In 1971 Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On, an album that moved his music beyond the love ballads and pop songs of R&B, to explore the deeper social themes that he felt were central to the times. The album contained the song Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology), that directly addressed the problems the earth was facing – pollution, environmental degradation, nuclear waste – and packaging it in an unforgettable R&B groove. Although his bosses at Motown records were skeptical of the possible success of this song, it not only went on to be a #1 hit, but became a rallying cry for the generation who were increasingly concerned about the impacts humans were having on the environment, helping to kick-start the burgeoning environmental movement.
The late 1960’s and early 1970’s were a period of wide social upheaval, protest and awakening – the largest anti-war demonstration in US history took place in 1971, with 500,000 people marching on Washington DC, and the first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970, continuing every year since then. Earth Day was from the start a wide-spread movement that in the US and Canada, bringing environmental issues to the attention of the public and political leaders, leading to the founding of the EPA, creating laws and regulations protecting the environment and recognizing the human impacts that were creating planet-wide degradation.
The concept of Ecology, originally based in the study of the relationships between organisms and their environment in the mid 1800’s, has since grown into the modern concept of ecology – that all things on earth are interconnected. Some of the most pressing problems in human affairs - expanding populations, food scarcities, environmental pollution, extinctions of plant and animal species, and all the attendant sociological and political problems—are to a great degree ecological. Climate Change is the most obvious consequence of the earth’s de-stabilized ecological balance and the one front and centre in our minds. However, Climate Change is the result of the ongoing ecological crisis and has a multitude of causes and effects, many, but not all of them caused by human activity.
It could be argued that we need to refocus our attention on the interrelationship between systems, biological and non-biological, with an understanding that humans are a part of the earth’s ecological structure and not separate from it. We also need to recognize that there are economic factors in place – fossil fuel use, resource extraction and the way we build and prioritize our urban areas – that are ingrained in our societies and difficult to change quickly.
Climate Change caused by ecological de-stabilization is a challenging topic for artists to address. This exhibition considers the strategies and imagery that are being utilized in contemporary art, asking how artists might meaningfully respond to a changing climate, bringing forward issues to raise awareness and shape opinions.
The works in this exhibition address the issue in both direct and oblique ways, with a noticeable focus on the more visible impacts of Climate Change – fires, smoke, deforestation, flooding – with attention also given to economic structures and the impacts on natural environments on both the micro and macro scale. The diversity of ways these artists have responded to the situation reflects the complex nature of Climate Change, and brings forward the need to think of the problem in terms of the complexities of ecological balance rather than as a direct cause-and-effect issue.
Mercy Mercy Me considers the underlying aesthetics of the new wave of environmentally focused art and how things such as visual dynamics and conceptual complexity factor into the images and objects being produced. It asks how contemporary artists might incorporate this serious and multifaceted topic into their overall practice, in a way that maintains the reading of the artwork as embedded in art history and the artists’ particular visual language. Finally, the exhibition proposes that visual art is well placed to distill and present the issue in a way that helps put the urgency of the situation in front of a public and political class that needs to hear and respond to the challenge.