Art is also for upsetting and annoying.

The Guardian has a better picture of it, but the NYT’s Green blog has the better headline about it: “Coal-Themed Sculpture Annoys Lawmakers”.

Carbon Sink by UK artist Chris Dury at the University of Wyoming. The sculpture has upset the local coal industry. Photograph: Chris Dury

The sculpture, by British artist Chris Drury, is made of logs from lodgepole pine trees killed by pine beetles, along with lumps of Wyoming coal. According to the Guardian, beetles were still infesting some of the logs in the sculpture! I wish I could get a better look at that.

The piece, installed on the University of Wyoming campus and independently funded, is evidently meant to draw connections from coal-fired electricity generation to climate change-caused warming and its effect on pine beetles. Warmer temperatures mean that pine beetle populations are experiencing less die-off during the winter, increasing numbers at an alarming rate, and decimating pine forests across North America.

Unsurprisingly since Wyoming is the country’s leading coal-producing state, once local politicians found out about the sculpture, they were “annoyed.” The money quote is from state legislator Tom Lubnau, who says:

While I would never tinker with the University of Wyoming budget – I’m a great supporter of the University of Wyoming – every now and then, you have to use these opportunities to educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from.

Or, in other words, “Nice university you got there. It’d be a shame if anything ever happened to it.”

To its credit, the University of Wyoming is standing by Drury’s work and has no plans to remove it. But I’m disappointed that the art museum’s director backpedaled by saying, “Chris Drury makes connections within nature. He’s not a political artist in any way.” I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean exactly; it seems to me that any work commenting on “nature” and humanity’s relationship with it, particularly in the realm of climate change, has to be “political” in the sense that policies (about energy) are implicated. Drury clearly intends this piece – entitled “Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around” – to be about climate change and the human hand in it with relation to coal as a fuel source.

What’s more, it’s unfortunate that the art museum director didn’t take the opportunity to affirm that making political statements is an age-old, historically legitimate and valuable role of art – especially public art. Although that might not really be up for debate in Wyoming, where opposing legislators have apparently “suggested that a sculpture of energy workers be built on campus.” Yes, let’s discuss coal mining!

More Deaths From Black Lung Than Mine Accidents. Source: NIOSH 2007 report for CDC. Credit: Stephanie d'Otreppe/NPR

Such a dialogue seems exactly in line with Drury’s intentions: he’s quoted as saying he hopes the sculpture will cause people to “have a conversation.”

Drury also has some really interesting pictures and commentary of installing the piece at the University of Wyoming on his blog.

Relatedly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just issued a finding that whitebark pines merit protection under the Endangered Species Act. Although the FWS declined to place it immediately on a federal protection list due to limited resources, it has assigned the whitebark a high priority for future listing. You can read more about the whitebark pine and why protecting it matters in this blog post by Matt Skoglund of NRDC, the group that filed the 2008 petition spurring the FWS’ finding.

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