AUSTIN, TEXAS — The ghost of Robert Rauschenberg, the late American painter, has appeared hovering over a lake in Austin, Texas, in the form of a dead tree. This 38-foot-tall cedar elm, meant to bring attention to the crippling drought that has severely depleted reservoirs, bled dry important fluvial arteries, and killed more trees than there are people in America, bears a solemn burden.
Viewed from Austin’s main footbridge over the slow-moving Lady Bird Lake, the tree sits elevated on a platform, its ghost-white roots extending towards the precious blue water below. To the north is the Texas state capital and to the south is Barton Springs, Austin’s beloved, spring-fed, Olympic-sized swimming hole.
14,000 screen-printed tree prayer flags line the trail along the lake, adorning vegetation and circuitously making their way to the main attraction — this dead tree in the heart of a city suffering from a relentless drought in the middle of a state caught in a perpetual cycle of decreasing precipitation and growing population.
The owners of Austin-based Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Texas’ first and oldest legal distillery, donated the tree from their ranch outside of town — a ranch they had started referring to as ‘firewood ranch’ because almost every tree was dead or dying. In its display, the tree is set within a square boundary of lights cornered by four buoys that read ‘danger.’ They’re meant to deter the countless rowers and kayakers who use the lake, but these buoys can also be interpreted as a forecast, or forewarning, of what’s to come.
Earlier this month water officials in Austin declared the current drought to be the worst Central Texas has ever experienced. And that’s not for lack of competition; the state is known for epic droughts that hold out with the same tenacity as the Texans who defended the Alamo. If rain doesn’t come soon and often, the city may need to pursue options such as banning all but hand-held outdoor watering and even curtailing the use of indoor water by next spring.
“This is not your father’s drought, this is not even your grandfather’s drought,” Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros told the City Council. “This is, in my opinion, the worst drought we’ve faced in Central Texas, ever.”
Texas is in the latter stages of its third consecutive year of drought, with above average temperatures, parched summers, and strained reservoirs. Climate scientists have said that the record-breaking heat and drought of the last few years may become the new normal. As of this week, 94 percent of the state is in drought.
Think Like A Drought
Credit: Ari Phillips
Robert Rauschenberg, who died in 2008, was an American painter known for his influence on the pop art movement, and for using unusual materials and objects in his art. The foundation set up in his name seeks to perpetuate his civic-minded attitude and belief that art can lead to social transformation. It is responsible for the dead tree above Lady Bird Lake.
This project, called THIRST, was developed by Women & Their Work, an Austin-based visual and performing arts organization. Women & Their Work applied for the grant nearly two years ago and worked on the installation arduously until its official unveiling on September 29th. It will be on display until mid-December.
“Aldo Leopold, the father of conservation ecology, said we must learn to ‘think like a mountain,” Chris Cowden, executive director of Women & Their Work, said from her office in the gallery in downtown Austin. “This project is about helping us learn to think like a drought.
“Back in March 2012 we were just coming out of this hideous drought,” Cowden continued with a rapid-fire delivery that her facial expressions struggled to keep up with. “I asked a number of different artists, writers, academics, and architects about the project and we decided that the most pressing issue was water.”
They also decided that the installation should be on Lady Bird Lake because it, along with nearby Barton Springs, represents the physical and spiritual center of Austin. Lady Bird Lake’s water level doesn’t fluctuate since it’s controlled by a dam down river.
“Lady Bird Lake is always the same level, always looking lush and green,” Cowden said. “You can go there and think there’s really no water problem at all. It’s not like Lake Travis reservoir to the north which is currently just about one-third full. That takes your breath away.”
The Power Of Art
Rauschenberg believed that art can do more than take your breath away; he thought it could change the world. That same belief drives Cowden, too.
“I’ve always believed that art can be so powerful on so many levels, but a lot of people in Texas and America don’t share that — they feel like they have to defend themselves against this alien force called art,” Cowden said. “But I think this project comes upon them unawares, and from what I’ve seen and heard, it’s very powerful and makes people think.“
Cowden said that, because of its visual and visceral nature, the installation speaks to people in a way that doom-and-gloom articles and dire warnings about climate change can’t. It perhaps even makes the specter of climate change seem real to some people for the first time.
Recently, Cowden mentioned the project to her mail carrier to which the carrier responded in-length about her use of greywater, how every house should have a rain barrel, and other issues relating to urban water use.
“This was the mail carrier; she hadn’t talked about this at all, but it was all pent up and it just came out,” Cowden said. “It’s not going to be government officials or art organizations that make a difference in the end, it has to be people on the ground implementing changes.”
Raising Public Awareness Above Water
Cowden and others involved with the project have been pleasantly surprised with the exposure it has garnered in its first few weeks on display.
Pages of photos have been posted on Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #Thirstart, says Rachel Koper, Program Director for Women & Their Work. Many of the photos were taken at night and, viewed together with the images of the black-and-white prayer flags, give the impression of a skeleton laying claim over an otherwise thriving city.
But, hanging out on the footbridge, one hears comments like “cool” and “that’s neat” more than anything that would seem to express an immediate and urgent realization of the extent of the drought. Passersby on bike or foot often just view it as another photo opportunity, not much different than the Willie Nelson statue further down the trail.
The process of bringing the project to life was fraught with resistance at times, according to Cowden. She said many of the different stakeholders from whom they needed approval initially expressed skepticism and even fear about such a conspicuous endeavor in such a high-profile space.
“People would say ‘you can’t do that, I don’t want to talk about this,’” Cowden said. “What we came to see was that this response was a mirror to the water crisis. As if just because there’s water in the lake it doesn’t affect them and they don’t want to talk about it.”
Cowden said if she was doing the project over again the one thing she would change would be to remove the emphasis on the drought of 2011 and all the trees that died because of it. “That makes people think it’s an issue of the past, and it’s clearly not,” she said.
Art Depicts Climate Change
Cowden said she uses the “double c-word” — climate change — to talk about the project in certain situations, but with some people, you have to meet them where they are. In Texas, many people are hesitant to admit the extent of the drought, let alone consider that it might be human-caused.
Cowden mentioned a few projects that more directly address climate change, such as Erika Blumenfeld’s “Water, water, every where …” which incorporates photographs and charred debris from wildfires to portray the emotional component that climate disruption is having on communities across the Southwest that are rapidly becoming more arid.
In a video about the project, Blumenfeld says, “I’m trying to find ways to talk about some of these very painful experiences that we are all having to deal with as we see our landscape changing and our environment changing.”
Cowden also suggested multi-media artist Marina Zurkow’s 2009 animated video “Slurb,” a trippy depiction of a watery world in which extreme weather events occur frequently and jellyfish have dominion. It’s not so far-fetched considering the recent surge in devastating storms or the overwhelming rise of jellyfish populations in certain areas.
Zurkow also has a newer exhibition called “Necrocracy,” which confronts society’s reliance on fossil fuels and the technologies, such as fracking, that go along with such a deeply embedded addiction. Influenced by author and outdoors lover John McPhee, the project documents the sprawling West Texas landscape and how oil and gas fit into it from contemporary and geological perspectives.
Back in 2005, climate activist Bill McKibben expressed the need for art addressing climate change, writing in an essay about climate change that, “It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture”:
“Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas? Compare it to, say, the horror of AIDS in the last two decades, which has produced a staggering outpouring of art that, in turn, has had real political effect. I mean, when people someday look back on our moment, the single most significant item will doubtless be the sudden spiking temperature. But they’ll have a hell of a time figuring out what it meant to us.”
To those who have spent time in Central Texas recently, the changing climate means depleted reservoirs and hillsides of dead trees. Whether making art about that will help change the world in any way is unclear; but at least people will be able to look back and see how some of society reacted while the world changed right in front of their eyes. And that kind of immediate connection that can overcome time, space, and even culture — perhaps that is the point of art.