This month, I have for you an interview with Maureen Drdak, an artist whose recent exhibition is called Ardens Mundi, Latin for Burning Worlds. Drdak is also the recipient of the 2011 U.S. Fulbright Fellowship for Art in Nepal. Her work can be found in numerous public, private, and university collections within the US and abroad, among them the Berthe and John Ford Collection, Shelley and Donald Rubin Collection, Lynda and Stuart Resnick, and Emir Hamad Al Thani and Sheikha Mozah of Qatar. In the interview below we discuss how her latest exhibition “presents the many faces of global warming” and the real-life events that inspired her work.
Please tell me about your latest series, Ardens Mundi. What does that title stand for, and how does the exhibition speak to the climate crisis?
Ardens Mundi is Latin for Burning Worlds. The series presents the many faces of global warming as it manifests across the planet, with each work showing a distinct cataclysmic phenomenon. The title also refers to the transmutational power of burning in the spiritual sense, in that humanity has agency – humanity can choose to purify itself from its worst addictions. The series is reflective of my long study and work in the Himalayan country of Nepal, a country and region where the conversation between spirit and matter is of long and particular intensity – and of special relevance to our rapidly heating planet.
I conceived of this series as a sublime processional portrait of a planet in violent turmoil – as an Environmental Stations of the Cross – with each work presenting a specific calamitous force, the aggregate cumulating in our collective crucifixion of our planet. In totality, the series evokes through its heightened materiality a portentous vision of forms, processes, and energies hurling towards environmental cataclysm. Each work is four feet in diameter and four works have been completed to date; three feature in this exhibition: Inferno, the blackened furioso of firestorms; Conflatura, the melting of glaciers; Dessico, the desiccation of drought; and Tempestatis, the explosive force of bombogenesis. Five more planned works will eventually complete the series, with an even larger “keystone” work envisioned to anchor the series. A number of viewers have remarked that the works remind them of Rothko’s Chapel in Houston, Texas; I’m heartened, as that’s exactly what I’m envisioning.
Tell me about your own evolution as an artist who cares about climate. What inspired you to address the crisis in your work?
When I first traveled to Nepal in 2005, I was profoundly awestruck at my first distant sight of the Himalayas – and that was while I was in the plane cruising at 30,000 feet. The range loomed on the horizon, rising above the cloud ceiling at approximately the same level as our plane. They were blazingly white – fully snow covered. That image is forever burned into my memory. Tragically, and ominously, that snow cover has diminished every year since, to the point now that I’m told, if you see a truly snow covered picture of the Himalayas, it’s invariably dated from many decades earlier. And as I’ve returned many times in the intervening years – I was last in Nepal in 2019 – I can personally attest to that fact. Running water has been heard by climbers at high altitudes on these summits – think about that! Almost half of the Himalayan ice cap including glaciers will be lost by 2100. These snows directly supply most every major river system in Asia, and supports the lives of billions of people. Billions. The Himalayas are called “The Third Pole” for a reason; they make their own weather and the severity of the impact of global warming will affect not only their weather system, but weather worldwide. This is beyond terrifying.
But Ardens Mundi is also an homage to cultural preservation! The anthropogenic forces of globalization that drive these climate phenomena also drive cultural fragmentation and dislocation. Globalization has disrupted and destabilized many cultural practices and social structures. Of particular fragility are the material practices of many traditional artists. When I first visited Nepal in 2005, I was overwhelmed with not only its sublime physical beauty, but with the eloquence of its material culture. I was particularly taken with the gorgeous gilded copper repoussé toranas – hemispheric bas-reliefs – that surmounted the important entrances to temples and palaces. Their worn gilded surfaces exposed a rich variety of patinas; it was the chromatic opulence of these surfaces that inspired my idea of a synthesis of metalwork and painting, in quest of which I earned the 2011 Fulbright Fellowship for art in Nepal. My pursuit of this crazy vision led directly to the family of my guru, Master Rabindra Shakya of Okubahal, Patan.
Repoussé is an ancient practice, yet an endangered one. Due to its technical demands, worldwide its practitioners remain few; the youth of Nepal are, understandably, attracted to other less physically demanding and more lucrative careers. Rabindra’s family is recognized globally as the finest remaining contemporary practitioners of the elite form, honored by the kings of Nepal, with an illustrious lineage dating back to 1564. This Newar Buddhist family created many of the regions greatest historic monuments! I was powerfully inspired to investigate the possibilities of this elite metalworking practice for contemporary expressive form, and I’m deeply rewarded to know that my resulting work demonstrates the dynamic potential of this traditional practice for contemporary artists, and by extension, is of possible aid in its preservation.
What do you hope audiences take away from your work?
For a visual artist, the question of how to give form to the invisible forces of nature is immensely challenging. The insistent materiality of repoussé – in my works I use heavy copper sheeting – to convey elemental powers would at first seem to be antithetical. Yet it’s precisely both the very physicality of copper sheet, and the resulting marks of repoussé’s intensely physical process, that convey the weight, force, and power of the unseen wind, heat, and cold. It visually incarnates and communicates a sense of “felt-ness” of these invisible forces.
I want the viewer to become drawn into the materiality of existence – its power and its fragility. I want the works to draw them in through an experience and exploration of complex surfaces: the weight of metal, the granulations of crushed stones and minerals, ethereal abrasions of paint. I want them to experience this complex range of materials and treatments that go from the brutal to the ethereal, and through this material immersion, invite their minds to consider the forces they represent, and their relationship with the wonderment of the earth and her processes – and of our collective responsibilities for her current state.
In its integration of material dichotomies and cultural engagement, Ardens Mundi speaks to humanity’s capacity for social and spiritual expansion. While working, I continually reflect upon this moment of humanity’s greatest challenge. In my synthesis, material dichotomies are harmonized, assuming properties formally relegated to the other. Paint ossifies. Copper weakens and thins under the blows of the hammer; fire renews its malleability rendering it akin to skin with all its associated vulnerabilities – yet paradoxically restores its inherent strength, rendering it supple and capable of taking on new expanding forms. Likewise, in its resistance to change, humanity is weakened. Yet with the acceptance of painful change, strength and renewal will follow, birthing new and finer possibilities for our collective future.
Speaking more generally, what role do you see art playing in our wider discourse on climate?
Our anthropogenic climate emergency impacts world cultures – indigenous traditions, practices, and the social frameworks that support them. While globalization and advanced communication have accelerated the development of so many positives for humanity, they have also resulted in cultural fragmentation and dislocation. A fundamental aspect of my work practice is its demonstration of the dynamic potential of traditional practices for contemporary applications. Through this exploration, I hope my work aids in their preservation.
The family of my colleague and teacher, Master Rabindra Shakya, created an immense repoussé colossus of a Buddhist saint in Bhutan. Surpassing our Statue of Liberty in both size and function, it houses within a fully functioning monastery! Paradoxically, this family’s legacy and practice are now threatened by two interlocking threats: globalization and climate change. And as Nepal lies within an epicenter of global warming, the increasing acceleration of climate change is severely destabilizing both Nepal’s delicate ecosystems and its cultural traditions.
What’s next for you?
I am fiercely committed and single-mindedly focused on the completion of this series in its entirety. The four works completed to date represent the culmination of over a decade of devotion to the exploration of my new synthesis as embodied in the Ardens Mundi series. Several months are required for the completion of one Burning World, and the physically arduous nature of the metalworking process necessitates intervals of down-time recovery. Though I initiated pursuit of my repoussé-painting synthesis in 2009, it wasn’t until 2016 that I really felt my skills were up to the production needs for the first four major work in the series; Ardens Mundi1, Inferno was completed in 2017. I have five more Ardens Mundi works to complete – for a total of nine envisioned works – and additionally, one large anchor work which I anticipate will be possibly twice the size of the forty-eight inch diameter of these works. I’m in excellent health – with some impressive biceps! – but as we all know and witness in these intensely challenging times, anything can happen. So carpe diem!
Amy Brady is the Executive Director of Orion Magazine, and the former Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books. She is also the co-editor of The World As We Knew It: Dispatches from a Changing Climate (Catapult) and author of Ice: An American Obsession (GP Putnam’s Sons). Every month she edits the newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. Amy holds a PhD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.