The University of Michigan Museum of Art’s new exhibition Art in the Age of the Anthropocene is a powerful collection that forces museum-goers to grapple with the harsh realities of human impact on the environment, climate change, and our future. Here is a sampling of what I found to be the most impactful pieces:
These photographs show the half-decomposed carcasses of albatross, the former location of their stomach filled with brightly-colored plastic detritus. According to the placard accompanying the work, their parents would have mistaken the plastic for food and fed it to their young (as well as eating it themselves). As a result, albatross of all ages suffocate and die. The photographs cannot avoid being interpreted through the lens of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: “the death of the albatrosses heralds humanity’s impending destruction.” However, I believe that one of the purposes of this exhibition is to work toward a world where the impending destruction doesn’t come to pass. All hope is not lost, if only we would wake up to the reality of what is happening to our world.
You will hear this work long before you see it. A video in a dark room off the main gallery, it shows Petritsch in the middle of an expansive frozen landscape, repeatedly chipping away a circle around himself with a pickaxe. “Regardless of impending disaster, he persists in this futile and ultimately deadly activity” … clearly a commentary on our own inaction regarding climate change. The sound of this pickaxe echoes across the entirety of the exhibition, and it continued to echo in my mind once I left the museum. It drills into your skull, incessant and without letting up, and even now I can hear it in my mind’s ear.
Kimiyo Mishima: Akikan [Empty Can] (2012):
From far away, these appear to be actual crumpled soda and beer cans, but close inspection reveals that they are impeccable ceramic replicas. Sitting in a glass case in a museum, it is impossible not to wonder if this is what the future will see us as. Is the legacy we are leaving behind on the planet one of disposable materialism resulting in environmental destruction? Is this what the archaeologists of the future will find we left behind?