s changing climate. Through collaborative exhibitions, collections, and programs, we can offer new perspectives on humanity’s relationship to the planet and our impact on the natural world. College art museums enable disciplines to intersect to pose new and important questions and seek innovative solutions to global problems. And scientists, historians, and philosophers help us look at works of art anew, comprehend them in unanticipated, revelatory ways, and share knowledge that inspires new interpretive strategies and expands narratives of American art in local and global contexts. We have so much to gain from these shared explorations—including how we address climate change—with the museum embracing its role not only to teach its visitors but also to learn from them.
Reprinted with permission of Art New England. All rights reserved. Copyright 2019.