They throw tomato soup, flour, and paint at works of art we regard as part of our world heritage. They glue themselves to walls and picture frames in museums from Vienna to Melbourne while videos of their actions go viral around the world. We discuss, in newspaper pieces and comment sections, how to respond to the kind of climate activism that has affected art in museums and public spaces over the past few months. Is it vandalism? Iconoclasm, even? Are the activists taking art hostage in the name of the climate? Or is the despair of the young activists understandable, prompted by the fact that not enough is being done about the climate changes we already feel all around us?
In Denmark, we have not yet seen any actions that have put works of art in danger, but we need look no further afield than Oslo, where, in November, activists from the group Stopp Oljeletinga (Stop the Search for Oil) poured orange paint over Gustav Vigeland’s sculpture The Monolith (1943). It is still too early to say whether the sculpture has suffered lasting damage as a result of the action, which has been strongly condemned from many quarters.
At Karin Lorentzen’s studio in Copenhagen, the sweet smell of dried nasturtiums scents the air and there is oat milk in the cups. Lorentzen is a trained sculptor who graduated from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 2002. Having created several large public commissions in concrete, she recently adjusted her practice to adopt a more climate-friendly direction. The nasturtiums are part of her efforts to find new materials that do not burden the planet nearly as much as, for example, the CO2-heavy concrete she used in the past. Lorentzen has one foot in each camp. She understands the anger at groups attacking the works of art she loves so much, as well as the activists’ frustration at how no action is being taken on the climate issue.
In October last year, Lorentzen took part in another type of protest, a so-called mourning action. Ahead of the climate summit in Glasgow, a group of artists, writers, and activists gathered in front of the climate ministry in Copenhagen. Participants read aloud from texts, shared their thoughts, and concluded the action by cutting off their hair in grief at all the havoc caused by man-made climate change.
Last year you took part in an action where you chose grief as a vehicle for artistic expression. Why?
The action drew on the ritual act of cutting off one’s hair in grief. In Denmark, we seem to be so very afraid of big, sweeping emotions, such as the powerlessness that many of us feel when we think about the state of the world. It’s about finding a way to respond and deal with the situation we’re in. It’s so hard to take things in when you don’t even know what to do with all those feelings. We will have to learn to stay with our grief at how we are destroying the planet and our children’s future.
As a woman, your hair is a huge part of your self-image. I have had long hair since I was ten years old; it’s a matter of habit as well as vanity. When I cut my hair, it dawned on me that it’s actually not that hard to make some drastic changes in your life. Changing one’s self-perception and identity isn’t really a big sacrifice, and we don’t need to be afraid to change the way we live. I mean, really, it’s not that big a deal.
You have a past as an active member of Greenpeace. What is the biggest difference between this recent mourning action and the actions you carried out back then?
I was an activist in Greenpeace in the early 90s, while I was an art student, and I spent a lot of time getting to know the state of the world. I kind of felt like I had one foot in each camp, and I ended up choosing art over activism because I realised that both would require my full attention and effort. Over the years, those two camps have approached each other more and more, and today I feel that art and activism are fully intertwined in my practice.
In the 90s, I was often out at festivals, talking to people about the climate, and I remember that we were greeted with great goodwill. The general public was actually quite open to taking the climate issue seriously, but the exact opposite was the case at a political level.
Today, many lead lives that are increasingly busy, and so we feel entitled to the advantages and benefits we enjoy. We want to be successful in our own lives and show the outside world that we are doing well, and to a large extent we do this through consumption. I believe that communities can help us understand that we need to change the way we live, because when you feel accepted in a community it becomes easier to change course.
What is your view of the actions currently taking place in museums around the world?
The first time I saw a Van Gogh drenched in soup, I felt an ache in my chest that I couldn’t quite place. I thought it was anger; but was it anger at the people taking the liberty to attack works I love, or anger at the fact that not enough is happening on the climate front? Then I suddenly realised that, “oh my God, this thing I’m feeling is actually hope!” What if it actually works? Just think what might happen if someone wakes up and takes what they say seriously.
Do you think that such violent action can succeed in getting anyone to reflect on climate change?
I don’t know, but I’m actually quite tired of talking about form and method. When we speak about the actions, we only talk about one half of them – about activists throwing tomato soup at a work. We never talk about the message the activists shout as they are dragged away. If we are to understand their action as a work of art, it’s rather strange that we only address half of the work. We’re usually very preoccupied with the context whenever something is set in an art museum, but in this case we seem to completely forget it.
When a group of activists from Extinction Rebellion glued themselves to Picasso’s Massacre in Korea  at the Melbourne Art Museum, they shouted: “Climate chaos equals war!” So the themes of the artwork and the action are aligned. I also find that the dramatic nature of their action matches the drama we, the human race, find ourselves in right now. Climate change is terrible, but the scariest thing of all – as scary as Picasso’s work – is that we’re doing nothing. I would like to see that aspect, that context more heavily featured in our readings of the actions.
If I were to come up with an analogy for what the young activists do, I see them as a dog barging into the living room, barking wildly because a child has fallen into a bog. At first, its owner gets annoyed and throws it out of the room. But the dog persists. If the owner can see past their annoyance with the barking dog, they will put their shoes on in a hurry and run down to the bog. If they ignore the dog, his kid dies.
You say we are only “considering half of the work” when we ignore the activists’ message. Is this because you see their actions as artistic happenings?
To my mind, these actions can be viewed from different angles. They can be seen as a further processing of the work in question. As actions or happenings which are simultaneously concrete and symbolic calls to action, ones which incorporate our cultural treasures as artefacts, engaging in institutional critique. Or simply as cries for help – which work because they reach the media. The scary thing is that this interesting discussion about method takes place while we are speeding full tilt towards a climate hell, the extent of which we do not even begin to grasp.
But, as a visual artist and art lover, can you ignore the fact that the activists run the risk of doing lasting damage to icons of art history?
No. I also get sick to my stomach when I watch those videos. It would be terrible if the glass in front of the paintings did not provide full cover and a given work was ruined by tomato soup or paint. But because I love those works so much, the actions also give me an opportunity to understand how exposed, how at risk they actually are. When we see even stronger fluctuations in the climate in the future, for example, in the form of extreme weather phenomena, then the museums are not exempt from those consequences. Forest fires, storm surges, and earthquakes also affect art museums, just as the large migrations that are sure to happen when parts of the globe become uninhabitable will have an impact on the economy and thus our ability to look after our cultural heritage properly.
After all, Van Gogh’s landscapes, which have also been the target of actions, were painted as a revolt against industrialism, and there is something about the way they are painted that gives us a sense of connectedness. He has no distance to the landscapes he paints, and his works have a sense of harmony between the interior and the exterior. I think we need to put ourselves in the place of the artworks and feel for ourselves just how exposed they and we are. The shocking nature of the actions may perhaps act as a doorway, paving the way for the necessary feelings of vulnerability and connectedness to nature.
Isn’t it possible, as a visual artist, to activate the same feelings through the artwork in itself?
I really wish these actions weren’t necessary. I don’t think it’s cool to see people throwing food around in a museum. But I also worry that the young people who carry out the actions are getting shamed so much that many years of their lives will be ruined.
I think that when we yell at the young activists, that’s also about us trying to avoid feeling the pain that climate changes prompt in us. So perhaps the most important thing we can do right now is to come together in groups with others who also feel sadness, anger, and powerlessness, so that we can help each other handle all those feelings. Out of this anger and sadness also grows the courage needed to act on what we know.
I have taken part in founding the group Kunstnere ser grønt [Artists see green] which explores how we can work with these things within our own field. In the past few years, for example, I have changed my own practice so that I no longer use concrete in my works. In that way I’ve sawn off the branch I was sitting on, artistically speaking.
I think making art right now is hard. You so quickly get the sense that you are just gazing at your own navel. Lots of art has been made about the climate disaster, but has it made any difference? Just think if the art institutions being subjected to these actions could figure out a different way to react than simply shaming the young people. Imagine if we could all join forces and try to do something that actually gains real traction.
I recently heard Associate Professor of Bioethics Micky Gjerris at the University of Copenhagen say that when science cannot get the politicians to listen, then art must take over. I think that’s true. Now it is up to us.