Colossal Harbingers: The Monumentalism of Art About Climate Change

James Plensa, "Water's Soul," 2020. Image courtesy Gray Chicago / New York. Photo: Timothy Schenck.

At the same time as the earth’s atmosphere grows more strange, giant anthropomorphic sculptures have been rising eerily out of the landscape. In the canals of Venice in 2017, a pair of large ceramic hands emerged from the water and pushed up against the side of a building. In 2010, the massive metal outline of a crouching man took up position on the coastline of the central Netherlands, facing contemplatively towards the sea. In Hong Kong in 1992, a human figure made of bamboo floated out of the Victoria Harbour, in a pose as if to walk across the ocean.

Now, the head of an anonymous woman has taken its place on the western banks of the Hudson River across from New York City. The sculpture is the height of an eight-story building and is entirely smooth and immaculately white. The figure wears a serene expression as she gazes out into the water and has one finger raised to her lips as if to say “hush.” This new installation by sculptor Jaume Plensa, dedicated in October, is titled Water’s Soul.

James Plensa, “Water’s Soul,” 2020. Image courtesy Gray Chicago / New York. Photo: Timothy Schenck.

All of these massive sculptures have attached themselves to themes of climate change, which is sure to be the defining narrative of the 21st century—everywhere, signs of ecological disaster besiege us: apocalyptic snowstorms, snow in warm weather, smoke blocking out the sun. The giant hands sculpture by Lorenzo Quinn, titled Support, was a statement on the city of Venice’s rising water levels and sinking structural foundations. The work was later recommissioned for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2019, this time in land-locked Madrid, where it was installed indoors on the floors of the conference venue, and its relationship to the water became somewhat more abstract. The crouching-man sculpture, Exposure by Antony Gormley, sits on an embankment that is expected to slowly rise and flood over time, gradually burying the lower parts of the statue. A headline on its construction read, “Giant Crouching Man Patiently Awaits Global Warming.” Andre Heller’s Bambooman in Hong Kong was meant to remind the public of the urgency of environmental issues according to the artist. Water’s Soul, the newest colossal human figure on the horizon, was constructed as a reminder that water is communal property in an era of ecological uncertainty. Plensa describes the work as a call to protect the waters, and a communion with the water’s spirit in the Lenape tradition. In a somewhat generic statement accompanying the sculpture’s unveiling, Plensa wrote, “As climate change already threatens to take hold of our beautiful planet, we must join together to protect water as one of the most precious elements in nature.” Notably, the statue and the city both sit on unceded Lenape lands.

Lorenzo Quinn’s “Support” in Venice. © Halcyon Gallery.

Top-down artistic messaging of this sort is rarely successful because it misunderstands the power dynamic between a work and its audience. What do these massive sculptures reveal about our shifting relationship to climate change? Each of them is ostensibly about the environment, but they betray a growing gap between messaging and reality. To position these works as raising awareness of climate change is to obscure the systems through which they came to exist in the first place.

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Monumental sculptures have always been about power. Their scale necessitates the amassing of power, money, and control over land. Within the systems that generate pollution, it is the backers of million-dollar public art installations who have the power to enact ecologically significant change, not the passersby taking a walk on their lunch break. A prominent feature of Water’s Soul and its predecessors is that they are all colossal sculptures, existing at a scale that’s beyond human. Water’s Soul is Plensa’s tallest work to date, and stands at eighty feet. Quinn’s large-hands sculpture rises to thirty feet. Gormley’s crouched man is a staggering eight-five, and Bambooman an unthinkable one-hundred and eighty. They overwhelmingly tower over those that visit.

Yet as massive as these sculptures are, they can hardly hope to rise to the scale at which climate disaster is actually occurring. Notably, these works do not even rise to the scale of the urban-industrial landscapes around them. Water’s Soul, which I visited on a sunny day in December, is soft and inviting. It is rendered entirely in curved lines, with no harsh edges or deep shadows. Its cleanliness and shapeliness creates a particular contrast with the stiff rectangular buildings around it. Behind the sculpture are the grids of windows of city highrises and the angled silhouettes of office architecture. Even as the Water’s Soul turns to have its quiet conversation with the water, the sculpture remains awash in the concrete and noise of the Newport waterfront district.

Antony Gormley, “Exposure,” 2010. Courtesy the artist.

This unreconciled contrast between message and context has been the ongoing complaint against grand climate change sculptures. As Dean Kissick pointed out, writing about climate change art in 2019, “All of these ideas take a lot of carbon to stage.” Elsewhere, Alexandra Stock has critiqued the way expensive public sculptures glom onto a narrative of “raising awareness” in order “pin some vague form of guilt on [the] audience” without engaging in self-reflection.  Indeed, none of these ideas could exist without massive inflows of funding, and all the ties to polluting, destructive systems that big money carries. Bambooman was funded personally by the artist himself, who comes from a wealthy family that owned Gustav & Wilhelm Heller, a successful European candy company. The sculpture was accompanied by a hotline for people to donate to environmental causes, and the hotline was sponsored by American Express. Gormley’s Exposure statue was partly funded by the manufacturer who helped construct the piece out of pylons, which are widely used to construct electrical towers. Water’s Soul was commissioned by the LeFrak and Simon Property Group, a massive developer seeking to turn the area into a bustling mix of luxury apartment rentals, condominiums, offices, and hotels.

The sculpture alone is a beautiful work. But its ethos of communion with the environment is a reminder that all works exist within a larger context. The anonymous nature of the sculpture seems to suggest it could be anybody. But access to water in the US has never been equivalent for all people. The protests at Standing Rock still stand prominently in recent memory as a reminder of the way control of water has perpetually been tied to systemic racial injustices. In other words, water simply cannot be accessed anonymously.

Public sculpture has also historically been a perpetrator of US mythologies about who the land belongs to. Statues that validate white colonization and westward expansion are common, according to an audit from Monument Lab of 50,000 monuments in the US. The same audit found that 76% were monuments to landowners. Public sculpture carries a history intertwined with systemic harms done to Indigenous peoples.

Kara Walker, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” 2014. Photo: Andrew Burton for Getty Images. Copyright: 2014 Getty Images

Elsewhere, Kara Walker and Simone Leigh have been constructing large, anthropomorphic figures, as well, some of which also feature the oversized heads of women. However, these sculptures foreground race as a decisive part of existence, contrasting the more generalized identities of sculptures like Plensa’s. In Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, a sphinx with the head of a Black woman is carved from sugar, a tie-in to the intertwined legacies of slavery and the sugar industry. In Leigh’s Brick House, a Black woman’s head and torso stand tall in what is a tribute to Black beauty. Walker’s and Leigh’s works live and exist within their spaces more directly because they have cultural and racial histories. They have a relationship to belonging.

Part of the ambiguity of large climate-change sculptures like Plensa’s, Heller’s, or Gormley’s is that they face outward. They position climate change as a simplified standoff between people and the wilderness, without asking which people are most affected and which people are most responsible. They miss out on the opportunity to question the dynamics of identity that have contributed to the current climate crisis, such as the dichotomies of power that have traditionally shaped public spaces. Water’s Soul positions itself as a vision for a “collective” future but this begs us to ask who is included in this “collective”? Who is this anonymous statue of?

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These statues are not revolutionary.

Not only are they not works of activism, but they are not new. The making of colossal sculptures is one of the oldest practices in the world. The form goes back to ancient times, to the Sphinx towering over the desert, the giant Buddhas carved from mountains, and the Easter Island heads standing atop their hills. Since early civilizations, people have been drawn to the enigma and gravitas of a simple human figure rendered at massive scale.

Many of these ancient statues engaged with religious and existential inquiries about god, the cosmos, and man’s place in the universe. They directed their entreaties outwards, to elements beyond the human. The Giant Buddha in Leshan also overlooks a body of water. Constructed above a river junction, its creators hoped that it would bring calmer tides to the ships that sailed across it. These works were forms of worship as well as pleas to a higher power. They were meant to say: Please protect us. Please bring us rain. Please accept our offering.

Andre Heller, “The Bamboo Man,” crosses Victoria Harbour in 1992. Photo: SCMP.

Perhaps it is possible to understand this new slate of anthropomorphic statues in the same respect. The bambooman. The crouched figure. The white stone head. They have all positioned themselves facing the sea. If these works speak to anyone, it is to the ocean. On the day that I visited Water’s Soul, not many people were around. A few tourists took pictures near it, but many milled about, busy with other things. The sculpture, gazing intently ahead, appeared more interested in the tides than the motley park-goers surrounding it. A finger held up to her lips, the anonymous sculpted woman seemed to be asking the waves to quiet, perhaps to stop rising, perhaps to stop flooding, perhaps to forgive us.

I tend to think the most effective ecological artworks of our current era will be small-scale and ephemeral, involving work with natural materials or social engagement on a community level. But the most telling works of this time will be large and permanent. By facing perpetually outwards, to the water, to the wilderness, to some generic idea of the general public as an anonymous human mass, these colossal climate-change sculptures avoid the complex histories of colonization and capitalism which are continually shaping its main subject. As if they are praying for divine intervention.

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