Caroline Carlyle

2023 Michèle Whitecliffe Art Writing Prize runner-up – Art in the Time of Climate Crisis: An Artist’s Plea

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This essay was selected as one of two runner-ups in the 2023 Michèle Whitecliffe Art Writing Prize.

Each year entrants into the Michèle Whitecliffe Art Writing Prize respond to a theme and in 2023 the theme was ‘Art in the Time of Climate Crisis'. Writers were invited to reflect on the role art might play in addressing and combating this pressing emergency. 

This year's judge was Tristen Harwood, an Indigenous writer and editor, and a lecturer in Critical and Theoretical Studies at the Victorian College of the Arts. His writing on art, architecture and literature has been published in The Saturday PaperMeMoThe New York Times T MagazineArtlink, Art + AustraliaArt GuideArt AlmanacThe MonthlyOverlandunMagazineArtReview, among others. He is a member of the Plumwood Committee, a contributing editor at MeMo Review, he recently co-edited Artlink, and he is currently a PhD student at RMIT University. 

Commenting on Caroline Carlyle's entry, 'Art in the Time of Climate Crisis: An Artist’s Plea', Harwood commented that: 

'Art in the Time of Climate Crisis: An Artist’s Plea' is simultaneously direct and poetic in its language. The author does not shy from asking bold, ontological and epistemic questions about the nature of climate crises and the role of art in helping us understand and work through the current ecological catastrophe that we are faced with.

This piece offers a way to revive art criticism from its own ‘crisis,’ injecting it with an experimental approach, which adopts poetry and a conversational writing style in order to find the language to describe our current climate predicament.


Wake Up!

With the stench of death hovering

just north of orifices,

and the semi-consistent whiff

of ash and water rolling in

gaining more and more impetus,

these alone should act as

smelling salts in awakening

eyes shut,

to the image of

climate apocalypse.


Where have we come from and how does art and nature collide historically? Indeed, how can the two be reconciled? More importantly, where is the power of art headed at this time of humanity intertwined with the reality of climate change?

To look forward is to look back. Didn’t our ancient selves alert us by drawing attention to the earth’s dilemma? What about the hunger stones from the 15th century set at drastically low levels of rivers in Europe, warning of drought and famine? Huh? So, they had drought back then? Of course, no one is denying it. Floods? Back in 1219 the Great Drowning of Men (and Women) took place in the British Isles, the Netherlands and Germany. This, by the way, coincided with a new moon. I challenge you, then, that perhaps it’s the space junk we should be looking at?

However, don’t forget that when velocity doubles, so does momentum. Therefore, at the crazy speed with which the world develops and the population increases, so too grows the momentum of ultimate and imminent catastrophes. Further, although perceived still as imminent, the reality is that natural disasters caused by the heating and cooling of climate eco systems are really upon us, and unfortunately, what we have seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak!

Not to be generic in any way, but I must pay tribute to the great Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (and his colleagues) at the time of the High Renaissance. This man was mad intelligent. He thought out of the box, so much so that there was no box. As an artist, sculptor, architect, draughtsman, engineer, theorist and scientist, what would he have thought about climate change? He was obsessed with nature from a young age, and apparently bought caged birds and released them into the wild. It was also noted that he became a vegetarian, which possibly was common back then, due to the lack of ‘24/7s’. He was quoted to have stated quite eloquently that ‘water is the vehicle of nature’. There is now a Skellig foundation running ‘Da Vinci-inspired climate solutions’ competitions and a planned NASA mission named after him. The philosophies underpinning Da Vinci’s beliefs and interests in nature are now known as Renaissance humanism. Renaissance humanism could be considered as the alternative way of thinking to Catholicism, which dominated Europe during that period, and as such it paved the way for a revival of classical studies, art, architecture, scientific learning and individualism promoting civic virtue. Environmental awareness would factor into this new way of approaching the world

Obviously, Leo wasn’t the only artist to think in these ways. Many artists have taken stock of their surroundings by painting landscapes, animals and other natural features. Looking as far back into history we can, cavemen engaged in communicative drawings for all sorts of purposes, if not just as a record of their very being. Among Indigenous cultures, various species have been recorded in certain areas through rock art and totems, serving as evidence of endangered and extinct species having been present. In more recent times, it is interesting to look at the colours of skies and the natural landscapes in artworks, which have changed. Albeit produced with coloured rocks, pigments, minerals, natural fibres and plant materials of the surrounding region (or cataracts which  may have blurred the vision of the artist), the colour of the depicted sky for example has become whiter due to pollutants and water droplets in the atmosphere and refracts light inversely from previous eras. Art is a record in history and future generations can look back and reflect on the emotions, events and mindsets of the time.

Blurred Vision

Twilights and sunsets

glow brilliantly

against landscapes,


pale with pleasure

or crimson with rage

performing on platforms,

dazed with wonder,

serene and peaceful

perplexed by

the paradox


we demand,

what on earth could go awry?


The fact is that most artistically enabled beings have a viewpoint different to ‘regular people’.

The creativity porthole allows intelligent and innovative thinking, inventions, technology and many forward-thinking solutions. Let’s talk about inventions then. Inventions usually come about because of the need to improve a process or may be a new method or product that makes life easier. But it’s a no-brainer that some innovations have caused the rapid onset of climate change as we know it. What springs to mind when we talk about innovation and change are the recent revolutions – industrial, technological, digital, Artificial Intelligence – that have come, gone, remained, or just arrived. And now, hopefully, the very much anticipated sustainability revolution, with its human-centred concern about the impacts of a diminishing environment, will be welcomed with open arms.

But for the Politicians

So, we march indignantly,

backwards and forwards,

across parliament stairs

shouting at governments

in our garb

made in slave-trading

countries which exploit and pollute

and wear trainers made with souls

from rubber from an extinct forest

or produced from oil,

and its plasticity which pollute seas.

And the photo, which someone obtained


jet-setting across the world

paying carbon emission credits

to offset costs which go

towards buying credits in non-existent

forests being man downed with machinery.

And the photo

of a dying turtle, or famine-ravaged child,

evokes emotions, mainly of guilt,

with the plastic which strangles,

the product of six-packs

bound together,

which are drunk at the bar of the resort,

whilst the fishermen

and women,

cast nets trying to feed their families.

The starving child

with staged dusty background

blood red airbrushed soil swept,

and brushed to the mantle,

released into the atmosphere,

and flies feeding on remains,

but no photos of the

Mercedes 4x4 bought with

the charities’ guilt money which should

have fed ‘Amari’,

and her desperate family

who were bought with the staging.


Let’s figure out what really is behind climate change. Aside from all the propaganda that is spouted at us: if we call a spade a spade it can only be greed and monetary gains. The rape of the earth’s minerals and wealth for human sustenance and material satisfaction has a majority part to play in climate change. Without nature, normal seasons, climate and atmosphere, the world ceases to exist. We should be angry – mostly at ourselves for buying into it. Where is our dignity? Where has our sense of morality, ethics and conscience gone? At the very least, the recycling and reuse of materials should be at the centre of our survival efforts. Even the humble but valuable bee has been put on the stock market as a commodity. As long as there is a monetary bounty for nature, it seems people will care long enough to pay attention.

What if we cared? – A novel thought.

Kaitiakitanga: guardianship, protection and preservation is a proud badge to wear on our lapels. In New Zealand, Aotearoa, our country has the luxury of its lengthy consideration of distance from the rest of the world. It is priceless in its beauty and bounty. Culture is still strong and is gaining momentum in every sector, with such conservations as our native language finally being upheld as a rarity and treasure.  Looking at guardianship, think of what that means as someone who is a momentarily speck of dust in this universe for an insignificant span of time. If messing up the planet in that small amount of time is the best that we, as temporary barnacles, can do in our role of kaitiaki, how bad are we? The unique mana (spiritual power), tapu (sacred) and mauri (life force) of plants, animals, water and land are passed down to those we leave behind. Think of an artist’s impression of that.

aRtIsT Impression

Colours of paua,

intricate tapestries,

jewelled, gifted cheerful,

swirling like crazy mother of pearl,

dancing underneath

clear vibrant oceans

born from the fruits of their diet.

Koru, tree ferns

the circles of life,

bringing joy to our whānau,

without dissension nor conformity,

jade vegetations unfurling

strong sustainable umbrellas

which shield life, Kiwis,

creatures of the forest,

our existence, our being.


So, what does art look like during this epoch? How can artists use this time as endured geniuses to wager against these times of certain destruction? It’s no surprise that people are angry and the worm has turned. Graffiti has always been the art of the people used to deface, protest, and as an antiestablishmentarianism mechanism of declarations. It is still a language of anger, rage and territorial protest, although amusingly Enough – and incessantly annoying to some – it is becoming more mainstream and acceptable. I fear Banksy is an example of anonymous monetary acquisition within this genre. Just my opinion. Just saying. Other art, well, some of it, may well be self-absorbed, or cash incentivised, but there again mostly speaks of where human beings are at this time.

So, can the art and climate crisis ever be reconciled?

I will leave you with this thought, as naïve as it may be: I believe that although protest arouses the point and brings it to our attention (thanks Greta), being kind, caring and aesthetically pleasing increases the likelihood of a more charitable, altruistic and benevolent society. Mental health and artistic therapeutic collaborations need a canvas to thrive, and I believe would help promote climate responses to reverse this monster which has descended upon us. A climate contradiction to the ‘change’, if you will.

Stand Strong

Think outside the box,

no need for a box, or a soap box,

but for the cardboard recyclable one

the one we tear apart with glee,

after delivery

of plastic toys which pile up

then get sent to the dump!

Stand up, stand tall and strong,

 retrieve that box

and in acrylic red paint paste the words: