By Sara Lee Burd
Art Basel Miami Beach began in 2002 and has become one of the world’s most anticipated art fairs. Proclaiming 2019 as the year with the most global diversity of participating galleries, the event exists by force of international travel and consumerism. Attendance to the fair reached 81,000 people on December 4-8, 2019; the 500,000-square-foot Miami Convention Center with an additional 60,000-square-foot ballroom brimmed with an ecosystem of art enthusiasts, booths for 269 galleries, food spots, and lounge areas.
The vibrant atmosphere rewards with spectacle – from art exhibited to patrons’ attire. However, in a location such as Miami, a city widely considered an epicenter for climate-related crisis, it would have been a good opportunity for Art Basel to inspire environmental action through art and event management. Art Basel’s flashy patina, while admittedly pleasing to the eye, serves to obscure the environmental impact of this type of undertaking. Through my observations at the fair, reflections on group action from the Conversations program, and reviews of art on exhibit, I present my mixed impressions to you here.
Art Basel perpetuates the problems attributed to causing climate-change-related struggles in Miami. Waste-making runs rampant including constructed exhibit spaces for art shipped from across the world, increased emissions from automobiles and airplanes (private and commercial), surges in trash and single-use plastics, and overabundant water usage. According to Artnet News, fair officials paid to offset carbon emissions for the flights of its team, VIP representatives, external consultants, operational partners, and media guests, as well as the speakers in the Conversations program. This behind-the-scenes step toward activism was not echoed in my experience at the international event. I witnessed little evidence of environmental efforts or climate activism at Art Basel. The printed materials, signage, and steady flow of plastics did not speak to a particularly green initiative to impact the 81,000 fairgoers.
Denial, Unintended Hypocrisy, and Climate Change
The Conversations program provided the most intellectually engaging address of climate change at Art Basel. Curated by private dealer and author Edward Winkleman, the commanding list of contemporary issues included “The Ethics of Museum Funding”, “A Global Art Market in a Nationalist World”, and “Art and Social Media.” That climate denial entered the program demonstrates ambitions to centralize this issue in the minds of the financially elite, curators, artists, press, and community in attendance. The moderate turnout, however, suggests this topic does not motivate masses of people. I was there as an art writer scouting stories for Number, Inc., and the conversation moved me. Frustrated and acknowledging the halting progress toward a universal acceptance of climate change, I was reminded that writing about climate could be my tool for positively impacting public attention to art and the environment.
The organization of the panel “Confronting Climate Change Denial” seemed particularly poignant in light of the fair’s situation in Miami. Deputy editor and climate columnist of New York Magazine and author of The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells, convincingly appealed for activism and shared his personal struggle to live carbon neutral. Facing his need to travel constantly on speaking tours, he proposed a complete overhaul of plane design in addition to cleaner fuel solutions. Proposing innovation to support a healthy future counterbalanced the depressing reality he presented—the slow uptake of environmental preservation by individuals and nations worldwide causing irreparable damage. As he spoke, it came into focus for all attendees that we negatively impacted the environment by simply being there and that we have an abundance of fundamental challenges to resolve.
I absorbed the idea that the catalyst for the most effective action comes from challenging our assumptions and brainstorming possibilities. Stefanie Hessler, panel moderator and director of Kunsthall Trondheim, urged new thinking about approaches to messaging climate concerns, pointing out the paradox that using our voices through social media also creates emissions. Other panelists who provided insights and enthusiasm for confronting denial included NYC-based artist Allison Janae Hamilton, NYC-based artist Alexis Rockman, and Miami-based environmental advocate Sonia Succar Ferré. From the panel, I concluded that systemic change begins with tearing down the walls of climate denial and art has a role in that.
Art and Climate Change at Art Basel Miami Beach
Artists excel at applying empathetic perspectives, conveying data-driven information, and visualizing possibilities. Thus, they can be powerful emissaries that address climate change denial. Inspiring acceptance of environmental destruction and its compounding effects on weather, ecology and society must take priority. How can the visual arts network commit to activism philosophically and in practice? Motivated to test the current state of art related to climate change on exhibit at Basel, I review a small sampling here: Hong Kong-based multimedia artist Zheng Bo, Brazilian-based sculptor Vanderlei Lopes, Italian hyperrealist Maurizio Cattelan, Los Angeles-based multi-media artist Andrea Bowers and American conceptual artist Mark Dion offer varying entry points and levels of commitment to sustainable practices.
Highly regarded as a feminist artist who challenges political, cultural, and environmental issues, I find Bowers’ work Heat Index in New York City’s Kaufman Repetto Gallery a confusing addition to a discussion on climate awareness. Its title expresses urgency with the words “climate change is real” scripted in multi-colored neon lettering. This urgency is visually reiterated by their ascending arrangement from left to right, mimicking a line on a graph. The literal interpretation of the serious issue can be grasped at once. The irony is clear in the choice of material, however: an electric-powered neon sign contributes daily to carbon consumption. For me, the work is eye-catching, but does not provoke complex reflection. While Bowers often works in neon, she also creates installations and drawings, and I wonder if she could convey this environmental message in a sustainable format? I believe so, and this contradiction undercuts the purpose of taking action against global warming. To toast its success, the art functions well as a protest against nonacceptance. The effect of the meaningful words emphasized in bright lights drives the warning home.
On display at Nagel Draxler Galerie Berlin, Mark Dion’s Extinction Laundry List conveys direct concerns about climate change. It’s no surprise that he would process his curiosity about environmental threats into his art. Throughout Dion’s career his installations of artifacts indicate his fascination with human history in relation to science, biology, anthropology, and natural history. Unlike his other works/projects that evoke mystery, Extinction Laundry List lacks the typical poetry. The literal title juxtaposed with a scene from laundry day does not inspire my curiosity beyond future internet searches. Although not to my taste, I appreciate Dion’s meticulous installation of t-shirts strung on a laundry line featuring terms associated with environmental hazards such as fungal pathogens, urban sprawl, 8.8 Million Tons of Plastic. Perhaps the urgency of confronting environmental devastation requires clear language and presentation. As an artist who works thoughtfully with objects, Dion considers sustainability of his materials. The 100% cotton t-shirts were sourced from an ecologically focused print shop. I applaud his art as an attempt to drive conversation surrounding human activity and environmental demise.
As another artist drawing awareness to global climate change, Lopes presents a memorable series of bronze sculptures. While he also fails to critique his choice of materials for toxic waste, the trompe l’oeil metal works display evocative news stories from publications across the world. Sao Paulo-based Galeria Marilia Razuk installed Newspapers to appear like litter throughout the space. Removing the impermanence of the paper emphasizes the lasting significance of the news presented. A striking juxtaposition of an image of a burning pile of tires with the title Todo va en una gran velocidad (Everything is going at great speed) suggests a link between social order and human-derived environmental disasters. I conclude that, in time, the significance of the moments gathered in the work will be even more telling. How did we ignore these messages? How did we respond to the information, the warnings printed and disseminated? Will we do enough? Will our future be defined by our denial of science and the press? This art resonates with me because it evokes my curiosity about human psychology and motivation. While admittedly on the nose, the sculptures create space for questioning whether global coverage has impacted the realities of climate change.
Bo’s video installation Pteridophelia 4, shown by Hong Kong/Shanghai-based Edouard Malingue Gallery, contributes a fresh, queer perspective to destabilize common narratives about plants. He follows a tradition of artists ruminating on the relationship between humans and nature, but here he suggests the possibility of sexual intimacy with ferns, plants, and trees. Scenes of a nude man indicating erotic movement among foliage were comical to me, and this employment of humor mediated the radical convergence of associations he brings into focus. Provoking ethical debate, his erotic expressions reveal a new approach to communing with nature.
While Bo has applied conservationist ideology in other artworks, the use of technology in this work urges pause when considering the carbon emissions produced to make and see it. I don’t mean to suggest that digital art and film should be eradicated; like Bowers’ neon or Lopes’ bronze, this format creates meaningful experiences. I simply wonder what else could be done to offset the carbon usage this medium requires. Even if the electric-powered works mentioned had been exhibited using renewable energy, there still is no guarantee that collectors will do the same.
Bo’s work with natural materials provides a specific example of a way art can unify ecological messages and object production. In a commercial environment, the impracticality of a garden installation may seem to be an obstacle, but in accordance with ecological practices, could permanence become less motivating to collectors? Certainly the sale of Cattelan’s Comedian proves that concept can be valued over lasting materials. The work, composed of a banana adhered to a wall with duct tape, came with instructions for when and how to replace the fruit. Could we see more of this in commercial galleries? Is this model a productive (albeit partial) solution to toxic materials? We will see.
A Path Forward
What real consequences does the commercial fair face when the market does not demand radical thinking about climate change? Unlike a museum, the purpose of Art Basel is to sell art, not provide a curated platform to examine issues. The galleries have limited social responsibility as they are bound only by profits and the image they want to portray to collectors. In this capitalist scenario artists must decide to bend or bear the burden of creating authentic conversations that may or may not excite the market. Do collectors want to surround themselves with evocative art that confronts the survival of the earth as we know it?  The answer remains to be seen, but the artists discussed are shaping conversations with their myriad perspectives associated with the future of our natural world.
While overall not an ecologically-focused event, Art Basel Miami Beach left me with a number of questions about relationships between art and climate change-in both construction and philosophical underpinnings. As I write this essay on my computer and think about my own challenges in offsetting my carbon usage, I am grateful for the reminder that even the smallest details make an impact. Supporting systemic change requires individual action. My experiences at Conversations and viewing the gallery installations at Basel shape an awareness within me of the deep environmental hypocrisy the art world faces.
In a series for Number, Inc., I am investigating intersections of climate-related issues and art. Perhaps the upcoming selection of topics will lead to more questions than answers, but hopefully they will spread knowledge and inspire action by illuminating the bound relationship of art, activism, and the environment.
 A list published by Artsy of top art sales at Art Basel Miami Beach 2019 reveals that environmentally focused art trended poorly with buyers. Without sales records and an in-depth survey of the artwork available for purchase, reaching a definitive conclusion about the desire for environmental themes exceeds the limits of this article.
Next, in an interview with artist Allison Janae Hamilton, we learn about her practice and commitment to climate change activism in Miami and rural areas of Florida. Continuing research into materials, I speak to experts to question the responsibility of artists and galleries to use ecologically sustainable products and processes.
Sara Lee Burd is a Nashville-based writer, curator, and educator. Academically grounded with a master’s in art history from Vanderbilt University, she engages her expertise in art by writing about artists, art fairs, biennials, museums, and galleries around the world. She has penned catalog essays and published articles in Number:, The Nashville Scene, Burnaway, South As a State of Mind, Huffington Post, and Vanderbilt University’s Afro-Hispanic Review.