Art Addresses Environment at the Kennedy Center

The Kennedy Center
6 min readMar 31, 2023
Terje Isungset Ice Quartet. Photo by Emile Holba.

The RiverRun Festival Celebrates Rivers as the Arteries of Civilization

By Colleen Kennedy

The Terje Isungset Ice Quartet’s performance is on ice. Literally. The Norwegian quartet’s instruments are currently sitting in a freezer deep in the recesses of the Kennedy Center until their performances on April 14 and 15 as part of the RiverRun: arts nature impact festival. Harps, drums, horns, and more musical instruments are all carved from blocks of ice harvested from Norway’s ever-changing lakes and rivers.

As the band plays, the instruments begin to melt due to friction and ambient temperature, changing the tone of the composed pieces, and leading to onstage improvisations and adaptations.

“When we arranged the Nordic Cool festival in 2013, I traveled to Greenland and witnessed the melting icebergs,” shares Alicia Adams, Vice President of International Programming and Dance. “The Quartet’s performance is an extraordinary sonic symbol of climate change, how it affects water and ice, and how people of the Nordic countries are adapting.”

“We have a long history of doing these international festivals and they’ve always been more geographic in focus, highlighting a specific country, region, or continent,” states Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter. “As we have come through the pandemic, this festival felt like a way to really draw partners from all across the world, and engage together in some form of cultural diplomacy. What is more important across the world than climate change? These artists have an ability to communicate ideas and concepts in a way that is perhaps even more powerful than facts alone.”

Alexandra Kehayoglou’s Paraná de las Palmas River. Photo by Margot Schulman.

RiverRun is now open, running from World Water Day (March 22) to Earth Day (April 22), celebrating rivers across the world through immersive experiences, performances, art installations, films, talks, family and youth programming, and more.

“Years ago, I received a National Geographic map depicting the rivers of the world, and I noticed how arterial they are, coursing across the surface of Earth, nurturing all of life,” states Adams, who first suggested the festival theme over five years ago.

Rivers provide renewable and potable water, allowing for early innovations in agriculture, travel, trade, and technology. The cradles of civilization were located near fresh rivers as are many of the largest cities of our own time. Rivers, however, were not only the locus of labor, but also a place of renewal and recreation, a place to rhapsodize. Artists and philosophers, poets and scientists have all been inspired by rivers. Thoughts and words seem to flow more freely near a grassy bank and sun-dappled stream.

Where there is water, there is art.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of Ginevra Benci. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

“Behind every one of his masterpieces, there is a river,” Gilda Almeida, Director of International Programming, shares about the works of the great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci.

In the background of the Mona Lisa, a river meanders between far-off mountains and lush pastures. Likewise, in the National Gallery of Art’s Portrait of Ginevra Benci, a crystal stream gently ripples behind the aristocratic beauty.

“Leonardo is a good representation of the festival as a whole,” continues Almeida. “He embodies both the arts and sciences in the same person.”

On April 14, the Library of Congress’s Literary Director Marie Arana will curate and da Vinci biographer Walter Isaacson will host LEONARDISSIMO! — Leonardo da Vinci’s World and Its Waters, an immersive presentation about the Renaissance artist’s obsession with water featuring artists and scholars that will feature footage from Ken Burns’ forthcoming documentary. In a multimedia representation of da Vinci’s iconic notebooks, D.C. actor Christopher Bloch will perform passages while sketches of his visionary works are projected, accompanied by flutist Yana Nikol and guitarist Cristian Perez playing Renaissance music.

As an engineer, architect, and scientist, da Vinci designed bridges, water mills, canals, submarines, and even attempted to divert the natural course of a river. Some of these innovations did not come to fruition until decades or centuries after he first imagined how humankind could harness the power of water.

Yet, today’s artists are no longer just inspired by the beauty and potency of rivers, but are using their art to call attention to glacial ice loss, floods, droughts, oil spills, coral reef and aquatic habitat loss, and other threats to the world’s water supply.

Roberto Fabelo’s Survivors (Sobrevivientes). Photo by Margot Schulman.

A crash of life-sized rhinoceroses herd together near the reflecting pool outside of the REACH in Cuban artist Roberto Fabelo’s world-premiere installation Survivors (Sobrevivientes). While many of us have seen the critically endangered rhino in zoos, here we may sidle up to the 350-pound fiberglass rhinos, take a selfie, rub a hand over the armored bumps of its skin. The intimacy forces viewers to confront issues such as poaching and habitat loss, and to reconsider our connections with wildlife, to be bold enough to leave the herd and carve a new path forward. This art exhibition is one of several dynamic installations that will be open, free, and accessible to all during the run of the festival.

“Children and teens are aware that this is their future. They are going to be affected by climate change and they want to have a voice about what is happening,” explains Almeida about the importance of engaging families and youth through the festival’s programming and invited artists. From a dance performance by Debbie Allen’s youth troupe Red Birds to Edwin Fontánez’s immersive, bilingual exhibit Isla de Rios celebrating Puerto Rico’s 200+ rivers, to partnerships with art and environmental studies students at four regional universities creating exhibits and performances for the Festival, RiverRun is creating brave spaces for inquiry and advocacy.

Aneeshwar Kunchala

Eight-year-old poet, conservationist, and reality competition star (America’s Got Talent, Britain’s Got Talent) Aneeshwar Kunchala creates inspirational poetry about the environment and conservation. (At the other end of the continuum, 87-year-old oceanographer and marine biologist Sylvia Earle will share from her lifetime of experiences exploring the ocean.)

“We were just blown away,” Almeida says about seeing the young conservationist on America’s Got Talent: All Stars. “Aneeshwar will be interviewed by D.C. Youth Poet Laureate Sophia Hall and given a platform for his art activism, and we are dedicating a whole exhibition space to his advocacy. We know that he will connect to the next generation through his moving message.”

RiverRun continues until April 22 (World Day), and kicks off a series of international Kennedy Center festivals scheduled on odd years devoted to environmental issues — Space (2025), Movement and Energy (2027), and in 2029, in the lead up to the 2030 goal set by the United Nations to find climate solutions, the focus will be Making Peace with Nature. On even years, the previous year’s festival theme continues as an Arts Biennial, inviting visual artists worldwide.

Aneeshwar Kuhchala on America’s Got Talent All Stars.

Major support for RiverRun is provided by Boeing and the Kennedy Center International Committee on the Arts.

For more information about RiverRun, visit the Kennedy Center website. Tickets for events may be reserved online, at the Kennedy Center Box Office, or by calling 202–467–4600.