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4 Exhibitions That Tell the Story of Environmental Issues

Current environmental issues are having a direct impact on our lives. Various art museums are holding exhibitions that explore environmental sustainability and look for ways to reduce their environmental impact. The four exhibitions, including one ongoing show, consider environmental issues.

Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash.

ESG frameworks, which consider environmental, social and governance factors, are becoming even more important in investing and financial decision-making for companies and institutions as well as countries. Instead of merely seeking immediate economic benefits, taking steps to protect the environment, addressing social issues and ensuring transparent governance have become a necessary part of being a responsible citizen.

Environmental issues are particularly crucial, as they have a direct impact on our lives. Along with the COVID-19 pandemic, the world experienced record-breaking natural disasters, including floods, wildfires and droughts, in 2020. To delay is no option in the fight against climate change, and the issue of having as low a carbon footprint as possible has become all the more important to many of us.

Art institutions are no exception to this problem.

Leeum Museum of Art and Ho-Am Art Museum have implemented the ESG framework since 2022. To use eco-friendly materials and minimize exhibition waste, the two museums have announced that they will switch to modular partitions, use LED lighting and minimize paper use.

The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA) also announced a strategic plan with four key directions for the museum in April 2022, stating that it will transform into an ecological museum by reducing carbon emissions.

Many art institutions, including the ongoing Gwangju Biennale, are working to reduce waste within their exhibitions, such as by using eco-friendly wood and minimizing the number of free-standing walls. 

Because the process of creating an exhibition generates a huge amount of waste and carbon, museums in Korea have been holding exhibition programs on environmental issues to reflect on this matter.

Exhibition view of “Sustainable Museum: Art and Environment” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Busan (Busan MoCA). (May 4, 2021 - September 22, 2021). Courtesy of the museum.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Busan (Busan MoCA) held the exhibition Sustainable Museum: Art and Environment from May 4 to September 22, 2021. Through the works of domestic and international artists of various generations and the collaboration of various organizations, the exhibition examined the environmental issues surrounding Busan MoCA and explored alternatives that could be applied to the museum’s activities.

According to the museum, the average domestic museum exhibition generates the equivalent of a four- to five-ton truckload of waste. To demonstrate the amount of waste generated by exhibitions, the museum kept a pile of trash from previous exhibitions on one side of the exhibition space.

The artwork on display also spoke to environmental issues: a piece showing the process of removing about a ton of carbon, a piece made with a typeface that uses less ink and a chair made from discarded masks.

Practical measures for sustainable museums were also explored. To reduce air transportation of works from overseas, Busan MoCA requested production instructions from artists or museums to remake works in Korea and replaced physical works with prints or live broadcast works.

Poster image of “2023 Busan MoCA Cinemedia- Climate of Cinema: Isle, the Planet and Postcontact Zone” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Busan (Busan MoCA). (April 6, 2023 - August 6, 2023). Courtesy of the museum.

The Busan MoCA launched a new film exhibition program called Busan MoCA Cinemedia, which will run every other year. Its first exhibition, Climate of Cinema: Isle, the Planet and Postcontact Zone, runs from April 6 to August 6, 2023.

The exhibition features a variety of film works, including installations and virtual reality (VR) works, and encompasses themes of ecology, anthropology, political economy and the history of cinema to provide a discourse on environmental issues.

Artistic director Soyoung Kim, who is also a filmmaker and professor of cinema studies at the Korea National University of Art, brought together the 100 film works by 78 world-renowned filmmakers such as Saodat Ismailova and Tsai Ming-Liang.

The exhibition consists of four spaces: Theater Eulsuk, Theater Planet, Cinemedia Zone and Cinemedia Lounge, all built using upcycled materials. Each space presents “a multi-layered view of ‘re-Worlding’ as a keyword for how we perceive the issues facing humanity as ecological beings and how to coexist with the environment.”

The films on display tell stories about colonialism, the destruction of the planet’s ecosystems by industrial pollution, women, ecology, memory, the environment, migration and lost histories.

Poster image of “Climate Museum: Life and Death of Our Home” at the Seoul Museum of Art, Korea. (June 8, 2021 – August 8, 2021). Courtesy of the museum.

Climate Museum: Life and Death of Our Home, which ran from June 8 to August 8, 2021, at the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA), also focused on reducing carbon emissions by talking about the climate crisis. The exhibition sought to provide an indirect experience of the climate crisis as well as draw the relationship between the “big house,” the global ecosystem where things and life coexist, and the “small house,” where people live.

The exhibition was organized into three sections, both inside and outside the museum. The first section was called “Oikos of Tragedy,” which featured works that allowed visitors to experience global ecosystems dying due to climate change. The second section, “The System of the House: The House You Build — The House You Break,” pointed out the carbon emissions associated with building and breaking down a house. The last section, “B-Plex,” was installed on the museum’s roof and gardens to help bees, birds and butterflies that have lost habitat due to human activity in the city to survive.

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) 

The Museum-Carbon-Project (Past exhibition)

August 19, 2022 – October 30, 2022

Poster image of “The Museum-Carbon-Project” at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea. (August 19, 2022 – October 30, 2022). Courtesy of the museum.

In 2022, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) organized The Museum-Carbon-Project as a multidisciplinary art project that asked what kind of thinking and action museums should take in the face of the climate crisis.

The exhibition project was a discussion process on how contemporary art museums should think about and respond to the climate crisis.

The project, which addresses the environmental impact of museums, began by measuring the energy used and carbon emissions generated by the museum’s operations and exhibitions. During its course, experts from different fields discussed different ways to reduce and offset carbon emissions and suggested different ways to implement them.

The museum announced that the results of the carbon project will be actively reflected in the museum’s operations from 2023, bringing about a virtuous cycle in which the museum considers and implements social agendas together.

Transporting artwork from multiple locations to a single museum inevitably generates a large amount of carbon. For example, transporting artwork on a plane from New York to South Korea would generate 16 tons of carbon dioxide. Most of the waste produced in the course of an exhibition is not recyclable, and the styrofoam and plastic used in it take over 500 years to decompose.

With the climate crisis looming large, it’s important to look at the extent to which the art world is paying attention to these issues today. As public institutions, the exhibits at contemporary art museums should also be viewed critically.

For the big art exhibitions with numerous prints and spectacular visual designs, it’s worth looking behind the scenes to see what’s going on and how these public institutions are addressing the issues facing our society today.

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