When art and the environment collide

The Berman Museum’s new exhibit explores human impact on the earth

Sarah Hojsak


The Berman Museum of Art is quiet on a Friday morning as the noise of a video installation hums in the background. Throughout the next six months, however, the museum is expecting to welcome larger crowds following the opening of A Stratigraphic Fiction, its newest exhibition.[TB1]

A Stratigraphic Fiction officially opened on August 18, but the museum formally unveiled the ambitious exhibition last Thursday with a crowded opening reception. In the coming weeks, the museum will also host a series of conversations between some of the artists featured in the exhibit and various Ursinus professors.

The exhibit is based on the concept of the Anthropocene,  a relatively new geological term used to describe the impact human activity has on the earth. According to geologists, humanity has reached a period in time when its environmental impact is irreversible and will inevitably leave a profound mark on future fossil records.

Ginny Kollak, curator of exhibitions for the Berman, has been thinking about staging an exhibition like this for several years. The idea of an intersection between art, science, philosophy, and environmental concerns piqued her interest, and she has since been planning a way to incorporate this into a cohesive exhibit.  

“Up until this point [in geologic time], we could take a core sample and look at the different layers of sediment in the fossils, and from that make assumptions about what life was like on earth [at a certain] point in time,” she said, explaining the geological science behind the Anthropocene and its role in the art on display.

“Now we’re looking at the condition of the earth—things like the salinity of the oceans and the content of the atmosphere, and mass extinctions happening—and speculating on what the future rocks that we leave behind will be like,” she explained. SSome of the works on display “explicitly imagine what these future fossils will be like,” according to Kollak.

Kollak also explained that the terminology of the Anthropocene posits that “the problem, humanity, has a solution, and that solution is also humanity.”

It’s a kind of strange paradoxical situation,” she observed.

The exhibit compiles the work of ten emerging contemporary artists. Most works were created within the last five years, some specifically for this exhibit.

While it is evident that the work of each artist has clear stylistic differences, “many of them are working through similar ideas . . . in one way or another many of them are dealing with this often confusing relationship between [humanity] and nature,” Kollak noted.

This relationship is often fluid. “Sometimes you can think of yourself as being very much a part of nature, and sometimes being very much removed; those two entities work against and for each other,” she went on.

“Many of the artists are also inspired by romantic notions of the sublime, especially 18th and 19th century art history: things like expansive landscapes or imagery that shows man as small in relationship to the power of nature.”

In the coming weeks, several of the artists will visit the Berman and join in conversations with Ursinus professors in pairings based on the intersections of their disciplines.

The first conversation, featuring artist Laura Moriarty and associate professor of environmental studies Dr. Leah Joseph, will take place Thursday, Sept. 22.

Moriarty’s work includes sculptures that resemble layers of geological sediment, or strata. According to Joseph, whose background is in geology, Kollak’s decision to place her with this artist was particularly fitting. To prepare for her conversation, she has been reading articles about the Anthropocene and studying the implications of this new geological era.

“I think it’s a really neat idea: this concept of whether human impact, and usually negative human impact, has been [significant] enough on the earth that we would actually leave a signal that could be interpreted by future generations,” she said.

Joseph acknowledged that Moriarty’s work has appealed to her since she first saw it and she is looking forward to exploring it in greater depth. “I really liked the vision she had when she created [her sculptures] and [how the sculptures] appeal to things that I look at as well. I’m interested to talk with her about where her ideas have come from,” Joseph said.

“I always also love to talk to artists about their work because I like to learn what they see in it, and what they were going for. I think it’s very exciting to hear [the] motivations and [intentions people] have for [their] work,” she added.

Associate professor of English Dr. Meredith Goldsmith will lead the second conversation with artist Nick van Woert.

Goldsmith explained that the artist’s work deals with contemporary American landscapes, which relates to her interest in consumer culture in American literature and the representation of objects.

Looking forward to the conversation series, Goldsmith said “It’s great to have artists talking to artists, but I think to have people out of disciplines talking to each other can be particularly enlightening…I think it’s a really good initiative.”

Goldsmith added that she hopes the exhibition will appeal to those who might not normally visit the Berman.

“The idea of the contemporary American landscape is something that a lot of people can engage with,” she said.

Kollak explained the broader implications of the exhibition and its goal of prompting viewers to consider their place as humans on earth: Debates that surround climate change, use of natural resources, and extinction will arise and involve questions both political and philosophical.

“What is our responsibility? We are part of this natural ecosystem [that is an] unfolding story,” she wondered aloud. “I certainly don’t know the answer to that.”

A Stratigraphic Fiction is on display through March 19, 2017.