The 2nd Copernican Revolution

By Joan Sullivan

Way back in 2014, when I first started writing for Artists & Climate Change, I wrote a one-paragraph post with a link to Rap News’ The Second Heliocentric Revolution, a brilliant fast-paced spoof about the energy transition, produced by Australia’s provocative and irreverent “98.9% genuine satire” The Juice Media.

I’m sharing this video again in the hope that some artists and scribes may find inspiration in the powerful symbolism of the Renaissance’s heliocentric revolution in the context of the 21st century’s solar revolution. As Maria Popova wrote so succinctly in 2016, “Human culture is and always has been inexorably connected to the ultimate source of light and warmth – the Sun.”

Heliocentrism – the theory that the Sun is the center of our universe (as opposed to geocentrism, which placed the Earth at its center) – was first proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus in the 16th century. It was perhaps more famously popularized by Galileo Galilei in the 17th century, which led him to be condemned by the Roman Inquisition, threatened with a burning at the stake, and, after recanting his statement, sentenced to house arrest for the remaining eight years of his life. Nearly four centuries later, Pope John Paul II formally apologized for the Catholic Church’s “error” in repudiating scientific inquiry that challenged church dogma.

It would be tempting to draw comparisons between accusations of heresy 400 years ago and accusations of fake news today for those who listen to the science. Instead, let’s focus our collective energy on a more pressing question: What is the role of arts and culture as we transition ourselves and our society away from an unconscious addiction to fossil fuels towards a conscious “age of stewardship” powered by renewable energy? I have been musing about this question over the past few months via a series of posts (herehere, and here) inspired, in part, by Barry Lord’s book Art & Energy: How Culture Changes

For this month’s post, let’s rephrase the question: How can artists explore Copernicus’ heliocentrism as a framework within which to create new stories, new symbols, and new metaphors that embrace a more phenomenological understanding of the centrality of the Sun in a radically transformed society?

It’s important to keep reminding ourselves that the vast majority of energy used on Earth today – by all plants, all animals, and almost all microorganisms – ultimately comes from sunlight. Even fossil fuels, composed of organic matter created by the Sun (photosynthesis) millions of years ago, are considered fossilized sunlight. Even the wind – yes, the wind! – is created by the Sun via heat differentials between how quickly the Sun heats up land masses compared to the vast oceans. 

Olafur Eliasson, the prolific Danish-Icelandic artist, has long been drawn to the most ephemeral of materials: light, air, wind, water, and weather. Similar to 19th-century painter JMW Turner. More recently, Eliasson has added energy to his ephemeral toolbox.

In 2012, Studio Olafur Eliasson created Little Sun, a follow-up to Eliasson’s popular installation The Weather Project in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. To date, Little Sun has distributed almost one million high-efficiency portable solar lamps in off-grid communities in several Sub-Saharan African countries. Sales in the Global North subsidize low-cost sales and distribution networks in Africa. 

In 2019, Eliasson was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for renewable energy and climate action by the United Nations Development Programme.

Eliasson is interested in exploring how artists can help shift the conversation about the energy transition away from impersonal technical jargon (megawatts, photovoltaic panels, distributed energy) towards a more personal awareness of and relationship to the Sun as an infinite source of non-fuel energy.

According to a recent blog on its website, Little Sun believes:

… that a shift in imagination is crucial to creating this better way of life, to finally elicit a tipping point in people’s hearts and minds towards renewables. Solar power has, for too long, been held in the domain of technical reports and political debates. To activate everyone to drive the global shift to renewable energy, we believe now is the time to make solar felt emotionally, making it compelling to connect with, and clear how to bring about.

With our most recent campaign, Reach for the Sun, we turn technical into personal, abstract into tactile, inaccessible into intimate. To tell the story of solar power, we wanted to simplify what a solar powered world means – breaking down often complex messages into clear steps. We also wanted to present the viewer with vivid, memorable images that capture the imagination. And what better way to do this than to turn the conversation into art?

Gif downloaded from Little Sun website. Artwork by Diana Ejaita for Little Sun.

Energy Humanities scholar Imre Szeman commented that “The point of the [Little Sun] lamps is not just to light a small place with free energy from the sun, but to get users to think about where all the other energy in their lives come from, and to consider, too, the vast inequalities in energy use around the world.”

If you’re not familiar Dr. Szeman and his Energy Humanities colleagues, you should be. They coined the term solarity, which Szeman defines as “a state, condition or quality developed in relation to the sun, or to energy derived from the sun.” For those artists not familiar with this new concept of solarity, I strongly recommend reading Szeman’s 2020 article On Solarity: Six Principles for Energy and Society After Oil, which can be downloaded as a pdf. In section 4 of this article, Szeman offers a precious quote from the French philosopher Georges Bataille’s essay The Accursed Share (La part maudite):

The origin and essence of our wealth are given in the radiation of the sun, which dispenses energy – wealth – without any return. The sun gives without ever receiving.

The sun gives without ever receiving

What a profound thought! As a visual artist, I can’t stop thinking about it – visually as well as metaphysically. It is my hope that Bataille’s quote might become the source of inspiration for a tsunami of artists and poets committed to fundamentally redefining our relationship to the Sun. This will require, as Szeman explains, a Copernican transformation – a change of perspective and a reversal of thinking – born of a politics of revolution rather than reform. 

Aux armes, artistes!

(Top image by Joan Sullivan.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. 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 grief about climate breakdown. 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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