The World’s Beauty and Destruction—Bound Together

With thread, plastic, and reams of climate data, textile artist Tali Weinberg displays our dangerous entanglement with the fossil fuel industry.

October 08, 2019

Bound (i.2.), 2018
Courtesy of the artist

When it all starts to feel like too much—climate change, Trump’s antics, our rapidly degrading planet—Tali Weinberg looks up. The textile artist, who uses colorful woven threads to decode the complexities of climate change and other crises, is two years into a three-year Tulsa Artist Fellowship in Oklahoma, where she relocated from a studio in California’s Bay Area. “In Berkeley I walked out my door to go hiking every day,” she says. “Here I look up to the sky. It’s where I seek refuge in natural beauty.”

It’s not lost on Weinberg that the skies that give her solace owe some of their beauty to the dirty industries that make Tulsa a fossil-fuel boomtown. “One of the reasons the sunrises and sunsets are so stunning here is because of pollution from oil refineries or from fires outside the city,” she says. Ironically, the more particulate matter hovering above the horizon, the more colorful the sunset.

“There’s no way of being pure in this world,” Weinberg says.

Notions of destruction and loss, as well as gestures of natural beauty and grace, share the same stage in Weinberg’s emotionally layered constructions, which often combine organic materials with petrochemical products. In her Inextricably Bound series, the artist took cotton thread and color-coded it to materially display average yearly temperature readings for 300 locations around the world. She then wrapped the naturally dyed threads around plastic tubing.

One of these “woven climate datascapes,” Bound (i.2), went on display at the Center for Craft in Asheville, North Carolina, just a couple of months after Hurricane Florence swamped the state. To the casual observer, the piece’s spiral arrangement may have looked like a bird’s-eye view of a storm. “For the last couple of years, we’ve been seeing these more and more drastic storms, and that image has become so much more ingrained and terrifying,” she says.

Bound (i.2.), 2018
Courtesy of the artist

Weinberg moved to Tulsa shortly after the 2016 election. At the time, concerned scientists—some of whom she had been having conversations with—were archiving data from government websites in fear that the Trump administration might limit access to the information or delete it altogether. (They were right.) Not sure what she would be doing when she got to Oklahoma, Weinberg copied the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s whole database.

In another emotionally evocative and NOAA-influenced piece from the Inextricably Bound series, Weinberg intertwines the plastic tubing to form a sculptural knot—a bold reflection on landscapes crisscrossed by oil and gas pipelines. She explains how the fossil fuel industry provides the materials for the plastic tubes that go in and around the bodies of critically ill cancer patients, whose diseases can often be traced to petrochemicals. Bound (i.1)’s knot is messy and elegant at the same time—a way of looking at what she calls “entanglement.”

Bound (i.1.), 2018
Courtesy of the artist

Nostalgia and a sense of loss inspired another series of work that coincided with Weinberg’s move to the landlocked state. For What Color Was the Water, she wove flat panels of thread dyed with plant- and insect-derived pigments that represent temperature changes in the world’s oceans. On a personal level, they evoke memories of the Pacific Ocean, which the artist used to see every day in California. But they also ask the troubling question of what the water might have looked like before the Anthropocene’s marks of temperature rise, ocean acidification, and the mass die-off of coral reefs.  

After immersing herself in climate research for a few years, Weinberg says she was moved to return to landscape drawings of places she has known and loved, such as Dutchess County, New York, and Deschutes County, Oregon. As a reaction to the harsh and cold science she’d immersed herself in, Weinberg’s ink-on-paper drawings are brightly colored and attempt to memorialize the experience of being in and moving through an actual place. “They came very much from the feeling of despair and being paralyzed from how close and personal and dramatic climate changes have become,” she says, “It was almost like I couldn’t look at the data anymore.”

What Color Was the Water(1 & 2), 2017

Photo by Miranda Brandon

Not that she can ignore it for any length of time. “I get this question a lot about what it means to make something beautiful out of something so ugly,” says Weinberg, who hasn’t decided where she will be making her data-driven art after her Tulsa fellowship ends in December. “The question for me is how do we stay away from being cynical? What are the places in the world and the creatures that we want to care for and protect? There are still so many things to love that we can encounter, if we look.”

Tali Weinberg’s Inextricably Bound is on view at the Lewis Project Space in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from October 29 to November 21. What Color Was the Water? is on view in “Seeing Now” at 21c Museum Hotel in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, through December. 

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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