Exploring an exhibit at the Harn and its uncommon arts course

We are accustomed to thinking about climate change through the lenses of math, science, and politics, but we do not spend enough time thinking about this ecological phenomenon through one lens in particular: art. This past fall, the Harn Museum of Art opened an international exhibit entitled “The World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene.” This exhibit will remain in Gainesville until March 2019.

In response to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the University of Florida’s Honors Program curated a class based on the exhibit. “The World to Come” was an Uncommon Arts honors elective that was offered only once in all of UF’s history—in Fall 2018—and was taught in the lower floor of the Harn Museum itself.

The class, taught by associate professor of the English department Dr. Terry Harpold, was a small group of only nine students. The course focused on the causes and impacts of the Anthropocene, or geological era defined by human intervention, and how they can be manifested through creative thought.

“My English professor recommended [this course] to me last year because she thought it might interest me,” Alexis Bolger, third-year Marine Science major, said. Alexis attributed her interest to her affinity for science fiction and the environmentally-focused studies she’s done as part of her major.

Over the course of the semester, students in the class gave presentations about the works in the exhibit. They researched artists, analyzed subject matter, and dug into various collection pieces with an intensely critical eye to see its significance in relation to the Anthropocene. Not only did the class confront the real issues of climate change, but it provided an immersive way to experience art even for non-art majors.

“I loved being in the gallery. It was very surreal to see all of the pieces in person and the thought that went into the placement of each,” Bolger said. ““Untitled’ by Huma Bhabha [is my favorite piece]—it’s part of the ‘Symbiosis and Multispecies’ part of the exhibit.”

As Bolger suggested, the physical exhibit at the Harn was extremely well-designed. Visitors were given the chance to tour through the art displays thematically; these themes included concepts like “Consumption,” “Symbiosis & Multispecies” and “Imaginary Futures.” The main gallery was divided by large dark blue walls, and every time a corner was turned, a new piece of art would come into vision.

The only binding theme of the exhibit was each piece’s connection to ecological thought; otherwise, the collection was intensely diverse in geographic and chronological origin as well as medium. There were photographs, sculptures, mixed media prints, and videos all in the same space. Each work was as thought-provoking as the last, and the exhibit came together beautifully in the Harn thanks to conscientious construction and curation efforts.

The keystone message of the course and the exhibit was certainly a reflection of what it means to be human in a changing global ecology. Works like Mary Mattingly’s “Life of Objects,” which is a photograph of a naked man curled up underneath a ball of trash, force viewers to assess their own efforts towards sustainable living. “The World to Come” exhibit is as much as a prophecy as it is a reaction to the damage humans have done to Earth.

“Climate change cannot be averted on a solely individualistic scale,” Bolger said when asked what she thought the main takeaway of the class was. “We must address the structural components of climate change head on.”