Graffiti stamps mark the the concrete courtyard ground of the Westbeth Center for the Arts on Bank Street in the West Village, each reading in bold capital letters, "ONE." The trail concludes at a discrete, garage-like door in a dark corner of the cement quad, where only a small publicity poster indicates that it leads to an art exhibit.
The "ONE: One Planet One Future" exhibit by Anne de Carbuccia, BC '89, is on display now through until Nov. 21. The exhibit's entrance embodies both the spirit of Westbeth—a place where an industrial alleyway can be the setting for something beautiful—and de Carbuccia's own mission. There could hardly be a better location for her work: the location puts on display a marriage of environmental activism and fine art, because de Carbuccia is just that—a "pure fine art photographer," in her own words.
Couresty of Time Share Fund
Her large-scale photographs, currently assembled in Westbeth's cavernous underground space, combine traditional symbolism—similar to that you'd find in an Art Hum reading—with her aim to depict current social and environmental issues. "There's two types of photography," she often explains. "There's documentative photography, where you go around capturing moments as they appear, and there's artistic photography, which is the expression of an idea. I like to think that my work is both."
De Carbuccia's project has taken her from the Grenadines to the South Pole, seeking out environmentally threatened locations in order to capture their fragile beauty on film. Upon arrival on location, she chooses a perch or patch of flat ground to lay out her equipment—then, the main event: She sets up her "time shrine" in front of her camera.
De Carbuccia arranges her shrines (little piles of symbolic and found objects) in a still-life fashion. She doesn't really see them as still-lifes, though; she prefers the term "natures vivantes," which literally translates to "living-lifes" and is a play on the French phrase for still-life, "nature morte."The time shrines always contain her two trademark objects: an hourglass and vanity skull, in addition to an assortment of curiosities found at the shooting site. "The hourglass and the vanity are probably the two most important symbols of time in Western art," she explains. "I take them around with me, and then, on location, I create an installation. [...] Everything else I use to create the installation, I find on location."
As a Barnard alumna, de Carbuccia has built her career as an artist with a propensity for antiques and activism on her collegiate studies in art history and anthropology. Upon graduation, her work first took root in the curatorial world, as she took a job at the prestigious Drouot auction house in Paris, the city wherein she spent most of her youth.
De Carbuccia attributes, to a certain extent, her breakthrough as an independent artist to her time at Drouot.
"I worked at Drouot for years, and that's why I started collecting. I would find the most incredible things at the auction house," she said, one of which was her first vanity skull.
Courtesy of Madeleine Leddy
This single object, a small, centuries-old skull, launched de Carbuccia on a journey to integrate her love of classical symbolism with her deep-seated concern about the the planet's future. She decided to bring these passions—classical symbolism and the changing environment—together in a series of pieces about the overlapping theme between them: time. This led her to latch onto the second classical symbol of time that would become central to her work: the hourglass.
Shooting in remote locations brought its own host of challenges, but de Carbuccia ended up drawing inspiration from many of them. Referring to three of her "trash"-themed photos—in which some of the featured "found objects" are scraps of rubbish—she says that she didn't necessarily intend on including trash in any of her shrines. However, when a pile of trash washed ashore as she was setting up her hourglass and vanity on the bone-dry shores of the Strait of Hormuz in the United Arab Emirates, she realized the thematic gravity that the debris could have. Trash became one of the recurring elements in her time shrines—all collected on location, all strikingly out of place against the pristine landscape backgrounds, and all representative of the destruction that the human impact of our current "transition" is wreaking on nature.
Visitors walk through the exhibit on a wooden boardwalk, separated from the wall-mounted photos by a moat of water. Not only does the Westbeth space have a stark industrial quality, making it ideal for de Carbuccia to manipulate into an immersive experience, but also, the building itself has a history relevant to her subject matter.
Courtesy of Time Shrine Fund
The building was nearly destroyed during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the resilience de Carbuccia displayed in repairing it parallels one of the principal themes in her work. An exhibit calling attention to the dangers of climate change feels eerily at home in a place that was almost annihilated by it.
The artist's message is clear: Our time on Earth is limited, and we have decisions to make about what we will leave behind for future generations. As for spreading her message, de Carbuccia is confident in the power of visual art as a call to action.
"I think you can communicate, today, a lot more with beauty than with shocking images and numbers," she said.
Her advice for artists hoping to change the world? "Know your origins and your history," she said. "It's where we all come from, and knowledge of it will only help you create something better."
Looking to the past for inspiration, and the future for motivation, de Carbuccia has something to say about the way that art can unify us—and even drive us further to protect our home, our planet, our origins.
"ONE: One Planet, One Future" is on display at the Westbeth Center for the Arts until Nov. 21. The works exposed will eventually be sold to benefit the Time Shrine Foundation, a 501c3 not-for-profit that contributes to the fight against climate change.