SUBMERGED SUBURBS: Josh Kline's Delicate Drowning of All-American Ignorance
Climate Change: Part 1
By Zora Ezawa
"Water washes everything away."1 In his show at 47 CANAL in New York Chinatown, "Climate Change: Part 1," artist Josh Kline plays with the dynamism of water as a life-giving, life-altering, and life-ending force. The versatility of the medium itself is highlighted (ice to water to steam, drought to flood) and its impact on human activity and ideology is questioned. Fridges line the space, solidifying ice blocks overnight that melt throughout the sticky summer days in quasi-anthropologic real-world dioramas. Kline transports his viewer from the stylish bustle of the Lower East Side to a contemporary global anti-utopia, sculpting the underlying truth of our invisible climate crisis.
Just as pop artists in the sixties mirrored the consumerist emblems of mainstream media and the unmistakable style of advertisements and commercial design as a comment on capitalism, sovereignty, and fine art exclusivity, Kline uses commonplace designs of maps and homely scenes to display the inevitable collapse of the hegemony of race, religion, sexuality, nation, and government. Nationalism, ideology, and physicality itself is distorted by the murky waves and accretion of debris. Doors connecting each room have worn away to reveal glimpses of flags--completely obscured by disaster. Naturalism overtakes nationalism in an exultation of sobering realization. Townhouses made of pallid wax melt and drain away in parallel with melting polar ice caps. The comfortable concept of home is destroyed and replaced with an apocalyptic wasteland. In toying with the familiarity of mundane modernity, Kline conveys the grave truth of Greta Thunberg's message, "you did not act in time."2
Each room of the gallery shows differently disturbing perturbations of comfortably quotidienne images while maintaining a sense of progression. While the map in the first room is slowly flooding from its edges, the map in the second room is almost entirely drowned: only the tips of buildings remain. The last room displays a series of small vats, enclosed in lighted boxes not unlike incubators. Each vat is home to an everyday diorama, living room couches placed in front of a television, beach chairs and colorful towels sprawled across a sandy beach, a doll-size dining room set: each completely vacated by any human presence and entirely submerged. While walking through the space suggests the passage of time, no clear denotations guide the viewer in their journey, leaving one with the uneasy question: how much time do we have left?
Though relatively young at thirty-five, Kline has developed a distinctive aesthetic sense: an instantly recognizable mélange of tongue-in-cheek social commentary and postmodern Orwellian surrealist scenery. While his artistic engagement with global warming is not new, his previous shows featured 3D printed hyper-realistic human forms, Mad Max-esque post apocalyptic scenes of an imagined world borne of the fall of capitalism, and toyed with the creation of a mechanized humanity. However, in this new work at 47 CANAL, Kline forgoes the fantastical scenery of his past speculative fictional interpretations and grounds his work in familiarity — distorted just enough to instill an uneasy angst. Kline has been well-received for his coopting of real scientific projections, futuristic imagination, and absurdist prophecies of the fall of humankind. However, his use of science fiction elements and imagined technology that hasn't yet been invented has allowed his spectators to detach Kline's apocalyptic wasteland from the realm of true possibility. As he grounds his new work in clearly recognizable and intensely personal elements of modern life and frames everyday scenes as fleeting comforts of human construction threatened by natural disaster, the viewer is viscerally acquainted with the current state of our global climate crisis.
Juggling art and activism, education and craft, is a goal of many contemporary artists and here Kline has hit upon a great balance of these potentially competing interests, presenting an aesthetically engaging body of work while effectively delivering his clear and fraught message. The ambiguous doom of the melting wax townhouses and slowly suffocating city maps subverts Kline's usual proposed surrealist "what if" with a hyper-confrontational contemporaneous dystopian "now what."
1 Kline, Josh. 47 CANAL. 2019. "Climate Change: Part 1"
2 Thunberg, Greta. "'You Did Not Act in Time': Greta Thunberg's Full Speech to MPs." The Guardian. April 23, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/23/greta-thunberg-full-speech-to-mps-you- did-not-act-in-time.
Installation view: Josh Kline, Climate Change: Part One, 47 Canal, New York, 2019
Image courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal, New York.
Photo: Joerg Lohse