Dialogues with Mother Earth: A Dark Take on Climate Change at Bellas Artes
By Dennis Lanson
In Diálogos con la madre tierra, now on exhibition at the Bellas Artes until April 23, Erica Daborn takes on the issue of climate change with seven, huge, 6 feet by 15 feet mural-size charcoal drawings on canvas, in a cavernous space that suggests—as she would like—a discovery, an unearthing of work from a forgotten era, a time before the apocalypse which destroyed civilization as we know it. How did we allow this to happen? That is the theme of the show. And in these days of political insanity and official denial of climate change, the message becomes all the more urgent.
But the “message” begs the question of the art itself, which has a life of its own. The boldly-drawn melancholic faces, the sad eyes, the Alice-in-Wonderland landscapes, the figures struggling through rising waters (in “Seeking Higher Ground”) holding their possessions aloft while others party on a scrap of dry land peering into cell phones, are all detailed and gestured drawings with powerful narrative statements about our time, done in the tradition of Picasso’s Guernica and the great Mexican muralists.
In “Ahab’s Revenge” children play obliviously in the sand beside a beached and dying whale, its innards filled with the plastic detritus that killed it. In “Funeral for the Last Elephant,” some weep, others picket, and anthropomorphized animals bring offerings across a desert landscape. In “The Murder of Mystery” fantastical mythological creatures are gored and shot while gagged and bound children look on.
In “The Appeal” starving women with begging bowls look to a collection of gorging animals for a handout. In “Save Our Seeds (SOS)” a boatload of seed protectors crosses a lonely ocean.
The drawings are both accessible and phantasmagorical at the same time.
“You can hopefully understand what you’re looking at, and the project as a whole was designed mostly for younger people, but also for people who really don’t get it,” Daborn said. “I wanted not to focus on science or the Al Gore informational ‘these are the threats,’ but rather make it a kind of immersive experience that would be somewhat playful and a little fun.”
The British-born Daborn, a full-time resident of San Miguel, taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for 20 years. It was her students at SMFA who set Daborn off on this current project, now some five years in the making. There she taught an animal-study course called The Bestiary.
“We would move into a conversation about the extinction of species, for example, and they’d inevitably end up saying, ‘Why is nobody doing anything?’ And that led me to focus my own thinking. Making art is all I really know how to do. So this is my contribution,” she said.
A total of 10 murals is planned, with three more to go. The finished project will include a video installation of sensory overload, multiple screens depicting societal violence, various climate disasters, pundits endlessly yakking, and then—progression through a tunnel, with participants wearing paper hazmat suits and headlamps, into the cave-like space where these drawings have been ostensibly discovered. At the end of the experience, participants will have the opportunity to write letters to Mother Earth in a meditative space before exiting.
“As a society,” Daborn said, “we don’t really understand that we are totally connected to the environment. If we destroy the environment, we destroy ourselves.”