The Anthropocene, as Muse

Humans are changing the earth at an unprecedented scale. Justin Brice Guariglia thinks today’s art needs to reflect that.

Justin Brice Guariglia in Greenland

Courtesy of the artist © 2016

New York–based artist Justin Brice Guariglia wears his feelings about climate change on his sleeves—quite literally. A tattoo running the length of his right arm depicts global temperature rise from 1880 to 2016. The ink on his left arm illustrates 400,000 years’ worth of carbon dioxide data from an ice core of the Antarctic Plateau.

So it may come as no surprise that Guariglia recently joined NASA’s Operation IceBridge on seven survey flights over Greenland and will soon accompany the NASA/JPL Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) mission as an artist through 2020.

The transdisciplinary artist began his career doing documentary photography for publications like the New York Times and National Geographic, but his current work is harder to classify. Guariglia’s photography skills are still in play, but he now combines his shots with techniques like painting and acrylic printing to create a more nuanced finished product.

A tattoo on Guariglia's right arm depicts NASA's GISTEMP Index 1880-2016

© Studio of Justin Brice Guariglia

His artwork, he says, is similar to his tattoos: On the surface, the images have a simple, pleasant aesthetic. It’s not always easy to tell at first glance what you’re looking at. But if you look a little harder, you can see that the subject, materials, and process are all informed by his deep dives into the science and philosophy behind the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch defined by humanity’s collective footprint on the planet. Guariglia calls it “the greatest existential issue of our time.”

His latest exhibit, “Earth Works: Mapping the Anthropocene,” is currently on display at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida. It features 22 works that depict mining, agriculture, and changes in the polar ice caps. In an interview with onEarth, Guariglia shared his thoughts on art’s role in this era of unprecedented change.

LANDSCAPE STUDY 1, GOLD (left); LANDSCAPE STUDY C-III (right)

Courtesy of the Artist © 2017

How did you become interested in using your art to address the Anthropocene?

About 24 years ago, I moved to Beijing to study there. The city had a lot of coal-burning power plants. The air was filled with particulate matter. You would walk outside in the wintertime, blow your nose, and see all the particulate suspended in whatever came out. It was black. At the same time, you’re walking down the street and you’re noticing, “Oh, a week ago this didn’t look like this.” They would tear down an old building and within a matter of weeks they would throw up a whole new building, a whole new block. That really helped me realize that things were changing very rapidly, and you could see it, you could smell it, you could taste it, you could feel it.

That’s when I started paying attention, but I’d never heard the term Anthropocene until around five years ago. In China, I just had this kind of gut instinct that we were in the midst of something that’s human-made. The speed of the transformation was exceptional. I just happened to be there at the right time, so I was able to experience these things firsthand.

If you’re not there to experience something like a glacier collapsing, in real life, in real time, it’s hard to understand. The changes of the Anthropocene operate on temporal and spatial scales that are not human. It’s very, very difficult for us to access them, to understand them, to be able to connect with them.

Is that what you’re trying to do with your art—re-create the experience of being on the front lines of change?

I’m trying to give access points. The most important thing for me is not to reduce these things down to sound bites or 140 characters. I think when you take a simple photograph of something, maybe you’re shortchanging the object and the idea and what it represents. These things are not reducible. Art today, I think, has to reflect that—nobody needs to see another picture of an iceberg.

Your background is in photojournalism. Why was it important to you to accompany NASA specifically as an artist rather than a documentary photographer?

I felt that if I just took pictures and we published them, a week after that magazine came out, they would be thrown away. People would see them, they’d consume them, but eventually nobody would talk about them. It would not have the impact that we need. I figured I can do something special and something different and more thought-provoking coming from a more oblique angle, which is that of an artist.

Photojournalism and documentary photography typically answer questions. Art doesn’t do that. Therein lies the power of art: Art asks questions. It gets people to ask questions, and when you get people asking questions, then you get them engaged on a more meaningful level.

The pieces in the “Earth Works” series are complex. Can you break down some of the layers of meaning for us—for example, of JAKOBSHAVN I, which is made from polystyrene and acrylic?

JAKOBSHAVN I, 2015 / 2016

Courtesy of the artist. © 2017

Polystyrene is a fossil fuel–derived material. It probably passed through the Koch brothers’ hands at some point. It’s this material that lasts forever. I create these objects that will outlive the glaciers, and on the surface of that material, I print the images using acrylic. That picture depicts ice sheets that don’t exist anymore. Two of the sheets in the show are completely melted—the ice you see is 110,000 years old and it’s now melted, it’s gone, it does not exist anymore in that state. It’s gone through a phase change, and now these molecules are spread out all around the world and contributing to sea-level rise. But they’re pretty paintings, so you walk right up to that and think it’s really pretty until you realize what it is you’re looking at. Everybody says, “Oh, that’s when my heart sank.”

The works are loaded, but they look really pretty and painterly, and that’s intentional. It’s a bit of a subversive way to get people engaged in a topic that they don’t want to talk about because it’s inconvenient.

It’s very important to me that the work is accessible. My father is my test—if my dad doesn’t get it, then I change the work. I’m not making art for art’s sake. I want people to be able to access the work, and hopefully if I do my job really well, I can help people consider things that they’ve never considered before and make some change for good.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length. To see more of Guariglia's work, visit his website or follow him on Instagram.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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