Here in New York, the city I call home, Climate Week is in full swing. For those who are unfamiliar, it’s a week of events, panels, exhibits, protests, and more. The week is an amalgamation of a partnership between the United Nations and the Climate Group, an international nonprofit focused on advancing climate action. It’s meant to rally the troops in the lead up to COP26, where world leaders come together to discuss the Paris Agreement and their commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate Week can, quite frankly, feel like a lot of climate nerds geeking out about decarbonization and policy. It’s not always the most inviting space for the everyday person. That’s why I love the art. You don’t need a scientific background to appreciate art. Art is accessible. It’s welcoming. It’s a different way to digest all this information.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re appreciating the arts. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. To kick off Climate Week and honor Latine Heritage Month, I met with Mexican multimedia artist Melissa Godoy Nieto Sunday to see her exhibit on the Mesoamerican Reef, also known as the Great Mayan Reef. The Caribbean reef system stretches from Mexico all the way to Honduras. Like other corals around the globe, it’s in danger due to rising temperatures and human negligence.
Godoy Nieto attempts to capture this urgent threat in her latest exhibition, Waters Change, Colors Fade, which is available for free to the public until Oct. 17, 2021, at Hudson River Park’s Pier 25 in New York.
As the sunset began to paint the sky over the Hudson River an orange-blue gradient Sunday evening, similarly colored projections hit the white screens aboard the LILAC, a historic steam-powered ship that retired its life on the seas to showcase art instead. Melissa Godoy Nieto was collaborating with the sextet Environmental Combo to project nautical-inspired images on the ship’s deck as they let the vibrations of the xylophone, trombone, and conga drums soar into the New York night.
This live performance was a special treat for those who visited the LILAC that night. Godoy Nieto currently has an exhibition on display on the ship, which runs through Oct. 17. She kept one theme throughout the show’s projections in line with her exhibition: corals. Waters Change, Colors Fade is a solo show by Godoy Nieto, a Mexican-born, Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist, that displays her drawings, paintings, and textile work inspired by the Mesoamerican Reef, a stunning 700-mile long coral system that’s in danger.
Pollution, overfishing, and coastal development have historically threatened the reef system, according to the World Wildlife Fund, but climate change is quickly leaving its mark, too. Godoy Nieto has seen this impact firsthand. She was inspired to develop this exhibition after witnessing the devastating bleaching during scuba dives over the last two years. She hopes her work can serve as a call to action for folks who aren’t aware of how severely affected Caribbean corals are by the climate crisis.
Coral bleaching occurs when the waters are too warm, forcing corals to expel their algae that gives them both color and food. Without the algae, the corals often die a ghostly white. From 2014 to 2017, more than 75% of global reefs experienced enough heat stress to cause bleaching. The exhibition’s artwork contrats vibrant bright corals alongside white ones to represent the reality of the situation.
“I was snorkeling, and I started noticing the coral looking white,” Godoy Nieto told me as we sat aboard the LILAC. “When I saw it there in Mexico in a place I had been before, it touched something different. It’s not on the other side of the world in Australia. It’s here, everywhere.”
When you visit the exhibition, you have to walk room to room, up and down steep sets of stairs, to see the work. In the ship’s lower quarters where some of the lower-rank crew members once slept, you’ll find displays that glow in the dark. You almost feel as though you’re underwater yourself as a song blares through speakers as part of the exhibit, surrounding you with the sounds of dolphins and whales.
The largest piece, “Collecting Fragments or Memories,” shows five feminine figures gathering around the neon green and orange corals. Godoy Nieto used fabrics for this piece, working in the dark and relying on a black light to help identify the fabrics with this luminescent component. She collected many of the textiles when volunteering with FABSCRAB, a Brooklyn-based organization dedicated to recycling clothing and keeping it out of landfills.
“What’s going to happen when we can’t see this anymore?”
It’s this concern that pushed Godoy Nieto to develop the exhibit. She has been making art for the last 10 years, but this was her first attempt at climate art. That’s because the situation is urgent and personal for her. The loss of this essential reef system wouldn’t only be the erasure of a natural marvel. It would also impact local communities along the coast who rely on these corals for tourism, fishing, and storm protection. The corals are worth some $6.2 billion in economic value a year, according to the United Nations Environment Program.
And yet, what’s a coral reef system really worth? What do those billions of dollars say of the whale sharks that visit regularly in search of shrimp? How do you measure the value of those otherworldly moments beneath the surface? When you swim up to a coral and a spiny lobster pokes its claws out? Or what about when fish scales glitter right before you?
These moments are priceless. They’re why this critical ecosystem is worth saving. And they’re what keep Godoy Nieto going to capture and immortalize this little corner of the world. It might not be long until these moments are gone forever.