Sustainability art has never meant anything more to me than office ornaments made of recycled magazines, usually by independent artisans from some developing country, to be sold at Barnes and Noble in the gift section. So, since the Yale School of Art’s “Rock, Paper, Scissor, Lizard, Spock” show features, according to the website, “artists considering how to make work being sensitive to the environment,” I expected something along those lines. However, upon entering the gallery, I discovered the exhibition isn’t necessarily sustainability art so much as art about sustainability.
Still, I’m not sure whether each art piece entirely captures the environmentalist spirit. I guess if you’re deep, you might be able to see the connection between a flowered T-shirt on the wall and sustainability as a social, economic and political issue. (Flowers are…in…nature?)
Pieces like this one are at odds with less abstract installments — for example, the eight photographs, accompanied by captions, depicting the lives of New Haven residents on welfare. These photographs depict the tangible consequences of underprivileged communities’ limited access to food — particularly to fresh, sustainable produce. In the first photo, a woman proudly holds vegetables from her garden. She decided to grow her own food when her welfare was cut, and she needed to feed her children. In the caption, she writes that she’s happy she can now provide fresh vegetables to members of her community who otherwise cannot afford this type of produce. Another photo in the sequence, “No Meat, Mom, Really?” is the portrait of a young, unsmiling boy in front of his dinner for the night. The caption (written by his mother) reads, “He wasn’t ungrateful, but there was no smile.”
Other more political pieces include a poster with stars on top, stripes on the bottom, and, in the middle, written in clean, bold font, the words “I AM AFRAID.” In these three words, I read, “Yes, I am scared that the world will end because of climate change, and there is nothing unpatriotic about that.” One artist included photos from the late September Climate March in New York City: posters that read “There is No Planet B”, and angry faces, hopeful faces, inspired faces.
Nevertheless, most of the pieces toe the line between the purely political and the purely aesthetic. An oversized model of a broken CD lies on the ground, surrounded by real broken disks, a robot with spikes made of metal parts.
Because of the extremity of this disorder, I went and asked the receptionist which pieces were part of the sustainability show. She said all of them. I went back to the gallery, looked in, and thought to myself, “Maybe she doesn’t really work here.” Pieces weren’t grouped by theme or genre, and except for the eight photos, none had captions. I assume the curator doesn’t want viewers to consider the exhibition as unrelated fragments, but rather as a complete artistic statement. Unfortunately, the lack of dialogue between the separate installments made the entire thing a bit incoherent.
The exhibition flip-flops between the concrete and the abstract. It showcases real consequences of unsustainable practices alongside art with loose ties to environmental materials/causes/sentiments/ideas. The photos, essentially works of documentary journalism, felt incongruous with, say, someone’s experimental t-shirt art project, or a pyramid made of paint waste products. The former is heartbreaking; the latter is mind-boggling. If the showcase aims to be purely aesthetic, documentary doesn’t belong. Those photos should be someplace where they’ll get serious attention, where they’ll inspire dialogue and activism.
Still, I do feel that “Rock, Paper, Scissor, Lizard, Spock” is topical, especially given the recent New York protest. Combining art and environmental activism is a noble (if difficult) project. I left the show thinking seriously about the environmental movement, and realized that despite flaws in the curation, this exhibit succeeded. Here I was, contemplating sustainability, the meaning of art and how maybe I should go vegan.