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Marina Abramović behind the scenes of "Rising" (produced by Acute Art)

Rising Waters: When Contemporary Art Responds and Acts

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By  Hélène Gruenais

September 2019. Nearly half a million people on the island of Montreal gather to demonstrate and draw attention to climate change. A historic march in Canada. If environmental awareness is growing among citizens, some contemporary artists are integrating these environmental issues into their practice. Far from being detached from the viewer, their works implicate them in their process. Here is a non-exhaustive selection of engaged perspectives on our future. When art and science converge.

Olafur Eliasson and climate change

Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson spent much of his childhood observing the changing landscapes and natural phenomena in his native Iceland. His creations, since his graduation in 1993, are rooted in these observations. It was at this time that he created Beauty using a pierced garden hose and a lighting device directed at a thin curtain of rain. A rainbow then appeared in relation to our position in the space. This piece was the inspiration for the virtual reality work Rainbow. This water offers a magical moment and mixes fascination and contemplation.

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"Rainbow" by Olafur Eliasson (produced by Acute Art)

In 2003, the marvellously radiant The Weather Project made Olafur Eliasson aware of the impact a work could have on its audience: “I understood at that moment that the weather—and, by extension, the climate—is constantly acting on us, influencing us, and that this is equally true of our relationship to a work of art.”

In the winter of 2015, the installation Ice watch, created by Studio Eliasson for the Cop21 in London, Copenhagen and Paris, made just as much of an impression. Composed of twelve blocks of ice and arranged like the face of a clock in front of the Pantheon, this installation developed with the geologist Minik Rosing depicted a countdown for our planet.

“I understood then that time—and, by extension, climate—is continually impacting us, influencing us, and that this is just as true of our relationship to a work of art.”

One hundred tons of ice from Greenland disappeared before the astonished and disaffected eyes of European visitors. The volume of ice on display was the same volume of ice that melts every hundredth of a second globally. “One of the serious problems today is indifference, insensitivity to other people’s problems,” said Olafur Eliasson, adding, “There's a terrible lack of empathy, wherever you look. Art, I think, can counter that because it always seeks to touch people, to move them.”

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"Rising" by Marina Abramović (produced by Acute Art)

Marina Abramović’s Rising follows the same line of thought. The Serbian artist remarked to Dazed about it, “Icebergs are melting, waters are rising, and what was once science fiction fifty years ago is now at the edges of our cities.” The virtual representation stems from a performance by the Serbian artist, where Acute Art captured her movement and facial expression. The artist performed in a pool as it filled with water and technicians created her avatar to match. This work confronts us with the melting of the glaciers and the rising sea level (of two metres by the end of the century).

While the experience engages the visitor’s empathy, they’re met with frustration, realizing that they’re powerless to prevent the protagonist from drowning. “Only when we change ourselves can we change others. Water matters,” Abramović declares.

Faced with the current crisis, this project urges us to take action in our daily lives via the Rising application, to reassess our ecological footprint and the impact we have on the planet. According to a CBC article, if nothing is done, the rising oceans will engulf approximately 1.79 million square kilometres of land (the size of Quebec), this includes regions essential to food production, which would force 187 million people to relocate. Social engagement is one of the ways to respond to this reality.

Lines (57° 59′ N, 7° 16’W), highlights the rising sea level

Finnish artists Pekka Niittyvirta and Timo Aho have installed lighted lines in a Scottish village to depict the probable future sea level if we fail to take concrete action to slow down global warming. Niittyvirta’s work deals with the consequences of human actions in his work, as well as projects related to society, technology, the environment and the financial market.

The installation on the Uist Archipelago off the west coast of Scotland explores the catastrophic impact of our relationship with nature and its long-term effects and the immediate threat. The lighting installation prompts a dialogue to consider how the rising sea level is affecting coastal areas, its inhabitants and future land use. These LED lights mounted on the walls of the houses and placed in the surrounding landscapes interact through tide-activated sensors.

Lines (57° 59′ N, 7° 16’W)

Antarctica World Passport, citizens without borders

Another pair of artists working to increase awareness is the artistic duo Lucy+Jorge ORTA, composed of the British Lucy Orta and the Argentine Jorge Orta. Founded in 1992, Studio Orta oscillates between London and its artistic research studio in the Paris region. Its works are exhibited worldwide and many of them deal with social issues and urgent ecological challenges on a number of levels. One of them, a conceptual passport office, asks: “How can artistic practice open up a new critical perspective on the world’s growing problems? How can artworks generate and nourish a constructive dialogue?”

"There's a terrible lack of empathy, no matter where you look. Art, I think, can counter that because it's always trying to touch people, to move them."

Roaming throughout art centres and accessible online, the installation Antarctica World Passport invites visitors to submit their application and become members of the World Antarctic Community project. This gesture seeks to unite citizens from around the world under a single charter of eco-responsibility. This travelling work is made of wood, flags and salvaged objects. Within are customs officials/mediators with passports and stamps made by the ORTA Studio. A great way to mobilize citizens to protect Antarctica, act against global warming and fight for peace.

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Antarctica World Passport (credit: Studio Orta)

The subject of art’s responsibility to ecological thematics was central to the PHI Centre’s Cadavre exquis exhibition that ran from October 29th 2019 to January 19th 2020. Both Marina Abramović’s Rising and Olafur Eliasson’s Rainbow’s were exhibited alongside pieces from Koo Jeong A, Laurie Anderson, Hsin-Chien Huang, Antony Gormley and Priyamvada Natarajan.

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