James Casebere imagines a near-future of flooded landscapes
Reflecting on the climate change emergency, the American photographer (and force of nature) takes us to the water’s edge
Throughout his 25 year-long practice, New York-based artist James Casebere has channeled societal and political anxieties into artfully constructed photographs, from his prison images of the mid-1990s to Landscapes with Houses (2009-2011), exploring urban areas blighted by mortgage foreclosures and the ‘absurdity of living in this carbon-heavy economy’. Later, he would turn his lens to Luis Barragán’s architecture in response to rising populism, while the series The Sea of Ice (2014) reflected on climate change. ‘It always seems to work for me creatively when a personal emotional experience segues with a social or political concern,’ Casebere explains.
So to Paris, where his current exhibition at Galerie Templon, ‘On the Water’s Edge’, considers the looming threat of environmental disaster through a series of hybrid structures anchored in flooded landscapes. Recalling the impact of Hurricane Sandy and helping friends to evacuate and rebuild in its devastating wake, the artist was humbled by surfers who would brave the storm surge. ‘With that example, I contemplated designing structures as sanctuary for people at risk of displacement – temporary shelters that are a bit like hostels,’ he adds. ‘I liked that these structures could be built to withstand the storms, and could stand proudly facing the horizon on the sea.’
Each photograph is painstakingly produced in his studio: the Michigan-born artist begins by building scale models, which he then finishes with a complex lighting, colouring and image production. Here, Casebere makes a conceptual departure, taking the role of architect himself in designing and constructing these pavilions ‘of peace, where every refugee can find refuge’. It’s an homage to the dual nature of our relationship with nature: we are both vulnerable to and reliant on its power.
‘As I began dealing with architectural principles I realised that a number of architects had started their careers by either designing lifeguard stations (Pascal Flammer), or incorporating them into beach houses (Frank Gehry),’ he says. ‘There is something archetypal about that structure, signifying home, safety, and security, amid the unbridled forces of nature.’ Similarly, the composite ensembles evoke Paul Rudolph’s mid-century modern Florida houses, brutalist architecture, and the early 20th century Arts and Crafts movement.
Proponents of climate activism such as Greta Thunberg have done a great service in spurring debate – but what impact can artists have? And is there an audience willing to enable radical change? The topic of climate change has become as divisive as politics: Thunberg has been feted, applauded, empowered, vilified, pitied, and mocked. Casebere, however, remains undeterred. ‘The activist in me wants to say that I hope people will be inspired to face our challenges with fortitude and conviction, to be undaunted in the face of great odds, and to direct our collective energies toward dealing with the crisis,’ he says.
‘On the other hand, I have been thinking about the role of art and asking myself what can I, as an artist, accomplish? To what end do I make this work? Who and what can the work serve? Is it enough for art to bring pleasure, joy or a reprieve from suffering? Personally, I think it can do both, and it is not possible for me to proceed as an artist without addressing larger issues that concern me.’
Ultimately, Casebere is not such a doomsayer as he is a cautious optimist. ‘I hesitate to be too ambitious about this,’ he says, ‘but I feel like [On The Water’s Edge] involves a sense of playfulness and I hope people will come away with a sense of hope about our personal and collective ingenuity, resourcefulness, creativity, and resilience.’ §