Come Hell or High Water

Julian McKinnon on the alarming but amorphous spectre of climate change.

For decades, scientists have been expressing alarm about human-caused changes in global climate. During last year’s election campaign Jacinda Ardern declared it the issue of a generation. We hear reports on an almost daily basis about the increasing unpredictability of weather systems and the urgent need for action. Yet for many of us, climate change remains an abstraction—unseen and requiring a response that’s unclear. To add clarity—to discuss how climate change can be tangibly experienced and addressed—I met this summer with three artists and a scientist who operates in the field.

Brydee Rood is an Auckland-based performance and installation artist. Her work focuses on environmentalism and community engagement, and she has exhibited and performed across the globe for the past 12 years. “When it comes to climate change, there’s a lot more than just human survival at stake. In the ocean, there’s acidification and water-level rise. Then there’s temperature increase and coral bleaching, not to mention changes on land. That’s a lot of species that will lose habitat, not just us,” says Rood, walking along Takapuna beach.

A crisp onshore breeze is masking the full ferocity of the midday sun. The beach is teeming with sun seekers, sailors, kayakers and kite flyers. It feels idyllic. The setting prompts Rood to discuss Solar Nap Coal Rest, a project held in Wellington as part of the 2017 Performance Art Week Aotearoa. “I lay in the intertidal zone of Island Bay, waiting for the rising tide. I was wrapped in a survival blanket with my head on a pillow of coal. There’s a certain strength in lying there and knowing that the ocean is coming up, and feeling resilient yet fragile,” she says. For most of us the knowledge that the ocean is rising rests in the far recesses of our minds. Uncomfortable, but not of daily urgency. Not for Rood.

“Can we afford to take a nap? Our culture is very focused on the here and now, and obsessed with stuff. When it comes to our environmental impact, we’re barely treading water. In fact, we’re still getting worse.”

The project that led me to talk to Rood is Please Return Me to the Earth, a performance work that took place in central Auckland’s Western Park in late 2017. The words of the title were spelled out in coal, a total of 10.8 tonnes of the stuff, by a large group of volunteers and collaborators. Those 10.8 tonnes equate to the average annual emissions footprint of a New Zealand household. “It developed through several phases over 18 months,” says Rood. “I wanted to show a carbon footprint in a way that it could be seen, touched, felt, carried or meditated on. We’re used to reading about it, and in that form, it’s quite abstract. Initially, I had the coal placed at Corbans Estate in West Auckland. So, there was a sculpture that was literally a mound of coal, though it was a place of gathering for ongoing performances as well.” The collaborative performances included a bagpiper playing a slow droning composition while participants holding lumps of coal gathered in a circle around the coal mound and meditated.

“It was always my intention to see that particular pile of coal was returned to the earth—rather than sold and burnt.” After a period of negotiation with council, Rood gained permission to place the coal in Western Park. “It seemed like a really good solution. There were a lot of people that got behind the project, including a significant incidental population of dog walkers and park goers who just happened to be there. Over the day, people joined in and helped carry the coal, distributing it as lettering. There was this one determined spirit who lived near to the park who shovelled near to three tonnes of coal into buckets on his own.” Even with numerous volunteers, the task was massive. “The project really showed me the actual enormity of even trying to deal with our carbon footprint. We can’t see it when it’s a gas. We don’t think about its weight, or its burden on us. But to actually carry it in buckets and shovel it was incredibly hard work,” she says. Some months later, the remains of the coal still rest in Western Park. Covered in long grass, it’s almost disappeared from view.

Petra Pearce is a climate scientist at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. Amongst other things, she advises regional councils on climate change—offering insight into what each region can expect in the next 100 years in terms of rainfall, temperature change and sea-level rise. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about future climate models for New Zealand, in part because we don’t have a large collection of historical data. The fact that we are a small land mass surrounded by ocean makes it more complicated. You can know more about rainfall and temperature in continental landmasses, like Australia. But, because of our particularities, we have very changeable weather patterns,” Pearce tells me in a downtown Auckland café.

I’ve come to meet Pearce to get a perspective on climate change from a scientist. Following news, online articles and opinion pieces, one can be left with a palpable sense of doom, and talking with art world peers doesn’t do much to alleviate that. “In a lot of cases, scientists are quite conservative. You don’t want to be seen as someone who causes panic. Some scientists have made some really quite concerning observations, but then there’s a lot of uncertainty in the models. So, we have to keep some balance in the discussion,” she says. The issue is clouded by the fact that a system as complex as planetary climate contains an extraordinary number of variables. Nevertheless, some aspects of the picture are clear. “We’re already seeing the effects of climate change. We’re seeing more large storms, droughts, floods and so on. We’re relatively lucky in terms of what we can expect here. We are going to get more extreme rainfall, and changes in long-established patterns, though we aren’t like the Kiribati Islands, or parts of Bangladesh, which are going to end up severely flooded by the sea.”

Angela Tiatia, Holding On (still), 2015, single-channel HD video, 12:12, included in This Time of Useful Consciousness, The Dowse Art Museum, 2017. Courtesy of Alcaston Gallery, Narrm/Melbourne

In discussion of rising waters, the frozen expanse of Antarctica often looms large. “There’s potential for a large contribution to sea-level rise from the collapse of Antarctic ice sheets, though when it comes to Antarctica we’re still very uncertain what’s going to happen there. We’re looking at about half a metre of ocean-level increase by the end of the century.

“If we really get our act together, we may see a small increase in overall air temperature, and then have it start to come down again. But with sea-level rise, there’s a lag in the system, of as much as 200 years. We’re committed to some increase regardless of what we do.”

Graham Bennett is a Christchurch-based sculptor who has exhibited worldwide since graduating from Ilam in 1970. His 2017 collaborative project WADE, shown in the Christchurch Arts Centre performance space The Gym, addressed thorny issues of water and environmental pollution. “The concept really started in 2007 when my wife and I were in Madrid at the Prado and saw Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. In the now 500-year-old painting, Bosch expressed concern about moral degradation—that if the excesses of the wealthy and the general moral morass continued, everyone was heading to hell and damnation. I was interested in how that message could be reviewed in the 21st century. The moral decline predicted 500 years ago is nothing compared to the ecological predicament we find ourselves in now,” says Bennett.

Along with a more general sense of concern for the global environment, Bennett is particularly incensed by the issue of freshwater quality in New Zealand. “I listened to talks by several freshwater ecologists, including Mike Joy, and they really got me thinking. They also made me feel totally pissed off with the inertia of central government, and the focus on monetary policy over environmental and social issues. Things like the fudging of analysis to form government policy. When the Minister for the Environment started talking about ‘wadeable’ water as a measure for quality, it was really nothing more than spin and deception,” he says.

Coming back to The Garden of Earthly Delights, Bennett was drawn to the pond in the centre of the composition. “In it the women with birds on their heads got my attention. The idea grew of a work that explored our environmental situation using a local person and a local bird, the matuku, to bring it into the present.” The showpiece of the WADE exhibition was 12 life-size photographic cut-out figures, standing in an acrylic ‘pond’. Five of these women, as in the Bosch painting, had wading birds on their heads. Another iteration presented small cut-out figures standing and rusting in a series of steel bowls of water collected from some of New Zealand’s most polluted lakes. As the water evaporated the murky residues remained. “The matuku is a native wading bird. Its natural habitat here is Te Waihora, Lake Ellesmere. Te Waihora is one of the most polluted lakes in the country, some say in the developed world, and it’s polluted largely by nitrates from dairy run-off. It’s going to take hundreds of years to fix it,” he says.

The sheer scale of the damage being done by our current unsustainable way of life, and the amount of time involved in restoring it, are facts that anger Bennett. Does he think that art can make a difference? “With WADE I felt for the first time that I wanted to encourage people not only to think but to act—we are all complicit in this. The collaborative approach to this exhibition—I worked with a social theorist, an ecologist and a Bosch historian—attracted a different or wider audience than the one I am used to. Engagement with the viewers was more active. There were scientists, artists, students, farmers, community and construction workers, ecologists, academics and professional people, and there was a buzz of discussion. People really got thinking. I don’t hold grand ideas about changing the world, though what I asked myself when I made the work, and perhaps what others might think about when looking at it, is really just, ‘How should we live?’ The environmental predicament confronting us is enormous,” he says. After a pause he adds, “It’s time we woke up.”

Others are awake too. “It is overwhelming. The data is overwhelming,” says a passionate voice down the phone line. “The way we are existing on the planet has got to change. I’ve known this for years, but I think more people are realising that now. In the last two years in particular, a lot of people have started to say, ‘Oh shit, it is happening.’” The comment is followed by a laugh. I’m talking to Huhana Smith. It’s the first time we’ve spoken, though she communicates with a relaxed enthusiasm that soon dispels the formality of strangers.

Smith, of Ngāti Tukorehe and Ngāti Raukawa descent, is the head of Whiti o Rehua School of Art at Massey University. She’s a long-term art practitioner, former senior curator Māori at Te Papa, and a proponent of Māori community-based responses to climate change. “Because of what’s happening now, there’s a sense of urgency that overrides the individualist position that pervades so much of our society. My concern is all about socio-political action. Creative arts have the capacity to be totally trans-disciplinary and collective. How can we do collaborative and collective projects well? In that area, I think a background in kaupapa Māori is really useful. If you come from a Māori background it’s collective from the beginning. With the protocols around how you hui, how you wānanga, you are inculcated in dynamic dialogue and how to build platforms to take that dialogue further. I do believe colleges and creative schools need to be encouraging the ability to work well in groups. That’s an important part of being a 21st-century citizen. It’s far removed from the model of the individual artist or designer creating products solely for consumption.”

Given that her focus on practical solutions to climate change is centred on social engagement, a question arises about the role art plays in her own work. “I think the whole art and design aspect is really critical to accelerating people’s engagement with complex environmental matters. People need to see well-founded research responses to climate change that use art and design. We need visuals to be able to communicate with people quickly and clearly. It’s underpinned by urgency; there is no time for complacency any more. We’re encountering thresholds now: increased storm surges, erosion of coastlines, changes in seasonal patterns. We’ve just come through the wettest winter in decades, and from that we headed straight into drought.”

As a practising artist as well as a curator and academic, Smith has exhibited both paintings and sculptural installations. More recently she’s focused on multi-disciplinary projects, leading her to work on wetland restoration and climate change adaptation strategies for coastal Māori communities. It is this work, done since 2010 with a Massey and Victoria University (and now University of Technology, Sydney) research team called the Kei Uta Collective, that Smith discusses with particular enthusiasm. “Kei Uta includes specialists in climate science, fluvial geomorphology, ecological economics, landscape architecture and kaupapa Māori. We’ve made use of exhibitions as a method to promulgate research findings,” she says. One such exhibition was This Time of Useful Consciousness: Political Ecology Now at The Dowse Art Museum in 2017, based on an earlier showing in disused dairy sheds on Māori farm lands in Kuku, Horowhenua. In the culmination of a Deep South-funded project, the collective presented their research into coastal adaptation strategies and climate projections as an installation: displaying model miniatures, text banners and lightboxes of adaptive solutions. The installation also included work by masters students. 

“We come from a perspective of mātauranga Māori. That’s a contemporary term that means an indigenous worldview that’s changed and adapted and developed in response to the effects of colonisation over generations. It draws on key ideas and themes from traditional knowledge bases, but also acknowledges that changes inform new perspectives. Therefore, the perspectives of hapū, scientists, artists and social researchers emphasise interrelatedness and interdependencies—this is critically important as we need all knowledges working together. Finding practical solutions to climate change is going to be a generations-long enterprise.”

Despite the enormity of the changes and challenges that lie ahead of us, Smith is remarkably upbeat. “It just gets more and more exciting. There is such cool stuff going on around the world, and we need to present it, through artistic thinking, to a much wider audience. “We need to show people that they very much can be part of the creative, transformative change that we urgently need to happen.”

Banners displaying project research, in This Time of Useful Consciousness, The Dowse Art Museum. Photo: John Lake, courtesy of The Dowse Art Museum

Published in Art News Autumn 2018

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