A conversation about the weather, with Dieter Roelstraete

As exceptionally heavy rainfall in northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region led to a series of floods and landslides, forcing more than 40,000 from their homes and leaving museums submerged and ancient frescoes damaged, we had a conversation with Dieter Roelstraete, curator of Fondazione Prada’s latest exhibition in Venice, “Everybody Talks About the Weather”. The exhibition explores the semantics of “weather” in visual art, taking atmospheric conditions as a point of departure to investigate the emergency of climate crisis.
by Lara Morrell
Lara Morrell
Dieter Roelstraete

LMSo, why should everybody talk about the weather and take on a ‘meteorological’ view of art?

DR – The basic claim of the show, and it is of course contestable, as all claims should be – but as far as I can tell, even though the climate crisis is the single greatest existential challenge faced by humankind in its 100,000 year history, you wouldn’t be able to tell necessarily that is the case from the somewhat marginal position that this issue occupies in the attention span of the mainstream art world. Big museums and biennials certainly are aware of ecological issues and environmental issues, and they are pushing for more sustainable intra-structural politics. But in terms of programming the climate crisis, or in terms of art really, the climate crisis continues to be inexplicably marginalised.


The reason for this marginalisation is in many folds; the enormity of the challenge, the complexity of the challenge, and also the fact of course, that as residents of the art world, we feel ill-equipped to address it responsibly because the art world is a wasteful economy. We all fly here, all the art flies here. It’s easy to feel, in a way, feel bad about trying to address this topic without pangs of guilt, in a way, sabotaging what it is that we want to say. But this shouldn’t relieve us of the tasks or the responsibility to really take it more seriously also as a topic or as an issue. Climate is so incredibly complex and such an enormous subject to tackle, the suggestion of the show is that perhaps we should talk about the weather, but take talking about the weather really seriously as a gateway to talk more responsibly about climate change and the climate crisis.


The proposal of the show is to look at this long history of depictions of weather in art, or the long history of the influence of weather changes in art as a prism through which we can try to make better sense of ways in which art can talk about the climate crisis, which is something that we can no longer afford to be indifferent or flippant about. Everybody always talks about the weather and has always done so, people enjoy talking about the weather – it’s meant to denote a certain vacuous, innocent babble but actually it is a very serious topic. 

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Sky), 1975 Courtesy Cirrus Gallery & Cirrus Editions LTD.
Jason Dodge. In Alvorada, in Brazil, Vera Junqueira wove wool yarn the color of night and the same length as the distance from the earth to above the weather. Courtesy Collezione Marco Ghigi, Bologna

LM – Where did the exhibition title derive from?

DR – There’s a poster inside the exhibition designed by the Socialist German Student Union that was from 1968, it depicts the Holy Trinity of revolutionary politics – Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin – and the slogan on the poster is,“Alle reden vom wetter. wir nicht” (“everybody talks about the weather. we don’t”). The suggestion being, of course, that the weather is not a serious topic of conversation, which back in ’68 when climate change was not something anyone ever thought about, was a perfectly reasonable claim to make. Back in the day in 1968, you could logically claim that the weather was completely inconsequential. 


50 years on, if that’s your political slogan, that’s political suicide, of course and so, opposite this poster, we’ve hung an artwork from 2019, designed by a German artist Anne-Christine Klarmann, who used the same slogan, “Alle reden vom wetter” but changed the second part, “Wir auch”, (“so do we”). The revolutionary triumvirate has been replaced by three women who are key figures in the environmental movement. And of course, the central figure is Greta Thunberg who’s the Karl Marx in way of the environmental movement, if you want, or the Lenin of the environmental movement. That coupling makes clear how hugely important talking about the weather has become as a political topic, as a social topic, as a societal topic.

LM – When did the research for this project all begin and how did it come about?

DR – As a curator, I felt compelled to this founding observation about climate, this strange marginalisation of the climate crisis in contemporary art world as a topic is something that has struck me and for some time I’ve been struggling with a variety of possibilities to address it and turn it into a subject.  


The pandemic has changed everyone’s life in a way and one of the great dangers at the end of the pandemic is that people seem to be rushing to resume business as usual and that’s, for a variety of reasons, no longer tenable. I am not just talking about public health, but I’m also talking about environmental behaviours. It was in the low of the pandemic that this topic started to crystallize as a point of curatorial concern, but we started developing this exhibition a year ago, in no way was this exhibition rushed, it’s a huge topic, and of course you have to treat it accordingly. 

LM – Could you tell me about how Amitav Ghosh’s book ‘The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable’ influenced the thinking underpinning the exhibition? 

DR – Amitav Ghosh was a visiting lecturer at the University of Chicago in 2015 at the time when I, myself was in Chicago working at the MCA and I do remember him coming to town, he gave a series of lectures that was later compiled in a book that was published in 2016 titled “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable”. It was translated into Italian shortly thereafter. and the title of the Italian translation is “La Grande Cecità” (“The Great Blindness”), which I think is a much more poignant encapsulation of the problem because Amitav Ghosh was among the first to make the observation about the marginalisation of this topic, in the literary field.


So by reading his argument in The Great Derangement, how the literary Field seems, oddly and irresponsibly oblivious to this urgency, led me to draw the same conclusions with regard to the contemporary art world. So in that sense, that book is completely key, and it’s a foundational observation. The catalogue published on the occasion of this exhibition also contains a conversation that I had with Amitav, in which I also ask him to elaborate a little bit on this argument and how much he’s seen it change over time. The book was published in 2016, and things have changed, climate is now something that everybody talks about all the time. Even the Republican Party in America now has to talk about climate if only to deny that it’s a real thing, which less and less people do.


It is now such an incredibly omnipresent topic, but still, I feel that if you look at Hollywood for example there very few efforts to say something about this, one example of a recent film which attempts this is “Don’t Look Up” by Leonard DiCaprio. It’s a parable in a way, the main storyline of the film is that a team of scientists discovers that a comet is heading for Earth, and there’s no way of avoiding impact. This comet is sure to destroy life on Earth and the scientists are trying to alert the political powers of the imminent danger, to see if maybe a concerted global effort can do something about this impending cataclysm and of course, they hit a giant stonewall. It is, of course, a parable for climate change denialism at the top of the pyramid in China, and the US and India and Russia, the greatest polluters, the nations that are the primary drivers of climate change, governed by people who just don’t want to accept that there’s something that needs to be changed here.


What I wanted to say about this film, Don’t Look Up, is that it’s one of very few efforts on the part of Hollywood to say something about this, and the same could be said for literary masterpieces of the last 10 years or 20 years, who has really taken this up as a challenge? The same goes for the art world, of course there are thousands of artists who make work about environmental issues and climate change. But in a way, the climate crisis has yet to produce the defining masterpiece of our time, because the institutions of contemporary art are reluctant to highlight it, perhaps due to feelings of complicity, guilt or paralysis.

LM – You’ve been coming to Venice for years now, what are your favourite haunts here?

I like neighbourhoods, I discovered an amazing church on this trip, Madonna dell’Orto, north of Cannareggio, I like Fondamente Nove I like that part of Venice. San Polo is an amazing little Sestriere. I like Castello, Eastern Castello, I like Via Garibaldi, I like the parts of Venice and of course, I sound like a total tourist saying this, but I like the parts of Venice where there’s some kind of semblance of everyday life by Venetians.

My favourite bar is on the tiny little campo just around the corner, “Bar Da Fiore”, it’s a workday bar run by two brothers, they sell cheap tramezzini and completely plebeian cappuccinos. That’s probably my favourite haunt! 

But I love Venice, and of course, the point of the show is also that it is in a city that might not be here in 75 years because of what we’ve done, what we’ve decided to do

LM – Does the rich history of the palazzo of Ca’ Corner della Regina play any particular role in the curatorship of the exhibition?

DR – There’s no direct link other than the fact of course, that yes, this too will be a building that will just no longer be here soon, I mean relatively soon. In 2018, I curated another show here, and my son was one year old at the time and I have pictures of him crawling around the space. He’s six now, five years on and if he’s lucky, which is quite likely because of the progress that medical science is making, he may be around still in 2,100. He will be able to say, if the technology still allows it, look, here’s a picture of me crawling around in Palazzo that no longer exists because Venice has disappeared.


What I wanted to say about the submerging of Venice, because Venice is not sinking. It’s the water is rising, it’ll happen regardless. At the same it’s going to happen to Manila, and it’s going to happen to Bangladesh, much more dramatically because those are the living homes of millions and millions of people who are going to migrate, who are going to flee the tropics, because the tropics are going to become completely unbearable. And of course, a very big part of migrant influx into Italy is of Bangladeshis. The fashion industry in Italy is driven by migrant streams, especially from Asia, from countries that are in danger of drowning. Venice is an incredibly powerful lesson that’ll teach us to take the weather more seriously.

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