Oates on Bloom, 'Climate Change and the New Polar Aesthetics: Artists Reimagine the Arctic and Antarctic'

Lisa E. Bloom
Alice Oates

Lisa E. Bloom. Climate Change and the New Polar Aesthetics: Artists Reimagine the Arctic and Antarctic. Durham: Duke University Press, 2022. xx + 265 pp. $104.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-1599-4; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-2324-1

Reviewed by Alice Oates (Cambridge University) Published on H-Environment (March, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58797

Imagination, Lisa E. Bloom tells us in the introduction to Climate Change and the New Polar Aesthetics, is necessary “for expressing the strangeness unfolding around us in the Arctic and Antarctic” (p.1). The works described in this book are imaginative in their aims and methods, challenging audiences to shift their perceptions of the climate crisis and their own agency. Bloom applies a keen critical eye to these works, creating a text that draws together art and scholarship in an incisive commentary on the climate crisis and polar aesthetics. Climate Change and the New Polar Aesthetics invites us to view what we think we know from new perspectives.

This is a book that demands we understand the interconnections at the center of the climate crisis, not only within the natural world and of the poles to the rest of the earth, but between the climate crisis and “discriminatory violence,” “nationalisms, empire and globalizing capitalism” (p. 1), between the human and nonhuman, art and scholarship. Lisa E. Bloom’s dissection of these connections through the work of a diverse group of artists pushes us to broaden our understanding, knowledge, and networks, ultimately allowing us to imagine a “more just and resilient world” (p. 1).

A central theme in this book is the artists’ use of time to shift our perceptions of the climate crisis through their chosen art forms. The past is to be disturbed; heroic narratives are disrupted and questioned. The present is thrown open for interrogation, the artists exposing both the realities and sublime horrors of the climate crisis from perspectives often absent from mainstream (Western) narratives. The impacts of colonial, capitalist, discriminatory systems are laid bare. And the future is a question mark, in which issues of memory, trauma, “survivance,” and human agency are explored through imagining different futures. Throughout, the temporality of climate change is central, with artists and Bloom alike asking us to “treat the climate crisis as an immediate emergency so future humans can survive” (p. 3).

The works in this text are those of feminist, queer, postcolonial, activist, and Indigenous artists who are exploring “new polar aesthetics,” challenging mainstream narratives of climate change, at the poles and beyond. They counter what Bloom describes as a “colonial nostalgia for white male heroism,” building on her 1993 book, Gender on Ice: American Ideologies of Polar Expeditions.

The text is organized into three parts, with seven chapters and an epilogue. Part 1 (chapters 1 to 3), “Disappearing Landscapes, Feminist, Inuit and Black viewpoints,” focuses on artists who “rethink the visuality of the polar regions’ shift from the heroic sublime to environments of global decline” (p. 15). Part 2 (chapters 4 and 5) explores “Archives of Knowledge and Loss” in two chapters cowritten with Elena Glasberg. It focuses on “new aesthetic practices” that use alternative data to make visible the “temporal politics” of the climate crisis (p. 18). Part 3 (chapters 6 and 7), “Climate Art and the Future of Art and Dissent,” is focused on activism and art that reveals concealed landscapes, making visible the degradation and violence of “disappearing ice and industrial pollution” (p. 20).

Chapter 1, “Antarctica and the Contemporary Sublime in Intersection Feminist Art Practices,” focuses on Antarctica through the work of four women artists. Narratives of Antarctica as a peaceful, sublime, masculine, scientific space are disturbed through fictionalized histories (Judit Hersko), contemporary photography (Anne Noble), and science fiction and horror (Connie Samaras and Joyce Campbell). The relative safety of the “old sublime” is forcefully disrupted.

Chapter 2 shifts the geographical scope with “Reclaiming the Arctic through Feminist and Black Aesthetic Perspectives.” These artists explore the “politics of exclusion” in installations focused on African American polar explorer Matthew Henson (Isaac Julien) and the failures of white heroic masculinity (Katja Aglert’s “deliberately antiheroic” work). In the wake of reemerging interest in white heroic narratives of polar exploration, these artists instead highlight the failures, trauma, and banality of colonial exploration in a way that “decenters the mythic and exotic qualities of the expedition” and prompts us to think more critically about discursive representations of the circumpolar North (p. 82).

Chapter 3, “At Memory’s Edge: Collaborative Perspectives on Climate Trauma in Arctic Cinema,” looks at work centering Indigenous experience of the climate crisis without “sentimentalizing or spectacularizing suffering” (p. 84), instead exploring how Indigenous communities “create a sense of possibilities for themselves” (p. 18). The films discussed in this chapter express the disorientation and psychological impacts of living through the climate crisis and its connections to the violence of colonialism, while emphasizing resilience, action, and solidarity.

Chapter 4, cowritten with Elena Glasberg, focuses on new aesthetic practices that challenge our perceptions of the polar North. “What Is Unseen and Missing in the Circumpolar North: Contemporary Art and Indigenous and Collaborative Approaches” argues that these artists are redefining the nature of “evidence” of environmental change, revealing degradation concealed by or outside of mainstream narratives, such as the environmental damage caused by extractive industries (Subhankar Bakerjee, Andrea Bowers), the fragility of ice (Lillian Ball), and the “entwined cultural and environmental changes” (p. 120) experienced by Indigenous communities (Annie Pootoogook). These works, Bloom and Glasberg argue, make “the invisible in-betweens visible,” creating both a new narrative of the Arctic, and an alternative kind of data (p. 128).

Also cowritten with Elena Glasberg, chapter 5, “Viewers as Citizen Scientists: Archiving Detritus,” continues to explore the intersection of art and science that creates alternative data and records of the climate crisis. The central concept here is agency—the agency of citizen scientists (Amy Balkin), and of ice itself (Roni Horn). These alternative archives of the climate crisis, Bloom and Glasberg argue, “point to the violence of ecocide without creating yet another elegy” (p. 149).

The exposure of industrial violence by activist artists is the focus of chapters 6 and 7. Chapter 6, “The Logic of Oil and Ice: Reimagining Documentary Cinema in the Capitalcene,” focuses on new-media films that demonstrate the “corporate obfuscations of the damage caused by extractivism” (p. 20). These artists expose “ecological devastation” (Brenda Longfellow), and the “political geography of climate change” (Ursula Briemann) around sites as dispersed as Canadian tar sands and the cost of Bangladesh. They are “trying to make imaginable a crisis that is geographically dispersed and complex,” to “make visible what was previously censored and out of sight,” and in so doing, drive their audience to close “the gap between knowing and acting” (p. 173). The temporality of the climate crisis is particularly central in this chapter.

Chapter 7, “Critical Polar Art Leads to Social Activism: Beyond the Disengaged Gaze," draws together critical climate change scholarship with the art and activism of feminist and environmentalist movements. The projects described in this chapter “actively protest and challenge” media campaigns by oil companies that “erase or deny” the violence of their industry (p. 177). They do this through documenting degradation (Edward Burtynsky), activist protest (Idle No More and sHell No!), satirizing media campaigns (The Yes Men), and performance-based activism (Liberate Tate). They challenge what Bloom calls “the problem of the politics of denial and the manufacturing of doubt” (p. 191), but through an activism that resists “succumbing to apathy or cynicism” (p. 193).

The art described in Climate Change and the New Polar Aesthetics helps make legible the complexity of the climate crisis. Bloom seeks to “inspire us to interrogate the future we are creating” through her critical engagement with artists (p. 22). In this she is entirely successful. This is a book capable of expanding a reader’s understanding whether they are drawn to it from the worlds of art, activism, critical scholarship, or some combination thereof. Connecting what is often separated, Climate Change and the New Polar Aesthetics is a vital read for artists, activists, and academics alike.

Citation: Alice Oates. Review of Bloom, Lisa E., Climate Change and the New Polar Aesthetics: Artists Reimagine the Arctic and Antarctic. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58797

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