How art can make us aware of climate change

“Art is a way of showing people what the world could look like if we interacted with nature in a different way,” argues Julia. This can be done through paintings and sculptures, but also through other forms of art such as films and performances. Julia graduated with the question: what role can art play in imagining a different relationship between man and nature?

She grew up with parents who were “little goat wool socks.” Her parents always went shopping at an organic store. “We didn’t talk about sustainability in so many words, but our family thought about the world we live in and how we deal with it.”

Sustainability began to play a bigger role during Julia’s undergraduate studies. In the third year of her studies Media, Art, Design and Architecture at the Free University of Amsterdam, Julia went on exchange to Istanbul. “Here I took the environmental ethics course. We learned about all sorts of different beliefs from environmental philosophers regarding climate change. What obligations do we have as human beings and how do we behave morally towards others? Depending on the position the person has in the pyramid of life, you can give different answers. Many philosophers are based on non-anthropocentrism: a belief where humans are not put at the center, but where animals, plants and humans should be on a more balanced and equal level. These thinkers also argue that other animals and plants should not be seen only as tools. Like humans, animals and plants also have a right to exist. If that idea was the starting point, we would interact with the world in a completely different way.”

Julia decided to continue with this subject and followed the research master’s Critical Studies in Art and Culture at VU. After she graduated, it was difficult to find suitable work. “I knew exactly what I was interested in: I wanted to contribute to awareness of the climate situation in my work. But I had a hard time figuring out what job would go with it.”

At that moment, the climate ambassadorship came her way, together with seven others she became the Climate Ambassador of the Future for one year from the Ministry of Economy. In this context, Julia made an online tour of the Rijksmuseum about art and climate, aimed at high school students. “They went past several works of art to see how people have depicted nature. Think of landscapes in paintings, but also of planes. The museum houses one of the first aircraft designed during the First World War. Back then it was an example of innovation and progress, but now we look at flight with completely different eyes.” Through this project, Julia came into contact with the curator Jan de Hond, the creator of the exhibition creeps which she is now working on.

Deer beetle

Albrecht Dürer, Flying Deer, 1505. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

This exhibit shows how people have seen crawling and gliding animals throughout time. For example, insects used to be a symbol of the devil and evil, but especially after the invention of the microscope in 1595, people began to seriously study the creatures. “People continue to find them creepy,” explains Julia, “but there’s also amazement at how brilliant the creatures are. Then they see that the greatness of creation is at least.” Julia gives as an example a drawing by Albrecht Dürer from 1505: Deer in flight. This is the first work of art in which a reptile itself is the subject of a work of art. The drawing is about 10 by 15 centimeters, but according to Julia, Dürer’s fascination with the creature is just visible in the artwork.

However, the exhibition is not there to tell people how to treat the soil. “What we want to show is how the appreciation and fascination of animals has changed over time. In the exhibition, people are stimulated to think about their relationship with other animals and thus see themselves more as part of the whole.” According to Julia, this results in a shift in perspective, an important step that still precedes solving or dealing with climate change. “The decline in biodiversity is the result of our dealings with the earth. Thinking about our role as humans in this is on an even more important level than the consequences of climate change.”

What makes art so suitable for making people aware of this? “Art can affect people very differently than, for example, graphs,” explains Julia. “Even though all the lines are in red, it does not evoke empathy. Art, for example in the form of moving images, offers people a different way of seeing that is reflected in their own environment. When it comes to insects, you can be very fascinated by their ingenious appearance and how they are put together so that you no longer see them as pests.” Art can therefore ensure that you gain a different or new appreciation for these living beings. “It goes much deeper than a global warming graph.”

The exhibition creeps can be seen at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam from 30 September 2022 to 15 January 2023. You can also see the exhibition Clara the rhinoceros which tells the story of a rhinoceros brought from India to Amsterdam North by a VOC captain, and was shown all over Europe for a fee.

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