Flooding the imagination: Climate change art installation hits Times Square

Artist Lars Jan has presented a haunting portrayal of climate change.

CREDIT: Early Morning Opera
CREDIT: Early Morning Opera

New York City — A day after President Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, Lars Jan issued a forceful rebuke in the middle of Times Square.

The Los Angeles-based artist and his colleagues built an elevator-sized glass tank that fills with water. Inside the tank, performers behave like nothing is wrong. They might coil a garden hose, tune a guitar, or sell fruit in the market while floating about. “Rather than acting as if there’s a crisis as the space starts to flood, they adapt their behavior in order to make do as best they can,” said Jan. Even when totally submerged, the performers are utterly complacent — a nod to humanity’s sluggish response to the climate crisis.

Jan’s installation, Holoscenes, has toured North America and Europe since its debut in 2014. It arrived in New York for the World Science Festival, which coincided with Trump’s announcement on the Paris accord. “It felt like a gut punch,” said Jan of the announcement. “Doing this made it feel like we were able to punch back.”

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The title of the work is a play on the word Holocene, which is the name geologists have given to the last 12,000 years of relatively stable climate. Scientists now say we have entered new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, a period defined by profound human influence over the Earth’s climate and ecosystems. In the coming decades, humankind will cope with devastating storms, rising seas, and lasting drought.

“I’m concerned, like a lot of people, that water and crises related to water — whether they be flooding, sea-level rise, drought — will be the central issue of the 21st century,” said Jan. He illustrated these problems through the rise and fall of water in the tank, which he described as a “moving bar graph.”

The apparatus can fill with more than 3,000 gallons of water in as little as 45 seconds. It will fill and drain slowly and quickly over the course of a five-hour performance. Performers behave normally until submerged, and then they move about gracefully — continuing to make the bed or read the newspaper — coming up occasionally for air. Jan selected his four performers from dozens of video submissions from people around the world.

CREDIT: Early Morning Opera
CREDIT: Early Morning Opera

“Some people learn visually and I want to allow those people to experience something first without trying to teach them something,” said Jan. “More than anything, I hope that they can go forth and have a new curiosity about climate change.”

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Jan was determined to faithfully represent the science of climate change. He interviewed researchers, including climatologists but also social scientists who study how people think and talk about climate change. Jan worked with a science writer to create newsprint broadsheets explaining the piece and the research behind it.

“If you’re so inclined to ask questions, people can teach themselves,” he added. “Maybe somebody watches An Inconvenient Truth on Netflix for the first time.”

Jan said the piece takes on a different flavor depending on the context. In Sarasota, Florida, “we could literally look through the tank and see the Gulf of Mexico.” There, on the beach, he said, “We were sited on land that’s slated to be under King Tides — which are large swells — by 2050.”

In Times Square, surrounded by glowing ads for Coca-cola and Samsung, Holoscenes took on a different hue. “I think this physical space is a lot like online space,” said Jan. “This has very much to do with buying, wasting, and also taking our eye off the ball.”

Asked if he thought his installation would persuade people to care about climate change, Jan said, “I feel like it’s really important that artists and scientists communicate to a broad public, and I don’t know that we’ve done a great job of that up to now. It’s worth a shot.”

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Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him at @deaton_jeremy.