On Aug. 17, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego opened a traveling exhibition entitled "Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet," an eight-artist collaboration that resulted from a distinctive creative undertaking.
Each artist was commissioned to respond through artwork after completing a residency at a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site, natural and cultural locations around the globe deemed to have outstanding universal value.
Organized by MCASD and the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA), in partnership with the international conservation organization Rare, the project's goal is to inspire thoughtful consideration of the relationship between man and nature, conservation and preservation of natural and manmade resources, and other global themes.
From 1 to 4 p.m. Oct. 18 and 25, MCASD will present a two-part workshop offering participants an overview of the development and execution of the project, as well as an opportunity to respond to the exhibition by creating their own pieces. The workshops will be held at the downtown location.
"What we really want to do is engage the project in different directions and different points of view," said Stephanie Hanor, senior curator at MCASD.
Hanor and Laurel Braitman, who assisted with the logistics of "Human/Nature," will be co-presenters at the first session. They will provide a 360-degree overview of the museum's role in developing the exhibition.
"One of the great pleasures I find in my job is when we open up the museum as a laboratory to artists and that's really what we did in this case," Hanor said. "This is such a great opportunity to get information not only about the exhibition but to really understand what are the different types of questions being asked as a museum, as an institution."
The single greatest factor that sets "Human/Nature" off from more traditional exhibitions is that curators had absolutely no idea what the finished project would look like. There was no predefined scope, medium or theme.
The end result included large-scale video installations, sound pieces, drawing and sculpture. Most of the art is 3-D and includes artifacts, imagery and artisan pieces from the World Heritage sites.
Upon seeing the work, Hanor said she was struck by two things: the vibrant sense of place and the provocative questions raised by the artists.
"To me, there's such a directness in what they presented in the galleries and what they really experienced," Hanor said. "They asked different questions, and I think in the way they ask those questions, they make us, as viewers, ask different questions."
Dario Robleto, a sculptor from San Antonio who will lead the second workshop, was one of the artists who participated in "Human/Nature." He journeyed twice to Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, located in Montana and Canada. Given his lifelong interest in geology and glaciers, it was an exciting opportunity.
Robleto's artwork in "Human/Nature" focuses on the inevitable loss of the glaciers and the collective mourning of this loss by mankind.
"I'm an artist that's definitely drawn to the big issues," Robleto said. "I like to find out if art can do more. Can it say anything meaningful about the environmental crisis?"
During his visit to the park, Robleto made sound records of the glacier melting, interviewed geologists and park rangers, and collected other materials to use in his artwork.
Talking with glaciologist Dan Fagre, Robleto had his eyes opened to a new perspective on global warming. Watching a computer presentation in which the blue section - the glacier - receded, Fagre, whose lack of emotion over the melting glaciers had surprised Robleto, pointed out the expanding green section. This represented the lakes created by the glacial runoff - lakes that would support an entirely new ecosystem.
"The whole problem had been reframed for me," Robleto said. "It's so arrogant for us to think that we're destroying the earth. The earth is going to shrug off what we do."
Inspired by this new insight and wanting to avoid the "public service announcement" feel of many environmental art projects, Robleto designed pieces for "Human/Nature" that he hopes will convey not a judgment about the issue but an observation, a way for people to share his moment on the ice.
"I want the problem to complexify," he said. "I worried, 'Is it too early to start talking about these things because everyone is still in panic mode?' It's a complicated thing to talk about."