Cartoonist Ed Koren and photographer Stephen Gorman tackle the climate crisis in a new exhibition | Visual Arts | Seven days
What attracts you first is the look. Direct, personal and full of meaning, but illegible.
Polar bears are rooted in a place and a time: Kaktovik, an Inupiat Eskimo village fly on Barter Island in the Beaufort Sea within Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where they have were photographed by Stephen Gorman of Norwich in 2017. The creatures pictured, for lack of a better word, are virtually of the same vintage, only they spring from the mind and hand of the famous New Yorker cartoonist Ed Koren, who lives in Brookfield and was Vermont’s second cartoon winner.
As of March 12, you can find Gorman’s photos and Koren’s artwork on the walls of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., one of the nation’s most prestigious art museums. The exhibit they share, “Down to the Bone,” will hang for nearly a year. And, although it was a coincidence that brought together the works of these two very different artists, the feelings behind these works are mutual. If you find these looks disturbing, there’s a good reason.
Gorman first visited Kaktovik in 2005. As a photographer, author and outdoor enthusiast, he has made a specialty of traveling to remote and wild places to capture images and stories of wildlife in disappearing, of the landscapes they inhabit and of the traditional cultures of the people who have shared this land for so long. That summer of 2005, he arrived in Kaktovik by kayak, paddling from the Brooks Range to the Beaufort Sea and then across Kaktovik Lagoon, which separates the village from the mainland.
“The lagoon was only a few miles away, but it was still paddling open water in the Arctic Ocean in polar bear country,” he said in an interview. “It was not something you took lightly.” That summer, he recalls, the pack ice was visible about ten miles out to sea.
When it returned in 2017, the pack ice was hundreds of miles offshore. It was startling evidence of the impact of climate change. So was just about everything else Gorman saw.
“Parts of the village are literally washed away by rising seas and increasingly violent storms,” he later wrote in an essay accompanying his photos. “The permafrost beneath the village is melting. Ice caves once used to store whale meat are collapsing…Ice-adapted bowhead whales are now migrating dangerously far offshore for hunters searching for them in small boats. And increasingly, the ice is out of reach for the many polar bears who find themselves stranded like castaways… Bears are climate refugees threatened with extinction.”
That, in a nutshell, is what Gorman aimed to capture with his camera.
Koren, of course, has been known for decades for his hazy humans and his ironic, sharp observations of urban and rural life. And for his expressive, spooky creatures.
When star wars released in 1977, Washington Post Film critic Gary Arnold wrote, “There’s a delightfully whimsical moment during the cantina sequence in which we briefly catch a glimpse of a monster beginning to laugh heartily at another monster’s untold joke. It’s like if an Edward Koren cartoon had suddenly come to life.”
In the 1980s, Koren played with designs inspired by dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, with their animals and figures staring visitors straight in the eye.
“It was like a big story that you could then go into on your own about that moment: why are they there? What did they just do? What did they are about to do?” Koren recalls in an interview.
He moved on, but around 2015 he suddenly found himself returning to the theme. In the meantime, he had immersed himself in reading about climate change, particularly New Yorker powerful work by colleague Elizabeth Kolbert on catastrophic change, David Wallace-Wells The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Global Warming and, more broadly, Jared Diamond’s Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed.
Unsurprisingly, this put him in a dark frame of mind. “The more I read,” he said, “the more alarmed I am.”
Koren was never a political artist – more of a sociological artist – but the result was a set of drawings of creatures that, as he puts it, are “surrounded by the remnants of a previous civilization, and they try to give a sense of it: why did it collapse, are they dying and where are they going?”
Koren and Gorman knew each other tangentially through a mutual friend, Stephen Kellert, who was Gorman’s adviser at the Yale School of the Environment and, as Gorman puts it, “probably the world’s foremost expert on how whose culture shapes our relationship with nature”.
So when Koren exhibited his new drawings at the BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vermont, Gorman and his wife, Mary, headed out of the way to see them. As she entered, Mary looked at the drawings on the wall. “You know,” she said, “Ed drew your pictures.”
What they have in common, says Gorman, is a sort of post-apocalyptic pathos. “My bears are climate refugees threatened with extinction, wandering like the undead scavenging for bones. How can these iconic symbols of the wild be reduced to gnawing on cartilage to avoid starvation?
“Ed’s creatures are just as pathetic as they are surrounded by the detritus of a vanished world,” he continues. “Both of them look you straight in the eye and say, ‘Why did you do that?’ ‘How did we get there ?'”
Neither Gorman nor Koren really expects “Down to the Bone” audiences to rush in and mount the barricades or continue a campaign to return the world to a pre-industrial way of life. Although Gorman, at least, wouldn’t care.
“For me, it’s important that people see that it’s not just about climate change,” he says. “It’s ecological overshoot, and climate change is just a symptom. We’ve exceeded our planetary limits – the planet’s ability to absorb our waste and regenerate natural resources for our use.
“Consumer capitalism is the hammer that smashes the planet,” he continues. “I want people to come away from this exhibit understanding that this is a systemic problem and it won’t be solved by techno-utopians.”
For his part, Koren is a philosopher. “Most of us don’t pay too much attention to it. We go about our lives in the pretty conventional way that we’ve always done,” he says. “You and I can find many examples of people who lament the state of the climate and yet go to a place in the Caribbean for a month and then take a tour of the Rhine. It’s mind-numbing. And these are people in the environmental movement.”
He adds: “All around there is life with no real sense of how every contribution, no matter how small, adds to the messy stew.”
Koren’s old friend Howard Norman, the novelist, wrote about the cartoonist’s “end times sketches” in a recent essay on Literary Hub. “I gave the cartoons somewhat pessimistic and even off-limits titles, like ‘Thinking About Extinction,'” Koren told Norman. “But if I had provided more existential legends, it might have ended up being the same for each one: ‘Who were we and what were we thinking?‘”
And if we ask ourselves these questions, Koren says to me, “Maybe there is a little spark of light. I don’t believe for a second that I will have an effect on anything, but it gives me the felt like I worked diligently for something more important than a yuck.”