The Norton Museum of Art sits about four miles west of Trump’s vacation mecca of Mar-a-Lago, just on the other side of the Lake Worth Lagoon. Palm Beach County is the wealthiest in Florida, and the museum, with works ranging from Paul Gaugin paintings to William Kentridge films, serves as the region’s cultural touchstone for its year-round residents and vacationing elite. But Palm Beach County has–exacerbated by Trump’s regular presence–found itself at the center of the climate-change debate. While the President insists that rising sea levels as a result of global warming is a “hoax,” The Guardian, in an investigation last summer, found that over the next 30 years, Mar-a-Lago could be flooded with at least a foot of water for 210 days out of the year.
By withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris agreement, Trump is not only putting the future of the country at risk; he also may as well be ringing the death knell for one of his pet properties. But Tim B. Wride, the museum’s William and Sarah Ross Soter curator of photography, is bringing an irrefutable challenge to climate-change denial to the art museum in the form of an exhibition of the works of Justin Guariglia–a transdisciplinary artist who, for the past three years, has meticulously documented the devastating effects of environmental malpractice on the planet.
Earth Works: Mapping the Anthropocene will be on view at the Norton from September 5 through January 7, and will debut a selection of Guariglia’s works that capture, in stunning, abstracted visuals, the fallout from glacial melting in Greenland, and mass agriculture and mountaintop mining in Asia.
Trained as a photojournalist, Guariglia began to experiment with his medium after an opportunity arose for him to accompany NASA on flights over Greenland to observe the devastation of the polar glaciers. His works resulting from that project are 12 x 16 textural objects that convey the detail of the landscape in acrylic and polystyrene rivets. From a distance, looking at Guariglia’s Greenland works, you might think you’re looking smooth, intact glacier, but edge up closer, and you see how his carefully textured layers depict a landscape in distress–the white surface is cracked and dented to show how the polar sheets (including the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland, one of the world’s fastest-moving bodies of ice) are melting and breaking apart. He’s also turned his eye to China, observed from above on his flights from New York over Asia. He captures images of landscapes decimated by surface mining practices at 40,000 feet in the air, and then recreates them in acrylic panel form, laced through with gold leaf. That metal, for which the land has been destroyed, becomes, in Guariglia’s work, the texture that denotes where vehicles have left tracks on the ground, and where the mountain has been leveled off to extract the mineral.
“These are metaphors,” Guariglia says, in his Brooklyn studio as he prepares to deliver his pieces to the Norton. “This is our impact on the planet. These are topographical studies of how we are impacting–shifting, changing, shaping–the planet.” And the scenes that Guariglia has transformed into art, he says, “are inherently inaccessible. They’re hard to see or understand, and unless you’re a NASA scientist, you don’t have access to it, or the ability to understand what it is you’re looking at.” And if you don’t understand what you’re looking at, Guariglia says, “you might think the works are just pretty pictures.” But when you understand the story behind them, they become politicized scenes.
Art and literature, Guariglia says, “are the only way humanity can start to wrap their heads around what’s really happening in these distant places.” It might be easy, in the wealth-cushioned world of Palm Beach County, to ignore the threat of climate change, to brush it off as a distant inconvenience. By hanging Guariglia’s works right in the center of it, Wride wants to initiate a real conversation about our impact on the planet in a region slated to be most affected by it.
“We started working on this collaboration around two years ago, when climate change wasn’t quite the issue,” Wride tells Fast Company. “But now, we’ll be looking at these works as the nucleus around which all of these discussions can play.” The art has always been first, but Wride, who has an image of Mar-a-Lago underwater as his computer screensaver, says the political context will be guiding some of the extended programming around the exhibition. Most of the talks and events will be backloaded toward the end of the show, Wride says, to broaden the audience to both year-round residents and the “snowbirds” who journey down to South Florida to escape the colder winters up north; Wride envisions back-to-back discussions among scientists, artists, urban planners, and economists around global shifts both broadly and locally, using Guariglia’s art as the anchor.
“That’s always the question for an artist: Can they be political without being didactic?” Wride says. “This is a beautiful way to do it.”