The Age of Uncertainty

By Joan Sullivan

Perhaps the most important text written during the two-week COP26 was a call to arms published on the last day of the international climate conference. It was written by the poet, novelist, and cultural activist Ben Okri.

Okri’s urgent message was directed at writers and artists.

Calling for “a new art and a new psychology” to address “this near-terminal moment in the history of the human,” Okri implored artists of all stripes to “dedicate our lives to nothing short of re-dreaming society.” He described this new art as “existential creativity:” creativity at the end of time. 

This is the best and most natural home we are ever going to have. And we need to become a new people to deserve it. We are going to have to be new artists to redream it.

Textile artists are no exception.

Two months before Okri’s cri de cœur was published in The Guardian, the Canadian textile artist Sandra Sawatzky completed her second epic narrative embroidery, The Age of Uncertainty. Four years in the making, this exquisite work of art goes “right to the roots of what makes us such a devouring species, overly competitive, conquest-driven, hierarchical.” This was Okri’s earnest advice to artists in his November 2021 essay.

The Age of Uncertainty is composed of 12 large hand-embroidered panels, each of which focuses on a singular uncertainty that, in Sawatzky’s words, “keeps us up at night.” There is no ranking or hierarchy among the 12 uncertainties; they are all interconnected. When grouped together, the 12 uncertainties speak to our collective angst in this second decade of the third millennium: climate change, war, nuclear threat, income inequity, debt, workplace/employment, corruption, electronic surveillance, artificial intelligence, overpopulation, the non-ethical use of science and technology, and overexploitation of resources. The only uncertainty that seems to be missing, as we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, is the growing chaos of global pandemics.

Sawatzky is a master of her craft. As with her previous masterpiece, The Black Gold Tapestry, Sawatzky draws on medieval art for inspiration. Her jumping off point for The Age of Uncertainty was medieval illuminated manuscripts, including calligraphy and delightfully ornate borders. For the past 14 years, stitch by stitch, Sawatzky has elevated embroidery to a serious art form, one that “falls within evolving traditions of embroidery as subversive and engaging in social critique.” A 2017 quote on her blog about the Black Gold Tapestry distills the importance of Sawatzky’s contribution to the evolution of this ancient craft: “The Black Gold Tapestry dramatically shifts the popular perception of embroidery from the quietly domestic to the assertively public.” 

The same can be said of The Age of Uncertainty.

The Age of Uncertainty’s inaugural exhibit is currently ongoing at the University of Calgary’s Nickle Galleries in Alberta, Canada, through April 9, 2022. An Artist Talk with Sandra Sawatzky will be presented live via Zoom on February 10, 2022. Check the Nickle Galleries website for more information. 

Curated by Michele Hardy, the 12 embroidered panels are hung on walls that form an open ellipse, an arrangement that deliberately beckons visitors into an intimate space. Once inside, however, as I wrote in the exhibit’s catalog, 

visitors may sense that they are standing in the center of a stage, surrounded by 12 life-size panels that act like mirrors to reflect the 12 uncertainties back onto the protagonist. Uncertainties for which we are all merely players, to paraphrase Shakespeare. It’s a brilliant artistic sleight of hand.

Installation photo of eight of 12 hand-embroidered panels from Sandra Sawatky's The Age of Uncertainty exhibition at Nickle Galleries, University of Calgary, Canada.
Photo by Dave Brown, LCR PhotoServices UCalgary

In her artist’s statement that accompanies the Nickle Galleries exhibit, Sawatzky explains “I thought that what can’t be done with solemn lectures and mountains of data preached by sober prophets, might be possible with humour, and a fine needle and thread.” Yes, humour! In sharp contrast to the perilous human dramas unfolding in the central fields of each panel, Sawatzky has filled her borders with provocative satire and whimsical drolleries that, quite unexpectedly, incite us to laugh at ourselves. They draw us in, and hold our attention. They resonate, much more than statistics and doomsday scenarios ever could.

And herein lies the subversive nature of Sawatzky’s art: only by laughing at ourselves can we finally recognize – and therefore admit – that we are all implicit, in one way or another, in upholding the status quo of our unsustainable, unethical, extractive, and violent “modern” world. Sawatzky is not telling us what to think. Instead, she proposes new ways of thinking about the absurdity of our current predicament by turning established truths into open questions. These are the “unthinkable questions” that Okri has urged all artists everywhere to start asking:

We ought to ask questions about money, power, hunger. The scientists tell us that fundamentally there is enough for everyone. This Earth can sustain us. We can’t just ask the shallow questions any more. Our whys ought to go to the core of what we are. Then we ought to set about changing us. We ought to remake ourselves. Somehow civilisation has taken a wrong turn and we collectively need to alter our destination, our journey.

Unlike any other artwork that I can think of, The Age of Uncertainty asks multiple unthinkable questions simultaneously: about money, war, corruption, over-consumption, climate change, exploitation of natural resources, artificial intelligence, and electronic surveillance. Like a medieval court jester lancing coded barbs at his privileged overlords, Sawatzky has responded in spades to Okri’s urgent call for bold, brave, and ruthless existential creativity to “penetrate the apathy and the denial that are preventing us from making the changes that are inevitable if our world is to survive.”

I hope that Sawatzky’s The Age of Uncertainty will travel wide and far following its inaugural exhibit in Calgary. This important and timely work of art needs to be seen by the masses. It will inspire a generation of writers and artists. It has the potential to blow our minds. Dive in. If this artwork can’t penetrate the thick wall of apathy and denial that prevents Cohen’s light from getting in, nothing can.

(All images of The Age of Uncertainty reprinted with permission from the artist.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer and writer focused on the energy transition. She is a member of Women Photograph. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. She is currently experimenting with abstract photography as a new language to express her eco-anxiety about climate breakdown and our collective silence. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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