Magical Thinking and Climate Reality at the AVAM’s The Secret Life of Earth: Alive! Awake! (and Possibly Really Angry!)

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Confession: I have lately found myself bitterly muttering about Baby Boomers under my breath like an inverse of the archetypal old grump shaking his fist at “kids these days.” The world my generation is inheriting is not the one I would’ve chosen. We’re scolded for being ungrateful: heirs to a house on fire and the mortgage to boot.

It’s October, and the temperature is in the high 90s. 

I’m seated in the sweltering, hangar-like Sculpture Barn of the American Visionary Art Museum for the press preview of The Secret Life of Earth: Alive! Awake! (and Possibly Really Angry!). In her opening remarks, the museum’s founder, director, and Baby Boomer (but definitely one of the good ones) Rebecca Alban Hoffberger apologizes for the heat. Though she notes that it’s an appropriate backdrop for an exhibition very much informed by the cruel realities of global warming. “Today we’re breaking temperature records in over 80 cities.” There’s a noticeable sadness in her voice. “We’re seeing islands disappear in the Chesapeake Bay that were there when I was a little girl… This isn’t something that might happen. It is happening now.” 

I have spent the previous weeks following the global climate protests, from student strikes to traffic barricades in world capitals. Greta Thunberg’s fiery condemnation of leaders at the United Nations still rings in my ears. And as I try to muster enthusiasm for looking at art⁠—this career I’m struggling to remember why I have chosen⁠—I find myself wondering, what is the fucking point? The rain forests are burning and the ice caps are melting and Larry Hogan wants to widen freeways and Donald Trump is the president. Will I even live to see the inevitable day when the polluted waters of the harbor surge through the wall of tacky condos across the street and consume this museum?


But most of the other preview attendees probably won’t. The crowd skews noticeably older. I start to worry about the health of many of the grey-haired audience members swaying a little in the heat, fanning themselves with the press kits. And skimming my own press kit, I have another Baby-Boomer-related concern: out of roughly three dozen artists in this show, only two are Millennials. Local artist Kyle Yearwood is the only one under 30. I’m still thinking of Greta’s speech: “we who have to live with the consequences.” Just like at those climate treaty negotiations, we’re not represented in this exhibition. 

I’m getting cranky in the heat and my mind wanders. I start wondering how many of the nodding Boomers seated around me drove to this press preview from oversized suburban homes, clad in petroleum-derived vinyl. How many had the luxury of not thinking twice about the carbon footprint of eating meat for breakfast. Or voted for Reagan. How dare you

I snap back to attention as Hoffberger momentarily regains a glimmer of her usual cheeriness: “Several of our artists received a hopeful message—that help was coming.” I find myself envying their magical thinking. Those optimistic hopes for a future that rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist!

Peter Eglington, “Ammaw,” mixed media on canvas (2017)

I’m being unfair, and I know it. As soon as we go inside, into the art and out of the heat, I can tamp down my existential climate dread and cynicism a bit. I’m reminded why I love the AVAM⁠—an idiosyncratic museum dedicated to artists with no formal training and guided by a fervent faith in the inherent goodness of the quixotic.

“Has anyone here taken Ayahuasca? …No?”

So begins one of the strangest artist talks I’ve had the pleasure of attending in my career. The Australian artist Peter Eglington is describing a vision quest trip that inspired one of his psychedelic works, in which he and anthropomorphic animals become Native American “Rainbow Warriors” in a canoe to defend Earth from the ravishes of industrial civilization. 

But it’s Eglington’s mixed-media 2016 portrait of local hero (and godmother of the global environmentalist movement) Rachel Carson that stands out as one of the quiet highlights of the show. Carson’s delicately rendered hairdo morphs into a giant bird. The two are outlined by a softly glowing aura. It’s lovely and might just be the best synecdoche for this unruly group show, which freely mixes activism and fact with mysticism and fantasy (or perhaps hallucination). 

“Can the spiritual and scientific coexist?” Hoffberger asks. Our tour stops in front of a screen showing works by filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg, son of Holocaust survivors and pioneer of stop-motion animation techniques. We’re watching images of endangered species projected on the side of the Vatican. Later in the reel there’s a video of a woman cracking up as she struggles to stand up while a baby elephant keeps trying to sit in her lap. It’s adorable, and we’re all glued to the screen like it’s a viral YouTube video. Jarringly, it cuts to a mushroom cloud. It’s a bit on-the-nose, but I think of an earlier moment in the tour, in which that oft-misattributed adage came up: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

And the organizers, for their part, have crammed a lot of factual information into the wall text and exhibition materials here. The packets we’re handed contain a series of essays with data on topics ranging from the devastating impacts of plastic and meat consumption to the benefits of fungus and the differences between climate and weather. Even cynical me has reasonable hope that a tourist lured in by the museum’s promise of spectacle will leave environmentally wiser. 

Macario Carrillo, “La Madre Tierra,” pressed yarn on board

But is the AVAM a potentially fraught context for disseminating facts about climate change? I’m extremely wary of associating environmentalism with hippy aesthetics and emotional appeals based on New-Age spirituality. Decades of a vocal minority marrying what should very much be a logical universal concern to subjective concepts has provided cover for “climate skeptics” to justify their choice to deny reality as if it were a defensible agnosticism rather than a deliberate, selfish ignorance. In the shadow of the right’s “alternative facts,” do we dare indulge the whimsical?

Is bringing Rainbow Warriors into the mix diluting the message that we should give a damn? The “Rainbow Warriors” myth isn’t actually even part of any Indigenous folklore at all. The story was contrived in the 1960s by Evangelical Christians trying to convert Native Americans and has been criticized as cultural appropriation with colonialist overtones. It’s the kind of identity faux-pas that drives a bitter wedge between the well-intentioned Boomers and Millennials who should be working together to save this cursed rock we’re killing. 

But I wonder if one generation’s proclivity towards cynicism and another’s penchant for magical thinking are symptoms of the same ailment. Are both a defense mechanism against the fear and utter despair of living on a dying planet? A psychic callous between ourselves and the antimony of life in late capitalist America: that we are all on some level complicit in environmental devastation while mostly powerless to stop it? 

Johanna Burke, “Green Monkeys,” fiberglass figure adorned with dried natural plants, glass beads, wooden beads (2016). Courtesy of Bergdorf Goodman, photo by Dan MacMahon

Climate change is a tricky subject to curate—beyond the obvious utopian design-oriented shows that seemed ubiquitous a decade ago, full of Gen-Xers’ bicycle-powered showers and prototypes for construction materials made of mushrooms—it is inherently scientific, but its effects are profoundly emotional. And divisive. Its unfolding impact on culture remains uncharted territory. And that’s perhaps the fertile ground we should be gently prodding. 

I’m thinking of local artist Bobby Adams and his endearingly strange-yet-direct installation “What’s Cooking?” Made just for this show, it comprises a vintage midcentury stove that’s literally “cooking” the Earth. Surrounded by photos and messages about the impending apocalypse, it brings to mind a preemptive roadside altar for a gruesome car wreck in progress as much as a warning. Indeed, Adams worked on the piece this July—globally the hottest month on record. It’s an awkward art object that is honest about reality while acknowledging its own uncertainty over its own function. It’s an alarm, and memorial, and maybe call to action. 

The installation is political, but unabashedly personal. Even the caution tape comes with a story: it was recycled from the set of John Waters’ Cry Baby. The filmmaker is an old friend of the artist’s, and even filmed Pink Flamingos on Adams’ farm. Adams notes, though, “that now even the pink flamingos are going extinct.” 

William A. Hall, “Untitled Landscape,” pencil and crayon on paper (2011)

There are two photos Adams discusses notably in his artist talk. I barely get a good look at them through the crowd, but I know they’ll stick with me. One documents the aftermath of his own home and studio flooding in 2003, when Hurricane Isabel infamously pushed the Patapsco over its banks and into so much of South Baltimore. He lost decades of photographs and most of his artwork. The other is of an emaciated polar bear about to starve to death on a melting piece of sea ice. 

It’s the latter photo that the artist tears up talking about. And then I tear up, because it really is just so fucking sad. More than half of the world’s animals have died within the lifetimes of most people in the room, and almost everything will be dead or dying by the time I am. It’s so incomprehensibly sad on a scale that dwarfs all of us. And here’s a man crying for that one bear, but not for his own property loss and the ways he has been directly victimized by environmental catastrophe. And that’s not the Baby Boomer stereotype we’re used to. 

I’m having one of those experiences that remind me why I like art after all. Sometimes an object being an excuse for a bunch of people to let each other be really sad and afraid together in a room is enough. 

Leaving, I stop to look at Tim Laman’s photos, which are hung a bit awkwardly on a sort-of-non-wall between two galleries. Laman is a photographer who documents bowerbirds and their nests—curious pieces of architecture that the little birds decorate obsessively and individualistically with flowers or colorful bits of trash. They’re tiny installation artists. I think of my “what’s the fucking point!?” panic that comes and goes when one works in the cultural sector in the midst of slow-rolling apocalypse, and something Hoffberger said: “Is art on some level a little frivolous? I had a moment where I asked myself, ‘should I be undercover trying to rescue little kids trapped in sex trafficking or something?’ And that’s when I found out about the bowerbirds. Their little brains have been engineered to care so much about beauty and aesthetics, and that seemed like a sign to me.”

And maybe, keeping the faith in beauty and aesthetics reminds us why it’s worth fighting to keep this planet livable. 

Robert Hieronimus, “Poster for the first Earth Day,” pen and ink (1972). Courtesy of the artist

The Secret Life of Earth: Alive! Awake! (and Possibly Really Angry!) is on view at the American Visionary Art Museum through September 6, 2020. For more info, visit the AVAM’s website.

Photos by Dan Meyers, courtesy of the American Visionary Art Museum, except where otherwise noted

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