Really good immersive environmental art

For environmental scientists, the world is often an extension of the laboratory. For that reason, I am am sometimes loathe to draw the line between where sci-art begins and environmental art begins. By environmental art, I mean art that directly engages with the the environment as an ‘issue’– not outdoor sculpture (much as I love that too). I highlight here two pieces, to be experienced in London right now, that I think are particularly worthy of notice.

White Noise: an urban soundscape (Bill Fontana)

Can you think of anything more incongruous to the sound of crashing waves, stones gently banging against each other than the sound and smell of traffic on Euston Rd? Working, as I do on that very road, I primarily think of it as an overly crowded clusterfuck that when at all possible should be avoided. I don’t take a bus down the Euston Rd because it is much faster to walk; a brave cyclist today lost her life at Kings Cross, thanks to an HGV. So, it’s as close as I can imagine to hell. Now, try to square that with being a place you can draw breath an look around without a sense of panic. Which is exactly what Bill Fontana does with his installation White Sound: an urban seascape, installed outside the Wellcome Collection. Projecting a recording of breaking waves onto pebbles, Fontana manages to stop (or slow as the case may be) busy Londoners in their footsteps, transforming the urban environment.

Chesil Beach, Image from Haunch of Venison website

Fontana’s use of sound is remarkable– and, I speculate, perhaps may be the source of the Wellcome Collection‘s interest in his work. The Wellcome Trust is a medical charity and has historically been a great sponsor of sci-art collaborations. The way that White Sound plays with our senses and memory to completely transform our sense of place is remarkable, and I am sure some neuroscientists would have something to say about this. I intend to go back (yes indeed voluntarily walking down Euston Rd!) before the exhibition closes on October 16th. See if I’m once again taken back to a beach that *I* experienced last summer whilst on the Isle of Lewis. Ah, memory.

High Arctic: Future Visions of a Receding World (National Maritime Museum)

Last Weekend, I ventured down to Greenwich to the National Maritime Museum to see their ‘exhibition’ High Arctic. I put the word, exhibition, in quotation marks in quotation marks, as this creation by Matt Clark of United Visual Artists is as much exhibition as experience, elegy, and multimedia immersive installation. Matt Clark is one of a number of illustrious artists (including the likes of Anthony Gormley, Ian McEwan, Sophie Calle, and DJ Spooky) who have participated in the Cape Farewell project, which facilitates the involvement of artists in the area of climate change via trips in the company of artists to the world’s most threatened places, such as Greenland, Spitsbergen, Svalbard, the Andes, and most recently the Scottish islands. I have written previously about my overall ambivalence towards some of the art that has come out of the project (despite how close it is to my heart) and the difficulty of making good climate art. However, High Arctic is a different beast entirely.

High Arctic (Image courtesy of Cape Farewell)

As I approached the entrance to the High Arctic exhibition, I was greeted by an affable museum worker, who handed me an ultraviolet torch, explaining that I should be quiet and experience, listen and think. ‘Find a place to sit and just absorb the experience,’ he said. Not what you typically hear, even when experiencing installation art. So, I entered a dark room hallway, shining my light on the walls. Norsk names emerged in the light, and then I emerged in a large room surrounded by lots and lots of white pillars of various sizes grouped in clusters. A minimalist ice-scape, names of places I shall never visit in the far north emblazoned on the relics. Projections (we think done in Processing) on the floor are there to be interacted with, to be intervened with by us humans trespassing. As you pass through the landscape, you are stopped in your tracks by haunting poetry of Nick Drake (also on the Svalbard expedition with Matt Clark) and excerpts of ships logs. Practically speaking, this is about all the matter-of-fact description of the exhibition that I can muster– it’s not to be described, but to be experienced. Which is why I feel like it works so well. It doesn’t describe or tell you, it shows you. There’s a penetrating sadness that somehow manages to evade being preachy or pedantic that hit me hard. The arctic is a dynamic landscape that grows and shrinks on an annual basis, but which it seems we are gradually losing. And it’s sad. And you should go see this.

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About sciartsci

I would like to consider myself both scientist and artist and am profoundly interested in the overlap, intermingling, and interface between these two worlds. I had an academic position (in science) at a university in the USA, which I left (in part) to spend a year in London doing art in a Foundation programme at Byam Shaw/Central St Martins. I now find myself back working in science but maintaining a high level of involvement in art (sculpture, painting, drawing, photography). I have a pretty cool job and this blog reflects only my opinions and not those of the fantastic institution I happen to be lucky enough to work for.
This entry was posted in art, Cape Farewell, Climate Change, Environmental art, installation, ocean, sound art. Bookmark the permalink.

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