The Day the World Stopped
by Gail Gelburd · June 04, 2020
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Desolation, oil on canvas, 1836.
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Desolation, oil on canvas, 1836.

Art Critics on Emergency is a real-time collective diary by AICA-USA members about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on art critics, artists, arts institutions, art education, and the arts at large. AICA-USA members are invited to submit journalistic reflections and critical observations about this moment as it unfolds.

The day the world stopped there were no more cars screeching, or honking, no trucks barreling through the streets at night, no overhead airplanes, no yelling and screaming between couples on the corner, and not even children laughing in the playground. The trains were mostly empty. There was a silence that took over the place where we live.

Or was it really silent? I could suddenly hear the rustling of the leaves in the trees. There was a bird chirping and a woodpecker putting a hole in a hollow tree. As I walked towards the brook, I could hear it babbling and the rushing of water at a nearby little waterfall. I could see a fish in the now clear water. And the sky was actually a clear blue as I watched some straggling clouds pass by. I had my mask on but not because of the pollution. I took it off for a moment and could take a deep breath. I didn’t smell garbage outside the restaurant. I could smell the flowers that were trying to come up in a flower box, signaling the beginning of Spring. The grass was turning green and the trees were starting to bud. The world still looked grey because it was the end of winter and Spring had not yet taken hold, but there was the promise of color and warmth and birds and bugs and newborn animals. How did we miss this for so long? How did we live with noise versus nature. It took a microscopic virus from a bat to make us stop polluting the air, the water, the very space in which we live.

Photograph by Gail Gelburd, March 2020.
Photograph by Gail Gelburd, March 2020.

Artists like Jacob van Ruisdale in Holland in the 17th century and Thomas Cole on the Hudson River in New York in the 19th century have tried to show us the majesty of nature. Cole included blasted trees in his paintings in order to warn against our decimation of the forests. Cole's series of paintings, The Course of Empire (1833-1836), warned that if man continued to overtake nature then nature would fight back and win in the end. He warned of the inevitable decay of human society. Ansel Adams communed with nature and gave us magnificent photographs of its majesty. He fought tirelessly to preserve the wilderness and was a leading figure on the board of the Sierra club for thirty-seven years.

Joseph Beuys learned from the terrors of world War II and planted trees to renew those destroyed during the war. He initiated the project 7000 Oaks in 1982 at Documenta 7. Four-foot basalt stones were erected beside the trees, 25 of which were later planted on 22nd street in Chelsea, New York. His commitment to the global environment led him to be a co-founder of the Green party in Germany. The earth artists of the 1970s in the United States left cities to create large scale projects that could only be seen if one ventured into the wilderness out west and visited them. These artists went to a place where they could make art in the embrace of nature. They challenged us to go beyond our cities, and now computers, to visit these natural sites. Indeed, you cannot fully comprehend the power of The Lightning Field (1977) by Walter De Maria if you fail to travel there. De Maria directed us to the changes in light and the extremes of nature in a wide open desert. Alan Sonfist restored indigenous forests, and Agnes Denes restored that which had been destroyed by deforestation with her site-specific project Tree Mountain. Conceived in 1982, she did not find a sponsor or country to take on this project until a decade later when Finland accepted her proposal. The mountain of trees would not grow to oxygenate that part of the world until two decades later. Each of these projects were a commitment to our ecological future. They also begged us to get outside and feel the breeze, smell the flowers and respect the land, the trees, and the air. But most of society ignored it all.

Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape, 1965, La Guardia Place and West Houston Street, New York City
Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape, 1965, La Guardia Place and West Houston Street, New York City

Now as we are forced to no longer congregate, we miss the museums and concerts but must remember that we can still walk in the woods or sit on a porch or balcony and listen to nature, see past the city streets to the majesty of the river and outcropping of a boulder. Touch the grass and rocks and leaves, smell a budding flower. So often we sit at our computers rather than visit the great outdoors. Our screensaver of mountains and trees and waterfalls shows us what we should experience but it is only an illusion and it will not be there if we fail to listen to the writers and artists who came before.

In the 1960s Rachel Carson tried to warn us of the Silent Spring that would come if we ignored our polluting tendencies in the name of progress. The Gaia hypothesis originated by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in 1972 warned us about the integrity and oneness of our planet and that we must not lose sight of the totality of our earth. We are all in this together, we are one, and when we destroy the butterfly it cannot flap its wings and be felt on the other side of the earth. When we cough we now know that a microscopic virus quickly travels around the world. So the real question is whether we will learn from this “Silent” Spring. Fires have ravaged the land and the forests and species throughout the world. Earthquakes will erupt if we ignore the signs of impending climate catastrophe. Tsunamis will continue to destroy populations, towns, coastlines and sea life if we continue to build houses on the coast, throw garbage into the ocean, and cut down trees.

So the pressing questions are, will we stop cutting down the trees, sending pesticides and plastic into the oceans? Will we reopen coal plants and send smoke billowing into the air when the factories come back on line? Will we keep investing in fuel-guzzling cars rather than public transportation? Will we ever take trains rather than fly; and will we decide to invest in solar and wind energy, create more efficient airplanes and cars, eliminate plastic, and live outside of the city? Because as we populate the earth, building huge box stores and strip malls, we force animals out of their natural habitats, they invade ours and bring the diseases with them. Can we find a way to stop the destruction of animal habitats? If we cannot learn to live with other humans will we ever learn to live with animals? Surely this apolitical pandemic should teach us that Nature will fight back and that her tools are microscopic and deadly.

Artists for centuries have been warning us of our path toward destruction. Artists will continue to create work that calls out to the masses. Can we hear them now or will we remain silent?

Gail Gelburd is a Professor of Contemporary Art and Criticism as well as a freelance critic and curator. She has curated exhibitions nationally and internationally and written numerous, books, catalogs, and articles.

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