Just last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the third section of its 6th report, indicating that we only have three years left to change the structures of our societies enough to be able to reverse the curve of greenhouse gas emissions in time. The environmental crisis getting more serious (and our interventions more urgent by the minute!), along with the pandemic and the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, all feed into shared anxieties about the world we live in and the threat of a dystopian future.
In our contemporary world, uncertainties are inevitable. This is the topic Sandra Sawatzky tackles in her most recent work, The Age of Uncertainty. The Age of Uncertainty is a 12-panel narrative embroidery, each panel individually addressing different contemporary human anxieties with satire, and the formal style inspired from medieval art. “Some [anxieties] are as old as time, while others are recent developments,” states the artist on her website.
Now, well away from the optimism of the 60s imagining a future with no limits, the issues addressed are the following: climate change, resource overexploitation, war, nuclear threat, income inequity, debt, overpopulation, employment, corruption, electronic surveillance, artificial intelligence and the unethical use of science and technology.
Sandra Sawatzky is a Canadian visual artist from Alberta with a background in film. Two decades of experience in that field provided Sawatzky with undeniable talent for storytelling, which she now expresses in embroideries. Her last work, The Black Gold Tapestry, as described by the artist, is a “220-foot film on cloth” with “a lot of movement and humour.” The piece took just under ten years to research, conceptualize and embroider all by hand, resulting in an illustrated tale of the history of oil, from the dinosaur age to its contemporary use.
The recounting of the considerable impact of fossil fuels on human civilization in colourful tapestry leads to a playful while serious reflection on climate change and innovation. Following the research for The Black and Gold Tapestry, Sandra Sawatzky aimed to expand on the social, economical and environmental ramifications of the “world made by oil,” and bring all of that into another work: The Age of Uncertainty.
The epic masterpiece that is The Age of Uncertainty took Sandra Sawatzky four years to make. The carefully threaded stories “that keep us awake at night” tie different human angst to prognostic quotes and insightful statements. With clever needle strokes and a humorous tone, human figures are in the central field, impersonating our flaws and vices. With Sawatzky drawing inspiration from media and pop culture as well as literature and science, the colourful and expressive final piece remains utterly accessible and can resonate with any viewer.
Taking inspiration from medieval art, the panels are framed by embellished borders filled with flora and fauna, reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts. The margins of the panels are also filled with small decorative images called “drolleries”, again, a common embellishment of traditional illuminated manuscripts. Drolleries are often small whimsical images of mixed creatures, unrelated to the main story of the manuscript. Sawatzky uses them as comical additions to her illustrated uncertainties in depicting animals taking power back over humans: they pursue and mistreat humans, in a reversal of roles from contemporary exploitation, maybe as a warning of punishment for human repercussions on our shared Mother Earth.
"I think that the Earth’s immune system is trying to get rid of us, as well it should." - Kurt Vonnegut, novelist and satirist
The quotes are a starting point for reflections Sawatzky wants to provoke, and ideas she wants to illustrate. They act as open-ended questions to invite the viewer to second-guess our commonplace, our day-to-day.
"In this world of sin and sorrow, if virtue triumphs over vice, it is not because it is virtuous, but because it has better and bigger guns." - W. Somerset Maugham, writer
Sawatzky bets on humour and provocative illustration to share the subversive message hidden within her work rather than statistics and factual warnings. “I am an artist on a mission,” states the artist on her blog. We are all implicit in the maintaining of the status quo in our pursuit of “comfort, novelty, status, domination, and wealth.” By taking a derisive look at our habits and our “normal,” only then can individuals realize its excess and ridicule, and really start to acknowledge the part they take in the slow burn-out of our contemporary world.
“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,” states the artist in the statement that accompanies the Nickle Galleries exhibit.
As for the display of the piece, it is meant to be nonhierarchical. In our world, the 12 uncertainties are equally concerning and interconnected, and so they are all placed on the same level, in an open ellipse. The arrangement of the piece then creates a space of contemplation, reflection and introspection. “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.” explains Sawatsky in the exhibit’s catalog.
In a discussion with the Nickles Galleries for the University of Calgary, Sawatzky explains how “using embroidery is kind of counterintuitive to talk about the modern day,” although the effect is very powerful. Indeed, the artist uses stitches based on those used in The Bayeux Tapestry, the renowned artifact from the 11th century depicting the unfolding of the Norman conquest of England. Historically, the tradition of embroidery was used to “demonstrate, commemorate and instruct” and would engage in social critique.
By addressing some of the most pressing issues of our time with the purpose of making the viewer take responsibility and action, The Age of Uncertainty by Sandra Sawatzky aligns with pretty much every United Nations Sustainable Development Goal. From Responsible Consumption and Production, to Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, along with Affordable Clean Energy and Decent Work and Economic Growth, the power of The Age of Uncertainty lies way beyond its physical limits: it has the power to truly inspire change.