Does This Sculpture Depict a Coral Reef Collapsing or Recovering?

Artist Courtney Mattison’s spiral-shaped piece explores the uncertain future for coral reefs

Our Changing Seas III, 2014 (Courtney Mattison. Photo by Arthur Evans)
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You’ve heard that coral reefs are in big trouble and might even die off by the end of the century. But if you spend most of your time on land, it can be easy to lose sight of the disaster. Which is why Courtney Mattison’s sculpture is so vital: It plunges you into that hidden realm. “Art can inspire people to care about things in the world that we wouldn’t normally care about if we just saw them in a textbook,” says Mattison, 30, an artist and environmental activist who calls herself an “artivist.” The ten-foot-tall ceramic work Our Changing Seas III—part of her exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art—confronts the viewer with a choice. The outer edge of the spiral-shaped reef looks dead, like bleached corals killed by rising acid levels linked to carbon dioxide. But near the center are vibrantly colored, thriving organisms. Is the reef as a whole collapsing, or recovering? That’s up to you, and Mattison’s sculpture argues beautifully that the same goes for the fate of reefs in the oceans.

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