Dustin Yellin Imagines a World Wrecked by Climate Change
Dustin Yellin recently debuted a colorful, if bleak, sculptural installation depicting a future world swept up in a tumultuous sea brought on by callous corporate indifference. Titled 10 Parts (2015), the work is the centerpiece of his exhibition at GRIMM Gallery in Amsterdam. Despite the work’s forward gaze, its subject is far from fantastical right now, though Yellin insists it’s not a direct response to climate change. “I’m never thinking about climate change topically; it’s just in there,” the Brooklyn artist tells me over the phone.
A self-described hoarder, Yellin created this 10-part glasswork over the course of an 18-month period, collaging snippets from his stash of books, magazines, and other visual detritus. The result is a 20-foot-long landscape (a “experiment in scale,” he says), bursting with wild, enigmatic stories that echo the richness of the Hieronymus Bosch paintings the artist counts among his primary influences. In Yellin’s sculpture, as with Bosch’s work, miniature scenes emerge from the whole—like hooded figures standing in worship or ancient ruins on a mountainside. In the final, 10th part of the work, a feverish tumble of figures and objects appear to fall over the edge of the world (this is Yellin’s favorite part).
“I’ve been thinking about climate change for as long as I can remember,” Yellin says. “I lived through Hurricane Sandy [in 2012] and had everything destroyed. I was in it. It was like my studio became chicken soup.” The sea being an ever-present subject for Yellin is understandable, not least because Pioneer Works—the multidisciplinary nonprofit space founded by the artist in 2012—operates out of a 25,000-square-foot warehouse in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. The low-lying community sits just along the water in one of the city’s most susceptible areas to flooding. In 2014, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $200 million Integrated Flood Protection System (IFPS) that would shield Red Hook’s 13,000 flood-susceptible residents from rising tides. Yet despite these promises, today the IFPS remains barely developed, and with funding slashed by half, no one knows what form it will take or what safety it will offer, if any. “I built an institution in Red Hook which will be under water,” Yellin says, adding with a laugh, “So when I think about my hundred-year plan, I go, ‘Well, should I be moving the institution to the left or right a little?’ ”
Even with a general consensus about the importance of addressing climate change, more broadly, the sense of urgency is lacking. When Americans are asked which issues matter to them most—at least what issues the federal government should address—climate change ranks far down the list. According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only eight percent of respondents thought the issue should be a “top priority” for the federal government. And despite the argument that climate change is a shared human reality, the issue divides people along traditional political lines. According to the New York Times, a recent Pew Research Center poll found that a third of Americans care “a great deal about climate change,” with that figure breaking down as 72 percent Democrat, 24 percent Republican. (There is, interestingly, vast bipartisan support for clean-energy technologies like solar and wind power). Of course, exceptional moments have shown unity is possible: Look to the People’s Climate March in New York City in 2014, which drew hundreds of thousands and inspired numerous global events held in solidarity. More recently, the Paris Agreement climate treaty, which came together in December 2015, went into effect internationally this past November.
But broadly, it is the pervasive divide that Yellin points to as a fundamental challenge to progress and change. “I think the most pressing issue is our inability as a species to get along, our inability to work together, our sort of amplification of religious ideas and our continued propagation of certain socioeconomic and geopolitical divides, and nationalism,” he says. Such deeply rooted socioeconomic and historical divisions cannot simply be wished away nor solved with art. And fighting to transcend these issues in the face of entrenched economic interests rooted in the fossil fuel industry—members of which are slated to occupy key positions in the Trump administration—is a growing rather than receding challenge for climate change activists.
While not eschewing the present moment in his work, Yellin likes to think in broader strokes. “I try to position the work in a 500- or 1,000-year context,” he explains. “There’s tens of thousands of found images in there that are almost like the DNA of our species in our media. There are a hundred years of books and magazines that have been cut up; most of those books and magazines will be destroyed. And a lot of those images, whether they’re by an amateur photographer or illustrator, whatever it may be, those might be the only remnants of those humans’ works and what they were representing.” So, in crafting this image of an apocalyptic future, Yellin is also preserving the present.