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GLT Datebook: Artist Takes Aim At Climate Change

A classic of literature, Dante's “Inferno,” informs the latest work by multimedia artist Tom Rice.

It’s currently on display at the Merwin Gallery at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. Called “Extinguishing the Fire,” the installation explores the harmful effects of human activity on the environment. The artist’s choice of material puts front and center how environmentally damaging practices are a pervasive and dangerous presence in our world. 

Rice’s installation is a series of three enormous silky sheets that hang from ceiling to floor and end to end of the Merwin Gallery. The material is a thin plastic, the same used as drop cloths in painting. Depicted on the plastic are dark scenes of destruction, rendered in black ink. Oil rigs burn. Forests are laid waste. And large words taken from “Inferno”—FRAUD, INCONTINENCE, VIOLENCE—reveal the artist’s rising concern for the future. 

“I started making artwork about it once I realized how the future for my kids looked,” Rice explained.  

Using plastic to communicate his feelings about the threat to the environment helps Rice drive his point home.

“The plastic itself is made out of natural gas. These pieces are about natural gas and oil. And so it is a bit of a contradiction, as they are about environmental issues. It’s shows how much we are indebted to plastic and fossil fuel products. Our whole foundation of our economy is based on it. They are the foundation for these drawings.” 

The medium is the message, although Rice isn’t entirely comfortable with it.

“But it is so much a part of what we are and what our existence is," he said.

Rice delved into Dante’s “Inferno” to help craft the ideas in his latest work. Dante divided Hell into three types of sin: Incontinence, Fraud and Violence.

In the section emblazoned with the word VIOLENCE, Rice depicts refinery accidents, train derailments with oil as the cargo, and fracking accidents. The sheet labeled FRAUD shows the effects of climate change with wildfires destroying the landscape.

“I never know how much art can actually change things,” Rice said. “Because most of the people who react to this work already have their minds made up. But it does help with the general awareness, to keep this in the general public’s mind, if they have to keep seeing this imagery over and over again.” 

“Extinguishing the Fire” is on view at the Merwin Gallery at IWU through April 3.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.