With the Earth’s temperature rising, a small island in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean sits at the frontier of complete encapsulation by the ocean’s rising sea levels. 

Prof. Aida Wong (FA) welcomed the ambassador of Tuvalu to the United Nations, Aunese Simati, and Mark Cheetham, professor of art history at the University of Toronto, to discuss the role of “eco-art” in saving Tuvalu from the threat of being washed away by climate change. 

Eco-art is “the idea of artists collaborating ... to stimulate action on climate change,” pulling together the idea of culture in relation to climate change, said Cheetham.

“[Tuvalu’s] very existence is threatened by human-induced climate change,” said Simati, who spoke about the challenges and adaptive policies in Tuvalu.

Tuvalu, the fourth smallest nation in the UN — a little more than a quarter of the size of Manhattan — is a flat island that exists only two to three meters above sea level. Walls are not enough to prevent flooding, as seawater will rise from underground, and the only way to prevent the absorption of Tuvalu by the ocean is society’s collective effort to halt climate change, said Simati. 

“[We’re] trying to find answers to these questions — what happens to Tuvalu or similar nations? ... What happens to their people? We are not merely statistics. ... It’s our security and human rights as a country — our culture [and] our identity,” said Simati. 

Even then, there is a concern about where the people of Tuvalu would migrate to, said Simati, pointing out that the situation of Tuvalu’s people does not fall under United Nations refugee status. Simati said that it is unprecedented for climate change to be considered a refugee crisis, the criteria of which usually pertains to crises of persecution or war. In comparison, climate change is slow and gradual, yet it is very much the grounds of a crisis, he added. 

Wong spoke about her collaboration with Vincent Huang, a Taiwanese artist who has been using eco-art to create awareness for Tuvalu’s crisis through art installations. 

Huang is representing Tuvalu at the 2017 Venice Biennale, an annual contemporary visual art exhibition, with Wong curating Tuvalu’s pavilion. Huang’s work features a flooded pavilion, to represent the challenges ahead of Tuvalu. 

“Vincent and I are leaning towards and are energized by what German Artist Joseph Boyce called ‘Social Sculpture’ — the theoretical hypothesis that art has evolutionary and revolutionary power,” said Wong. 

“Social sculpture fashions everything into art, and everything, including the whole society, should be approached creatively,” she said. In this manner, people of different disciplines can work together as architects of society, said Wong. 

Students in Wong’s experiential learning practicum this semester, titled “Tuvalu to the World,” worked on eco-art projects researching the crisis in Tuvalu — including sea level rise, coral bleaching and endangered crops. 

They selected crops and wrote mini biographies in first person to consider how living things feel in their hostile environments, linking humans with non-humans, said Wong. The class’s exhibition will be featured in Usdan Student Center during the Festival of the Arts in April. 

Eco-art can be a movement to change people’s actions in regard to the environment. “It’s cultural work, not just science, and this is where they meet,” concluded Cheetham, calling upon eco-art as an intersection between art and activism. 

If society allows the Earth to warm up by the expected two degrees celsius, “We will be inundated, we will be gone,” said Simati, who also noted that climate change will take on many shapes around the world, like expected droughts in the Sahel region of Africa. “Sea level rise is but one existential issue for us.”

The event was part of the “Art and Environment Crisis” series sponsored by the Department of Fine Arts.