Op-Ed

Exhibit links art and the environment

Artist Adam Nadel’s work is on exhibit at various sites in the Everglades. This cube is on the Anhinga Trail.
Artist Adam Nadel’s work is on exhibit at various sites in the Everglades. This cube is on the Anhinga Trail. Deborah Mitchell

To properly understand the significance of Artists in Residence in Everglades, AIRIE, let’s first understand the role of the cultural arts in past critical junctures.

Artists have created works in national parks since the late 19th century, celebrating America’s rich cultural heritage with stunning interpretations of parks in the West. More than a century later, national parks continue to inspire artists in more than 40 residency programs across the country, especially in the fragile Everglades National Park.

Whether researching climate change in the remote wilderness of Alaska or contemplating hydrological challenges in South Florida, these programs provide artists with unique opportunities to create in a variety of natural and cultural settings. The public reaps the benefits of these experiences by attending outreach programs and exhibitions, such as AIRIE’s Conversation at Peréz Art Museum Miami or Sundays in the Park.

Nationally, this concept has been propelled since 1965 by the National Endowment for the Arts, which help Americans participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations and develop their creative capacities. In AIRIE’s latest exhibit, fellow Adam Nadel uses contemporary art to explore water issues in the Everglades in his project,“Getting the Water Right.”

AIRIE shares Nadel’s interpretation by exhibiting photographs of the protagonists in an ongoing battle for clean, fresh water at site-specific locations affected by the decisions humans have made during the past several decades. Visitors will find thought-provoking images of water-related scenes at Royal Palm, Flamingo, Pahayokee, Shark Valley, Long Pine Key Campground and the Ernest F. Coe visitors center.

Farming, ranching, water management and recreation affect local residents and South Florida’s booming tourism industry. All are highlighted in this ground-breaking exhibition.

The exhibit does not take sides or point fingers. Instead, it presents images with unemotional text for viewers to consider. AIRIE received funding from the Florida Humanities Council, Florida Department of State Division of Cultural Affairs and the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs for this exhibition, which elevates the important issues facing our beloved World Heritage Site, Everglades National Park, and the many groups associated with it, including the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes and residents of South Bay and surrounding towns. It is imperative that people visiting the park seize the opportunity to ponder these startling images while enjoying the subtle, breathtaking beauty of the River of Grass. Time is slipping away while multiple agencies try to identify solutions to restore an agreeable level of healthy water.

This is not an entirely new way of artistic expression. Throughout the 20th century, artists have struggled with the dilemma of how to artistically convey experiences of the real world to the public. For example, Scottish sculptor Andy Goldsworthy uses the actual landscape as his material, illustrating aspects of the natural world, its color, mutability and energy. His work emphasizes that, “Nature for me isn’t the bit that stops in the national parks,” he said in Smithsonian Magazine, in 2005. “It’s in a city, in a gallery, in a building. It’s everywhere we are.” .

Indeed, we need only to look at the new permanent installation Kampong Laboratory in Coconut Grove by AIRIE fellow Mark Dion to understand how incredibly effective artists can be at highlighting historical moments, like when David Fairchild and Ernest F. Coe were instrumental in creating Everglades National Park. At Dion’s recent Kampong opening for Art Basel, the diverse crowd engaged in substantial dialogue far beyond the usual art-opening banter. Most guests had no idea that this area possessed such historical artifacts.

Over the past decade, environmental art has become a focal point of exhibitions around the world as the social and cultural aspects of climate change emerge as hot-button topics. In South Florida, rising seas and polluted water releases from Lake Okeechobee into coastal estuaries and the Everglades affect our drinking water, tourism and agriculture. The public can better understand these issues through unusual measures, such as creative public art, and act with resolve by electing strong, conscientious leaders.

“Getting the Water Right” provides people with facts and perspectives so they can better determine their own positions on issues. As Goldsworthy recently told Terry Gross, on the public-radio program “Fresh Air”: “It’s not about art. It’s just about life and the need to understand that a lot of things in life do not last.”

Deborah Mitchell is a visual artist and executive director of AIRIE, Inc., www.airie.org, a nonprofit arts organization. Learn more at the AIRIE Annual Benefit on Saturday, Feb 11 at the Kampong, 4013 Douglas Road, Coconut Grove.

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