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Lynne Siefert’s ‘Ark’ interacts with sustainability and our changing environment

The SAM exhibition holds connections to the UW community

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Still from "Generations"

Still from "Generations." Courtesy of Lynne Siefert

On a cruise ship, an eerie voice announces the postapocalyptic realities of our capitalist society. In a snowfield, a man walks alone, children play on a beach, and life goes on — all under the shadows of gargantuan, smoke-belching coal power plants. Welcome to Lynne Siefert’s world of film.

In her exhibition “Ark,” now on display at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), Siefert explores the consequences of capitalist consumption and climate change in a 60-minute film installation. The exhibition contains two films: “Ark” and “Generations.” 

Siefert, who is originally from Seattle, uses both digital and 16 mm film in her work. Her films often express dissatisfaction with the current capitalist political climate and the resulting lack of environmental progress.

“My work is not depicting something sustainable, but rather something that is unsustainable,” Siefert wrote in an email. “In ‘Generations’ we see the constant and continuous integration of coal power throughout the United States. I'm hoping viewers of the work can situate themselves into these landscapes, and to think in a broader and longer-term sense of how we are structuring our society in relation to our energy use.”

Siefert’s films also touch on the importance of political action and policy change with regard to climate change — something the United States has not seen enough of in recent years.

“I was thinking a lot about a political gesture, where there’s a lot of rhetoric about … ‘we’re doing things for the climate,’” Siefert said in a Zoom call. “But it’s just rhetoric; there’s no actual policy being implemented.”

Siefert’s exhibition also celebrates her being awarded the 2019 Betty Bowen Award, an annual accolade from the SAM which honors and supports Northwest artists and consists of a $15,000 cash prize and a feature exhibit at the museum. The award’s namesake, Betty Bowen, is remembered for celebrating the talents of artists in the region. 

Interested viewers don't have to wait for the SAM’s reopening to catch a glimpse of projects focused on environmentalist ideals. The UW has its own host of professors and students who are committed to investigating sustainability and material relationships.

Michael Swaine, assistant professor of ceramics and sculpture with the School of Art + Art History + Design, has contributed to multiple sustainability-minded art exhibitions with the San Francisco-based design studio Futurefarmers. Swaine assisted with two of their projects: "Reverse Ark ll" (2009), based in Baltimore, and “Shoemaker’s Dialogues” (2011), at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The purpose of these exhibits is to encourage collaboration between students and artists on themes of reusing and recycling materials, and to encourage viewers to contemplate the way we consume resources.

Swaine spoke about how he integrates these ideas in his courses. A common project for his ceramics students involves the repurposing of “slop,” or clay scraps, from previous classes and remodeling it into new, functional clay.

“You realize that this material is unlike other materials — this material of clay is great in its ability to be reused,” said Swaine. “So it’s a nice reminder for the students.”

Chelsea Ha, who studies environmental science and resource management, agrees that art can serve as an accessible way for people to understand environmentalism. 

“I think a lot of people can use art to encapsulate the idea of sustainability, because sometimes it's not fun for the general public to read about sustainability in papers or new articles,” Ha said. “If you create an amazing art piece out of reusable materials or trash … l think it can capture the attention of someone who’s not in that environmental perspective.” 

In reference to Ha’s point, Swaine elaborated on how using recycled materials in art can be both liberating and exciting.

“There’s something great where you have material where you’re like, ‘Oh, this is free, I gathered it out of the waste stream and I don't have to pay for it’ ... I’m kind of just borrowing it,” said Swaine. “You have a feeling of freedom, like ‘I’ll try this weird idea ... [but] it’s okay because I’m using something that's already had a life and I’m borrowing it to give it this other little temporary life.’”

Although Swaine and Siefert differ in the mediums they use — physical materials, as opposed to film — both artists generate conversations on sustainability and the use of resources, which are critically important topics for people to consider during a climate crisis.

Although the museum is currently closed and the exhibition is meant for in-person viewings, Siefert’s “Ark” will remain at the SAM until March 2021.

Reach contributing writer Katie Newman at @katieinewman

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