“The World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene” is an ambitious exhibition featuring 45 artists—many of them photographers—whose work addresses human impact on the environment. The exhibition title refers to the current geological era, named the Anthropocene because most scientists consider human activity to be the primary force behind rapid, far-reaching changes to the earth’s climate and ecosystems. Photographers represented in “The World to Come” have examined the relationship between people and the natural world from a variety of documentary and fine-art perspectives. They include Edward Burtynsky, whose large-format photographs show the scope and scale of human impact on the landscape; Felipe Jácome, whose “Amazonas: Guardians of Life” portrait series celebrates indigenous women struggling to protect their ancestral land from resource exploitation; Dornith Doherty, whose decade-long project about seed banks around the world addresses declining biodiversity; and Yao Lu, whose photomontages call into question the environmental and social costs of China’s urbanization. Also represented in the exhibition are Taryn Simon, Subhankar Banerjee, Gideon Mendel, Beth Moon, Eva Leitolf, Richard Misrach, Chris Jordan and other photographers.
To help viewers navigate the wide-ranging subject matter, curators have organized the works by several themes. “The exhibition is structured as a collage of networked ecologies and stories within stories. They include raw material, disaster, consumption, loss, justice and the emergence of new and nonhierarchical alliances in human-non-human relations,” according to exhibition materials.
Whether they are journalists bearing witness or artists questioning the status quo, photographers often pursue their work with intent to stir audiences to action. But climate change poses a particularly daunting challenge. Rising seas, extreme weather, forest fires and other climate-related disasters threaten the economic security, even survival, of people all over the world. The solutions demand a lot of short-term sacrifice and cooperation, so we dither, or worse, deny the problem. Photographers and other artists have to walk a fine line between sounding the alarm with increasing urgency and overwhelming audiences to the point of fatigue and hopelessness.
“The World to Come” exhibition attempts to bring a fresh perspective by approaching the subject more holistically. “Despite the challenges of disaster and denial, artists in the exhibition respond with resistance, imagination and new ways of seeing and thinking about the world to come,” the organizers say in the exhibition materials. “The artists contest mastery of human power over nature while re-visioning the bond of humans to non-human life. In this way, they sustain an openness, wonder and curiosity, keeping optimism in check and nihilism at bay.”
“The world to come” is a phrase that suggests both warning and possibility. Similarly, the number of artists focusing on human degradation of the environment reflects pessimism, but also suggests optimism that the future is still not written, and time has not run out on us to change the course of human (and earth) history. At least not yet.
“The World to Come” is curated by Kerry Oliver-Smith, Harn Curator of Contemporary Art. It is sponsored by the Andy Warhol Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and various other foundations, organizations and individual donors. An illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition.
“The World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene”
Harn Museum of Art (University of Florida)
Through March 3, 2019