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Jane Fonda and Judy Chicago on Art and the Climate Emergency

The actress and artist talk to Hans Ulrich Obrist about their environmental activism

BY Hans Ulrich Obrist in Frieze Week Magazine | 12 FEB 20

Hans Ulrich Obrist Hi!

Jane Fonda How are you? Where are you, Judy?

Judy Chicago I’m at home in New Mexico. I’m about to start a new project with Thames & Hudson, updating, revising and combining my two autobiographies for a book that will come out in September 2021, with an introduction by Gloria Steinem. Before that, in summer 2021, my show, curated by Hans, will open at the Serpentine Galleries in London, which I’m incredibly excited about. And earlier, in May of this year, my first retrospective opens at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, curated by Claudia Schmuckli. So I’m really busy. How are you, Jane?

JF  I’m good. You know, Fire Drill Fridays has really taken off, more than I ever would have imagined. It’s quite something. What I realize is that sometimes you do something and it’s just the right thing at the right time. People have been wanting a way to step up and do more, to put their bodies on the line, and they were tired of waiting around for the next march. Fire Drill Fridays is meeting that need. And we’re going to take it national. That’s why Hans and I have been talking about how to bring art into this: an expanded movement.

JC  I’m talking to this guy who has billboards around the country to see if we can use them and, when I speak to him, I say the same thing you’re talking about. There are a lot of people who are frustrated by the inaction of our politicians, even as our planet is under greater and greater stress. It’s just horrifying.

HUO  It’s interesting to think about artists’ roles in this and their responses historically. Jane was talking about the Green New Deal that is being proposed in the US, and then we discussed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s original New Deal as a response to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The late photographer Helen Levitt told me a lot about how it linked to photography ...

JF  You and I have talked about this, Judy, how Roosevelt put tens of millions of dollars towards artists as part of the New Deal, through the Works Progress Administration. Some of those artists, for example the photographer Dorothea Lange, focused on the despair and misery caused by the economic system. Whereas other artists depicted all the positive parts of the New Deal. In a lot of government buildings and post offices today, you can still see these huge murals of men and women working, blossoming.

Judy Chicago, Rainbow Warrior poster for Greenpeace, 1980.© Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society, New York Photo: © Donald Woodman/Artists Rights Society, New York

HUO  The New Deal muralists also intersect with the Mexican Muralist movement. We could think, in a way, about a new muralism.

JC  I’m friends with a street artist named Swoon, and she has spawned a whole bunch of young women street artists. I could ask her if she could maybe reach out and get them to start doing street art on this subject – all across America. I think, Hans, one of the things that would really activate people around the country, is if you actually framed this as a project for America. If you and I sent out a call to artists asking for action and giving a whole list of ways in which American artists could participate.

HUO That’s a great idea. And we could then follow these different ways of participating. Earlier, over supper, Jane was mentioning a few possible paths of action. You said there was the Green New Deal and then ...

JF  This year, the environmental movement is taking a huge new direction focusing on banks, investment companies and insurance companies. The aim is to boycott them until they stop investing in, and banking on, fossil fuel. Shaming the financial institutions could be a big focus. And then, of course, there are our oceans and forests, and images of a Green New Deal and what that could look like.

HUO  Also the idea that everybody should vote. 

JF  Voting is a big one. Voting for people who are brave. It’s too late for moderation.

Post-It notes inscribed by Judy Chicago, December 2019, for Hans Ulrich Obrist's Instagram account @hansulrichobrist. Courtesy: the artist

HUO  Too late for moderation. That’s why, Jane, you wrote this slogan for my Instagram.

JF  Yes. ‘Civil disobedience and getting arrested must become the new normal.’

JC  OK, really, I think this is the right framework for artists to participate: a call to address one of the proposed subjects. Maybe the first should incorporate the phrase ‘Shame on You’, which could be said about a lot of people, companies and vested interests. 

HUO  Jennifer Jacquet, in her 2015 book Is Shame Necessary?, investigates the effects of honour and disgrace on cooperation and sustainability, and she shows how these old instruments of public morality can alter the behaviour even of major industrialists.

JC  I mean, it’s like Temple Grandin, the incredible animal rights activist who took the executives of McDonalds to a slaughterhouse and showed them what factory farming is actually like. And they completely changed their policies. McDonalds! Maybe, Jane, you and I need to issue an invitation to participate in the ‘It’s Urgent’ campaign in America, outlining what artists can do. Finding local companies and getting them to provide billboards to artists for free, so they can create murals, street art and images that can be circulated via the internet, printed out and passed around ...

Judy Chicago and Jane Fonda at Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles, 2019. Photo: Sarah Thornton

HUO  The idea of flyers worked really well at the ‘It’s Urgent’ exhibition at the LUMA Westbau in Zurich. You know, we should print flyers on environmentally friendly paper, like mini posters, and create viral distribution: in bars, in restaurants, people would put them in their homes, schools, universities. I think that could be another strand of the project. And then, as I was telling Jane, we have the ecology show ‘Back to Earth’ this year at the Serpentine Galleries.

JF  We might try to get Fire Drill Fridays going in London, because Greenpeace has chapters there.

HUO  Jane, when did you have the epiphany for Fire Drill Fridays? Do you remember what prompted it?

JF  During Labour Day weekend, at the beginning of September last year, I was reading Naomi Klein’s On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, which had just been published. I was in Big Sur, where a lot of my epiphanies have happened. I knew I needed to do more than I was doing. Naomi’s book talks about the young climate activist Greta Thunberg in a way that hit me like a thunderbolt, and I knew that I had to put myself on the line and leave my comfort zone and move to Washington, D.C. That’s where it started.

HUO  And, Judy, how did you come to start your 2019 series ‘The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction’?

JC  Actually, my concern for our treatment of other creatures dates back to earlier in my career. In the 1980s, I was commissioned by Greenpeace to do a poster called Rainbow Warrior, after the Rainbow Warrior ship that they launched in 1977. It was based on a Native American belief that when the creatures of the sea are facing extinction, a rainbow warrior will descend from the sky to protect them. Then, between 1985 and 1993, when I was working on the ‘Holocaust Project’ with my husband [the photographer Donald Woodman], I became interested in the ethical line between human and animal experiments. PETA supplied me with a number of photographs that made me aware of our hideous treatment of other species. Ingrid Newkirk, the president of PETA, later sent me a note thanking me for my work, which meant a lot to me. In 1998, I collaborated with PETA on an anti-fur campaign, which involved billboards featuring one of my drawings, Would You Wear Your Dog? I also spent five years, from 1999 to 2004, working on a project that some art writers considered frivolous: ‘Kitty City’, a series of watercolours collected in a book based on a medieval Book of Hours. It dealt with Donald’s and my relationship with our household of cats and looked at inter-species relationships. 

Judy Chicago, Collected, 2015–16. Courtesy: the artist, Salon 94, New York, and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco. © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

HUO  We also had a great meeting today with your friend, Susan Fisher Sterling, who is Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, where ‘The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction’ is showing.

JC  It’s the only one dedicated to the preservation of women’s art in the world, did you know that, Hans?

HUO  Yes. And I saw your great show, which is very related to Jane’s campaign, it’s all about extinction.

JC As the conditions for creatures on our planet become increasingly dire, it seemed like a perfect segue from considering my own death or human mortality, over which we have no choice, to reflecting on what we’re doing to other creatures, about which we do have a choice. One of the most moving things for me was when I toured Jane through my show and watched her viscerally absorb the images on the same emotional level at which I created them. But I think it is important to stress that, if we are going to go into the public sphere with art across disciplines, the art has to be clear. This is something I have committed myself to creating. Statistics and overly conceptual work can leave viewers cold; images reach people’s hearts. And, in order to make change through art, we have to reach out: ‘from my heart to yours’.

HUO  That’s what Jane said. Clear images.

JC I’m so glad you guys have met. I knew you would get along. I love having companions, troublemakers.

JF  Well, you’re a dyed-in-the-wool troublemaker, Judy. Give my love to Don.

HUO  Yes, love to Don, we love you.

JF Bye-bye, Judy, love you.

Judy Chicago is an artist based in Belen, New Mexico, USA. In 2019, she had solo exhibitions at Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles, USA; Salon 94, New York, USA; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., USA; and Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. In 2020, she will have a solo exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries, London, UK.

Jane Fonda is a two-time Academy Award-winning actress and activist, based in Los Angeles, USA. In 2019, she founded Fire Drill Fridays, a series of weekly demonstrations and digital teach-ins to campaign for a Green New Deal, respect of indigenous land and sovereignty, environmental justice, protection and restoration of biodiversity and implementation of sustainable agriculture.

Main image: Judy Chicago, Collected, 2015–16. Courtesy: the artist, Salon 94, New York, and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco. © Judy Chicago/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: © Donald Woodman/ARS, NY

Hans Ulrich Obrist is artistic director at the Serpentine Galleries, London, UK.