'When the Well Is Dry' at the Current Brings the Global Climate Crisis Up Close | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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'When the Well Is Dry' at the Current Brings the Global Climate Crisis Up Close

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Published August 31, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


"California Is on Fire" by Allison Dinner - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • "California Is on Fire" by Allison Dinner

To anyone concerned about the state of the Earth, an exhibition at the Current gallery in Stowe will provoke sadness, anger, outrage, fear. "When the Well Is Dry" features photographs by 11 international visual storytellers whose work shows what humans have inflicted on nature, and nature's response.

Some of the artists, such as Edward Burtynsky (Canada) and Richard Mosse (Ireland), are world-renowned; other names will be new to Vermont viewers. The collective images are paradoxically beautiful, yet the big picture isn't pretty.

The exhibition takes its title from a pithy Benjamin Franklin quote: "When the well is dry, we know the worth of water." Long before "climate crisis" entered the lexicon, the American founding father tapped into the preciousness and finite nature of Earth's resources. In 2022, we know that abuse and overuse — never mind rapacious capitalism and blatant disregard for the welfare of others — have led to terrifying, irreversible consequences.

"As the Great Salt Lake Dries Up" by Solmaz Daryani - COURTESY
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  • "As the Great Salt Lake Dries Up" by Solmaz Daryani

Fires, sweltering heat, droughts, floods and devastating storms are the stuff of daily headlines. In that respect, the Current exhibition holds few surprises. But there's still a lot to see and learn, and the visual evidence imposes a necessary global perspective. As the title suggests, much of the work centers on water or the lack thereof.

Illustrating the latter, a trio of images by Iranian photographer Solmaz Daryani documents the death of Lake Urmia. Located between the provinces of East and West Azerbaijan, it was once the planet's sixth-largest saltwater lake and supported a thriving ecosystem and local economy. Daryani shows the cumulative effect of extensive drought, damming nearby rivers and pumping groundwater: a desiccated lake bed encrusted with salt, and the skeletal remains of now-useless infrastructure. In "As the Great Salt Lake Dries Up," a rusty metal chair is turned toward an exposed dock and grounded boat. Though Daryani's 8-by-12-inch prints are the smallest in this exhibition, their impact is devastating.

"Aliyu Ya'uba" by Etinosa Yvonne - COURTESY
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  • "Aliyu Ya'uba" by Etinosa Yvonne

Nigerian photographer Etinosa Yvonne illustrates scarcity in a more intimate way. Only one of her images appears in this show — the 38.5-by-51-inch "Aliyu Ya'uba" — but it is part of a "Water Collector" series, according to Rachel Moore, the Current's executive director and director of exhibitions. During a gallery visit, Moore explained that Yvonne photographed men in a Nigerian community who are tasked with fetching water each day for their families. Her large diptychs pair a portrait of a single man on the left side and a detail of the water-procurement process on the right. Both are shot against an inky-black background.

Ya'uba, 38, clad in a butter yellow kaftan and black beanie, strikes a dignified pose. In the adjacent image, one hand extends into the frame holding a makeshift funnel cut from a plastic jug; another reaches in to pour water from an orange receptacle. They're filtering the gravel from the water, Moore said. On her website, Yvonne quotes Ya'uba: "I make at least four trips to the stream before I am able to fill up all the containers at home."

"Snow Goose" by Acacia Johnson - COURTESY
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  • "Snow Goose" by Acacia Johnson

Four 37-by-46-inch prints by Alaska-based photographer Acacia Johnson tell stories about water — frozen and melting — and Indigenous communities in the northern regions of the globe. In one heartrending image, "Charlotte Collecting Water," a young girl squats on a peninsula of ice and carefully pours water from a cup into a kettle. She has skimmed it from surface melt, where the water is fresh, Moore explained.

Around Charlotte, the vast, white, nearly featureless terrain seems endless. Concentrating on her painstaking task, the girl looks utterly alone, but she represents an imperiled community living, literally, at the edge of the world.

Those of us in more privileged quarters might too easily put environmental devastation out of mind — unless our quarters are burning up. Allison Dinner's 14-by-21-inch print "California Is on Fire" shows what the climate apocalypse looks like when it arrives in your backyard.

Brazilian Argentinean documentary photographer and activist Júlia Pontés knows firsthand about living with catastrophe. She grew up in Minas Gerais, a state in Brazil that has the world's largest concentrations of iron mines.

"Can you imagine having one every mile? I went to school next to one," Pontés said in a phone conversation. "My first job was [working] in pig iron. It's so embedded that we don't see [the problems]." After her family moved to Argentina, she said, "I was like, 'Wow, this is getting really bad, and we're not talking about it.'"

Pontés is talking about it now. For the past eight years she has been researching and photographing the ecological impact of mines in her birth country. One example from her "O Minas Gerais | My Land, Our Landscapes" series is included in the Current exhibit. The 58-by-72-inch aerial photograph is hard to parse until you learn it shows the tailings of iron ore manufacturing spreading like capillaries across a broad delta.

Pontés has financed her often risky endeavor with grants from a number of organizations, including National Geographic and the Planetary Health Alliance based at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She continued her research for an MFA at Columbia University in New York City, where she's recently been living with her infant daughter. A grant from Visura, a web platform for freelance visual storytellers, brought Pontés to Stowe for a three-week residency at the Current.

"I'm using this residency to keep working on all that material that I've gathered," Pontés said. "The Vermont mountains give me a sense of home; I feel good to have this space and really think about it, to connect with nature in the U.S." Her research materials, including more photographs and portraits, are on view in one of the gallery rooms. Pontés is on-site every afternoon to talk with visitors about the ongoing work.

"Cluster of Palm Trees" by M'hammed Kilito - COURTESY
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  • "Cluster of Palm Trees" by M'hammed Kilito

Earlier this summer, Moore announced the gallery's partnership with Vermont- and New York-based Visura, which collaborated on both the exhibition and the artist-in-residence awards. Five awards will be granted this year; the second is going to Moroccan photographer M'hammed Kilito. His four images in the Current exhibit, from his "Before It's Gone" series, address dire realities of desert life.

Visura founder Adriana Teresa Letorney, who lives in Stowe, wrote in an email that her mission is to "empower audiences with better visual content by empowering creators and editors with a safe, inclusive sustainable ecosystem that values both the content and talent." Visura aims to bridge the gap between global storytellers and the public by making the images accessible to publishers and editors.

At the Current, Letorney hopes that viewers of "When the Well Is Dry" will "leave feeling empowered to be the change we envision," she wrote. "We are all interconnected, and we can all work together to make the world a better place."

The original print version of this article was headlined "What on Earth"