Heavy luggage: Climate change cultural identity and art activism

Author: Debbie Fleming

Heavy luggage: Climate change cultural identity and art activism

Debbie Fleming
28 February 2020

Fleming, D.J. (2020). Heavy luggage: Climate change cultural identity and art activism. (A dissertation in partial fulfilment for the Master of Visual Arts degree at the Dunedin School of Art, Otago Polytechnic, Dunedin, New Zealand)


“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”― Philip K. Dick, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon.

Heavy Luggage is a dynamic ceramic installation. It is inspired by one of the most important political and social dilemmas of our time, climate change; its impact on our cultural identity and highlighting the role of art activist to open dialogue in as many languages as is possible. An array of bags ranging from the period of the industrial revolution through to the contemporary have been presented as if in a waiting room, appearing abandoned, each having its own narrative, language and purpose to express the needs and experiences of those impacted by the dilemma of climate change.
They are connected yet isolated. They beg the viewer to consider the reality of each piece and its place in time. From the blackness of the ceramic heads within the briefcases to the nostalgia of a utopian time past, the luggage or baggage concentrate on examining the ephemeral moments that have culminated in influencing our present-day experiences. Titles such as ‘Ink’, ‘Stateless’, Red Rag to a Bull’, ‘Too Heavy’, ‘I rest my case’, ‘On the surface of it’, ‘Waiting Room’, ‘Away’ and ‘See me through Rose Coloured Glasses’ hint at the conversation each holds with the viewer.

The objectivity of science has transformed our perceptions and the purpose of art. Although artists from the beginning have referred to the transience of humanity, life, and death, never has the topic been more keenly experienced on a global level. As Boris Groy shares, "Art has its own power in the world, and is as much a force in the power play of global politics today as it once was in the arena of cold war politics."

Confronting and empowering communities with science alone has not always been successful, often isolating and alienating those who bring to the table the serious nature of the dilemma of climate change and its language, political, social, ecological and environmental consequences. Fear, misinformation, denial and skepticism create division proving difficult to overcome at a time when strength and resilience can only be built through consensus and collective agency.

In this essay, I discuss the outcome of my investigation into the effects of Climate Change on cultural identity within the context of art activism referring to the art of amongst others; Isaac Cordell, Ai Weiwei and The Yes Men, while also referencing the Westland district of New Zealand. This district was chosen as a typical community facing environmental degradation through rising sea levels and corporate plundering who have managed to maintain a notorious black humour that has supported and enabled resilience. The community response to the issues confronting them is not out of the ordinary.

Keywords: ceramic, New Zealand, installation, cultural identity, climate change, art activism

Heavy Luggage 2020 Debbie Fleming All rights reserved

Image credit: Heavy Luggage 2020 Debbie Fleming All rights reserved

Debbie Fleming's primary supervisor was Jane Venis.


This abstract is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial licence CC BY-NC 4.0 International