Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


IAS Turbulence: Working with Trouble — Climate emergency, democratic emergency

by Maja Fowkes

natalia ll

15 April 2020

Natalia LL, Consumer Art, 1974, photograph 88x80cm © Natalia LL. Courtesy of lokal30 gallery, Warsaw.


The notion of turbulence as tempestuous and stormy weather has intensified in our times of climate breakdown, when extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, or disastrous gale winds are becoming a unifying experience of living on Earth.  Air turbulence, in the colloquial sense of the violent movement of air that causes aeroplanes to shudder, has been rendered significantly more extreme by climate chaos, whose effects on planetary jet streams have been scientifically observed. Although political disturbance, manifest in the upsurge of populism across the globe, might seem unrelated to ecological crisis, it is increasingly evident that recent changes in political ‘climate’ are related to actual climate change. Canadian political scientist Kevin MacKay has analysed the relations between oligarchic elitist rule and the ongoing manipulation of corporate media and the political arena, including the ‘relativizing’ of the scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate disruption.[i] Working with trouble, a notion which shares turbulence’s etymological roots in the thirteenth-century French verb troubler, meaning ‘to stir up’, ‘make cloudy’ and ‘disturb’, is a regular state of affairs for art historians dealing with contemporary art histories.

The East European revolutionary changes of 1989 saw political and ecological programmes coalesce, with environmental degradation across the Bloc and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 becoming a priority for the civic movements that brought down the Communist system. Since these political transformations, dealing with trouble in Eastern Europe has predominantly been understood as a historical question, directed towards processing retrospectively the traumas of the turbulent twentieth century, rather than a characteristic of the present. However, the right-wing populist governments that have recently come to power in several countries of the region are intentionally destabilizing the democratic achievements of the post-communist period. Working with trouble is, therefore, also required of art historians dealing with the fragile regional histories of art in Eastern Europe, which are currently becoming sites for propagandistic agendas. In Hungary, for instance, academic courses in curatorial as well as gender studies have been discontinued by state decree, while the autonomy of universities has been undermined to the extent that some have been coerced to relocate, as in the case of Central European University’s forced move from Budapest to its new home in Vienna.

In Poland, the art world was shaken in the spring of 2019 by the decision of the new management of the National Museum in Warsaw to remove from display certain feminist artworks in their permanent collection. One of those temporarily taken down was Natalia LL’s photographic series Consumer Art (1974), which features recorded sequences of a female figure lasciviously consuming a banana. Public protests following its removal, with participants demonstratively eating bananas and social media flooded with banana-related memes, eventually resulted in the museum revoking its controversial decision. Natalia LL’s neo-avant-garde work was disturbing to the right-wing populist mindset because it disrupted patriarchal visual codes. However, beyond the immediately apparent gender references of Consumer Art, the work also critically addressed consumerism as part of the artist’s wider exploration of political and environmental interconnectedness and of the embeddedness of individuals in their specific socio-political geographies.[ii]

Oto Hudec, The Flag of the Blue Planet, 2019 © Oto Hudec. Courtesy of the artist.

In another recent essay on artistic practices that call for radical social and ecological justice in order to address climate chaos, Reuben Fowkes and I consider Central and East European artists and social movements as co-producers of alternative platforms for democratic responses to social and environmental transformation.[iii] In this vein, Slovak artist Oto Hudec’s Flag of the Blue Planet (2019) was conceived as a reinterpretation of the flag that peace activist John McConnell designed in 1969 for the first Earth Day celebration. While the original featured the planet at its centre, Hudec’s version left a gaping hole where the Earth should be. This indicates the dramatically changed circumstances and scale of the current ecological crisis, where it is no longer just a matter of warning about the dangers of limits to uncontrolled economic growth, but of pointing to the actual threat to the continuity of biological life itself on the imperilled planet. The disobedient act of cutting out symbols from national flags is a recurring phenomenon in East European revolutionary histories, as a means for protestors to express their radical discontent with the system. By combining the legacy of political uprisings in Eastern Europe with the unprecedented threat of environmental emergency, Hudec signals that thirty years and a generation after 1989, our turbulent times call for new alliances, fresh political imagination, and radical solidarity in order to work through, as well as with, trouble.


[i] Kevin MacKay, Radical Transformation: Oligarchy, Collapse and the Crisis of the Civilisation (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2017).

[ii] See also, Maja and Reuben Fowkes, ‘I live on Earth: Cosmic Realms and the Place of Nature in the Work of Natalia LL,’ in Agata Jakubowska (ed.), Natalia LL: Consumer Art and Beyond (Warsaw: Ujazdowski Castle CCA, 2017), pp. 104-127.

[iii] See also, Maja and Reuben Fowkes, ‘Raising the Ecological Emergency Flag,’ in Barbara Ciprová and Karina Kottová (eds), Art is On Fire (Brno: Moravian Gallery, 2019), pp. 5-6.

Maja Fowkes participated in IAS Turbulence: Engaging with Turbulence — A panel discussion on 7 May 2019. Find more information here.

Maja Fowkes is an art historian, curator and co-director of the Post-socialist Art Centre (PACT) at the Institute of Advanced Studies, UCL. She is co-founder of the Translocal Institute for Contemporary Art, an independent research centre focussing on the art history of Central Europe and contemporary ecological practices. 

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