The Art of Climate Change

This piece appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 14 July 2006

The Ship: The Art of Climate Change, Jerwood Gallery, Natural History Museum, London

Shortly before this exhibition opened, Sir David Attenborough — the most trusted voice in British broadcasting — announced that he was no longer a sceptic when it came to the causes of climate change: “My message is that the world is warming, and that it’s our fault”, he informed a startled looking Huw Edwards on the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News. But it hadn’t been images of glacial retreat that had served to convince him of humanity’s guilt, nor had it been footage of Arctic icecaps crashing into an ever-rising sea. His conversion had been brought about by a small coloured graph produced by researchers at the Hadley Centre, the climate science wing of the Met Office. The graph featured three jagged lines, one red, one green and one yellow, representing, respectively, average recorded temperatures, natural climatic variability, and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, each plotted over a 150-year period (from 1850 to 2000). Up until the middle of the 20th century, the three lines rose and fell together, but after that point, while the green line rose only very slightly, the red and yellow lines shot up in tandem, J-curving dramatically from 1970 onwards. As Attenborough pointed out, “the coincidence of the curves made it perfectly clear that we have left the period of natural climatic oscillation behind”, and that our climate is now, effectively, man-made.

Attenborough’s conversion was much on my mind as I made my way around this exhibition, and I couldn’t help comparing its array of visual tropes with the cursive elegance of the climate scientists’ graph. With such powerful visual statements already in circulation, I wondered, what might a group of artists and writers hope to contribute to the debate? “A different eye”, suggests the show’s curator, Bergit Arends, who writes in her accompanying catalogue essay that “one salient image, sculpture or event may speak louder than volumes of scientific data . . . where science alone has failed to engage the public, the arts may succeed.” This is a claim that is often made by arts administrators — it’s always deployed when an artist in residence is being foisted on a science institution — but there’s something in its tone that makes me uneasy, for by choosing to negate the kind of scientific creativity that was responsible for changing Attenborough’s mind, it only ends up reinforcing the “two cultures” divide that so many scientists and arts practitioners are working to remove.

To be fair to the 16 artists and writers involved in this exhibition, though, the unhelpful curatorial distinction between scientific evidence and artistic imagination belies the multidisciplinary context in which most of the pieces were conceived. All 16 are alumni of the Cape Farewell project, an international scheme that sends artists, writers and climate scientists on month-long missions to the Svalbard archipelago in the two-masted schooner Noorderlicht — the Ship of the title — and all have spent significant time in the company of its onboard oceanographers. In fact the scientists even participated in the making of some of the artworks, such as Dan Harvey’s plaster medicine ball, which was suspended below a drifting buoy for 48 hours in order to allow the undersea currents to sculpt themselves onto its surface. Simon Boxall, the oceanographer who managed to relocate the migrant ball, has described the results as “artistically stunning and scientifically interesting”, so it’s a pity that the object appears only in the documentary screened next door (David Hinton’s Art from a Changing Arctic) and not in the exhibition itself.

In some ways, Hinton’s 59-minute film is the best piece in the show, not least for its entertaining footage of the projects undertaken by the class of 2005, the first of the three Cape Farewell expeditions to brave the rigours of an Arctic winter. As the Noorderlicht lay icebound in the frozen channel of the Tempelfjorden, like a Lottery-funded Endurance, its twenty-strong company of artists and environmentalists, including Ian McEwan, Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread, huddled outdoors in temperatures as low as -35°C, where even the simplest action takes on the air of an experiment in survival. Whiteread kept wanting to go off “in search of whiteness”, but was forbidden to venture out alone due to the threat of passing polar bears, while Gormley’s first instinct was to carve himself a snow shelter, partly because he was worried about something happening to the ship, and partly in pursuit of his ongoing preoccupation with the tensions between the made human world and the inherited world outside. His Shelter quickly became an elaborate cave, with bunk beds, lighting and even a geometric flight of steps, although, as the photographs in the exhibition reveal, it looked more like a tomb than a refuge. “I feel a bit hopeless here”, he confessed at one point, a sentiment that he went on to explore in a haunting sculpture, Marker, an abject looking snowman who was left behind as a witness to the coming of spring.

But the problem with many of these Cape Farewell pieces, apart from the fact that they can’t be exhibited, is that they derive from a response to a wilderness landscape rather than an engagement with climate change. The Mute-o-Luxometer by “artoonist” Michèle Noach, for example, recalls the moment when she was rendered speechless by her first sight of the northern lights. Her iridescent hand-drawn graph, in which speechlessness is plotted against a rising scale of splendour, may be a well-executed parody of statistical inexactitude, but it has nothing whatever to say about a warming world. Neither, for that matter, has Nick Edwards’s digital triptych Fata Morgana, Ultima Thule and 80°5’N 16°44’E, which, like Noach’s neighbouring “feel-o-graph”, offers an impressive visualisation of the literary idea of North, but it fails to live up to the curatorial remit of finding new ways to communicate climate science

In fact, there is only a handful of pieces that set out to do what it says on the tin, the most effective of which is David Buckland’s big screen video projection The End of Ice, a 42-minute static shot of a recently calved ‘berg subsiding audibly into the surrounding water. As the melting iceberg slowly diminishes, there are curious alterations in the quality of the light that rakes across the mountains behind, and the moment when the final fragment disappears from view is attended by a sudden counteracting brightness that lends a powerful note of elegy to the scene. Buckland’s later Ice Texts, though, are a less convincing attempt to assay an art of climate change, in the form of a series of abbreviated messages that he projected onto the foot of a crumbling glacier. Unlike the glacier, I didn’t really warm to these millenarian tracts — “Sadness Melts”, “Burning Ice”, “A Wind Age A Wolf Age Before The World Is Wrecked” — which, along with the room’s other text-based pieces, including Ian McEwan’s dubious excursion into green Malthusianism (“The pressure of our numbers, the abundance of our inventions . . . we resemble successful lichen, a ravaging bloom of algae, a mould enveloping a fruit”) put a serious dent in the curator’s ambition “to make an exhibition about climate change without preaching”.

The only other major piece to engage directly with polar warming is Alex Hartley’s Nymark (Undiscovered Island), an archive installation that documents the artist’s attempts to claim sovereignty over a tiny patch of frozen moraine that was recently exposed by the shrinking of the Sonklarbreen glacier. Hartley’s letters to the governor of Svalbard make entertaining reading (“This letter is to inform you that the island, named Nymark, will secede Norwegian sovereignty on May 31st 2006”), but in the end they add up to little more than a sustained practical joke directed at overworked officials — whose replies, written in flawless English, betray their increasing irritation — rather than any serious reflection on the consequences of glacial retreat.

I had wanted to like this muddled exhibition, just as I had wanted to like The Day After Tomorrow, but, as is so often the case when artists go in search of scientific inspiration, the end results are doubly disappointing. And, given that the exhibition’s stated aim is to increase awareness of climate change, it’s extraordinary that none of the Noorderlicht’s scientists was invited to contribute (or even to speak in the accompanying documentary), especially given the failure of most of the artists to apply themselves to the brief. “Art can often reach us in a way that media headlines and scientific data cannot”, claims Bergit Arends in her catalogue essay, but on the strength of the evidence exhibited here, the Hadley Centre’s horrifying J-curve makes a far more compelling case for the reality of climate change than any of the pieces in this show.

Richard Hamblyn

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