Arts

Miniatures that force you to look closely — really, really closely — at climate change

Tiny sculptures, big problems. Jude Griebel on his latest series, Illuminated Collapse.

Tiny sculptures, big problems. Jude Griebel on his latest series, Illuminated Collapse

Jude Griebel. Black Ark, 2018. (Photo: On White Wall NYC/Courtesy of the artist)

So, the planet's a mess and we're all going to die. That much, everyone knows already, but it's been a little less than two weeks since a United Nations panel released a more specific report on the situation — one that issued a grim, global ultimatum: stop pumping out pollution, or else. If the world's temperature creeps much higher, then we can expect freak heatwaves and storms and droughts, water shortages and animal extinction. Fun stuff — and if we stick to the way we're doing things, we could hit the breaking point in 12 years.

You're free to study all 728 pages of the report, but maybe you're more tempted to pretend you never read the last few sentences. Maybe you'll just sit back, Google the lyrics to the Captain Planet theme song and wait for the entire world to band together Independence Day-style, obliterating carbon emissions like so many tentacle-y space beasts.

Overconsumption, environmental ruin: we avoid those topics because they're just not easy things to think about, but they're subjects that occupy Jude Griebel's mind plenty.

Installation view of Jude Griebel's Illuminated Collapse at the Nickle Galleries, University of Calgary. (Photo: Dave Brown/Courtesy of the artist)

"It's something that a lot of people turn away from in order to proceed with a sense of normal life," Griebel tells CBC Arts, laughing. "You have to put up blinders in a way, and I think with the sort of subjects I'm interested in, it's always been a matter of stripping away those blinders or boundaries to look at harder truths and process them, whether that's themes of growth, mortality, consumption — or now, environmental catastrophe."

That last topic left its carbon footprints all over Griebel's previous series of sculptures, Crafting Ruin, a series of grotesque figures — mutants made of landfills or oil spills or exhaust fumes that could pass as the long-lost cousins of Fraggle Rock's Marjory the Trash Heap. They're both the willing product and victim of mass consumption, and the same conundrum continues in Griebel's latest project, Illuminated Collapse.

You have to put up blinders in a way, and I think with the sort of subjects I'm interested in, it's always been a matter of stripping away those blinders or boundaries, to look at harder truths and process them.- Jude Griebel , artist

Three works from that series will be appearing at the Nickle Galleries at the University of Calgary to Dec. 15, and it's a series in progress, Griebel explains — one that he's been developing the last year and a half.

The Canadian artist, who splits his time between Brooklyn (where he's doing a residency at the International Studio & Curatorial Program) and a rural spot somewhere in the vicinity of Bergen, Alta. (where he and his brother operate the Museum of Fear and Wonder — watch our short doc!), says he ultimately plans to create nine scenes. Each one will depict a different landscape in miniature, though his doomsday scenarios are even more surreal than the idea of global annihilation in the first place, especially because the terrain is always anthropomorphized in some way.

The effect is one part creepy, one part joke-y — like a giant, three-dimensional New Yorker cartoon. "Ice Cap," a flood scene, is watched over by a towering glacier, one that's crying glass-bead tears that are drowning the city below. "Black Ark," a topsy-turvy riff on the story of Noah's Ark, leads animals two-by-two into the void of extinction. "All-Consuming," a diorama of serial production, features cargo ships endlessly dumping crates down the throat of a stone "Hellmouth." (It's a recurring feature in Griebel's sculptures. Says the artist: "It's a renaissance symbol of sort of insatiable appetite.")

Missing from this particular exhibition is a more regionally specific work, one that's still in the making. When it's done, Griebel says it'll resemble one of the foothills surrounding Calgary — "a sort of figure that's slowly becoming covered with suburban housing like a rash," he laughs.

As for what visitors will find at the Nickle Galleries, the idea is to recreate an experience a little something like a trip to the museum. The works, which are made of carved and painted wood for the most part, are lit by spotlight — all the better to stoke your wonder.

"I wanted them to be more like a museum diorama that you would circle in a darkened space, almost like small, round little worlds," says Griebel.

Inside Illuminated Collapse at the Nickle Galleries. That archway? According to Griebel, it's a little shorter than most visitors will be used to. "I wanted people to feel like they were crossing some sort of threshold, and physically stoop to get into the space to see what was in there." (Photo: Dave Brown/Courtesy of the artist)

Kitschy miniature museums were a point of inspiration, he says — think Miniature World in Victoria, for example, where you can spy on Second World War France or Lilliput. (Funnily enough, Gulliver's Travels is a point of reference in "All-Consuming.")

Those tourist traps, says Griebel, might showcase cities or storybook kingdoms or moments in history — but whatever the scene, he says, they're "shrunken worlds that offer a larger understanding of a place. [...] I thought it was a really good way to approach the idea of an overpopulated world."

I'm not really offering solutions with the work, just sort of alternative ways to look at a larger problem.- Jude Griebel , artist

Illuminated Collapse, he says, "kind of uses those techniques and display methods and subverts them a little." The fact that it's such a familiar form is one way Griebel is able to ease people's "blinders" off. There are some life-or-death issues to ponder — spooky submerged condos and highways, forest fires, skeletal giraffes and warthogs and moose — but there's something inherently hopeful about what Griebel's aiming to construct.

"I think when you see miniature space, whether it's a sort of dollhouse or a playset or a science diorama, your imagination immediately goes into that miniature space and wanders around," he says.

Not that viewers should be getting handsy with these sculptures (they definitely shouldn't), but think about the dollhouse or Castle Greyskull or Polly Pocket or Micro Machines, etc. that you had as a kid. In all those examples, you're the person in control of a pint-sized world — which might re-frame your thinking as you stare down a teeny tiny apocalypse. We all have the power to do something, however small. 

"I'm not telling people to do one thing or the other," says Griebel. "The works themselves, you can really see a sort of struggle. Myself, as an active consumer, you know, I'm struggling with these problems, and I'm not really offering solutions with the work — just sort of alternative ways to look at a larger problem."

Take a look.

Jude Griebel. Ice Cap, 2018. (Photo: On White Wall NYC/Courtesy of the artist)
Jude Griebel. Detail of Ice Cap, 2018. (Photo: On White Wall NYC/Courtesy of the artist)
Jude Griebel. Detail of Ice Cap, 2018. (Photo: On White Wall NYC/Courtesy of the artist)
Jude Griebel. Detail of Ice Cap, 2018. (Photo: On White Wall NYC/Courtesy of the artist)
Jude Griebel. Detail of Ice Cap, 2018. (Photo: On White Wall NYC/Courtesy of the artist)
Jude Griebel. All-Consuming, 2018. (Photo: On White Wall NYC/Courtesy of the artist)
Jude Griebel. Detail of All-Consuming, 2018. (Photo: On White Wall NYC/Courtesy of the artist)
Jude Griebel. Detail of All-Consuming, 2018. (Photo: On White Wall NYC/Courtesy of the artist)
Jude Griebel. Black Ark, 2018. (Photo: On White Wall NYC/Courtesy of the artist)
Jude Griebel. Detail of Black Ark, 2018. (Photo: On White Wall NYC/Courtesy of the artist)

Jude Griebel. Illuminated Collapse. At Nickle Galleries, University of Calgary, Oct. 19 to Dec. 15. www.nickle.ucalgary.ca.

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.