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Exhibition Coal+Ice Transforms Climate Despair into Action

A burned out washer and dryer from Darcy Padilla's series documenting post fires brought on by climate change.
©Darcy Padilla

A Call to Confront Climate Change –Now at the Asia Society NYC

As the summer heat dome dissipates (for now) and Olympic athletes advocate for breaking from oil and gas sponsorship, many seek refuge in the cooler indoor environments offered by city spaces. Among these havens, the Asia Society in NYC hosts the striking Coal+Ice Exhibition. It is an immersive an immersive exhibition that journeys into the heart of our environmental crisis, running until August 11th.

Disturbing Visuals and Revelatory Moments at Coal+Ice

The exhibit recalls a vivid, unsettling personal memory. –Emerging from the Museum of Modern Art during the 2023 wildfire season into a sky choked by red, suffocating smog. I was not thinking, wow, this is what the end of the world smells like so much as thinking, when are we going to get our shit together? This visual trauma finds a parallel in Coal+Ice, particularly highlighted by visuals on the third floor of dire scenes.

And yet, it wasn’t distressing. it was revelatory, for around the corner was a wild finale to the exhibit –Superflux’s New York, 2050: A Possible Future. The polluted present gave way to a vision of better future. Displayed through a 360 degree fully immersive, transformed urban landscape. Self-sustaining rooftop farms and pedestrian walkways (and no cars!) powered by renewable energies that have supplanted coal and gas.

The Power of Visuals in Environmental Advocacy

Photo of a miner in modern day China by Song Chao
© Song Chao

The exhibit, as a whole, captures the urgent moment we’re in. From environmental devastation, as glaciers collapse high atop the Himalayas, to the human toll of extreme weather, this take on the crises arose from the understanding that visuals might offer a way forward.

Since its inception in 2011 as a Sino-American photography project, Coal+Ice has significantly expanded. Featuring the works of over 30 photographers, it utilizes a century-spanning range of media, from historic glass-plate negatives to contemporary smartphone videos. The eeriness of burnt-out abandoned washers/dryers amidst the wreckage of a town destroyed by wildfire –Darcy Padilla’s series “After the Wildfires”– plays against riveting black and white photos of Miners in Shandong Province by Song Chao, who began taking pictures of his fellow miners in 2001.

Photo of young boy miners by Lewis Hine at the Asia Society NYC as part of Coal + Ice exhibition.
©Lewis Hine

Lewis Hine’s groundbreaking work exposing child labor in the U.S. mines remains a stark reminder that photos can upend the status quo in otherwise intransigent spaces. Yet, while waning here, coal mining is rising in China and elsewhere, and we continue to outsource our energy “needs.”

From Documentation to Activism: Highlighting Human Stories

A personal standout is Gideon Mendel, the South African photographer who often seeks out the aftermath of the disaster. As with his earlier series on Wildfires devastating the Greek island of Evia, he photographs people in front of their ruined homes as witnesses to and bearers of stories we need to hear. The images here of people often neck deep in water after torrential floods bring home the sheer insanity of our inability to stop the crazy.

But as he writes, “My subjects have taken the time – in a situation of great distress – to engage the camera, looking out at us from their inundated homes and devastated environments. They are not disempowered victims in this exchange: they show agency amidst the calamity that has befallen them.” Mendel’s commitment to following floods over the years across continents has shifted his work from straight documentary to activist, where he and the people he shoots are faces of resistance.

Envisioning a Sustainable Future Through Art

superflux installation as part of coal + Ice at the Asia Society NYC
At the precipice of Superflux room

But it’s not all dark. COAL + ICE doesn’t just document the consequences of our reliance on fossil fuels but also illuminates pathways to a better future. It showcases innovative projects by visionaries like by Maya Lin, Jake Barton, and Superflux which redefine our collective approach to climate action.

Maya Lin’s “What Is Missing?” project poignantly highlights species and places at risk of extinction, urging us to protect them before it’s too late. The website has a space to share your memories of the natural world, which connects to Lin’s “Map of Memory” site. This connects to a series of “what if” questions that help re-imagine. My favorite is “What if defense includes defending the planet.”

Engaging with Climate Change Through Art Making

Finally, the exhibition offers an interactive component where visitors can create their own activist posters based on images from the exhibit, fostering a deeper personal connection with the themes presented and encouraging public advocacy for environmental protection. It is an excellent way to engage the public.

COAL + ICE challenges us all to confront the urgent realities of climate change while inspiring hope and action for a resilient tomorrow. It’s an unmissable exploration of both the devastating impacts and innovative solutions shaping our planet’s future.

–KL Dunn

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