In J.M.W. Turner’s paintings brush strokes create the entanglement of weather conditions: cold air, heat, humidity and light. But when looking at his pictorial representations a kind of discomfort occurs beyond the uncertainty of his depiction. The flowing light, evaporating clouds and misty shores seem to be floating on the dangers that remind us of our vulnerability and volatility. After two hundred years we may interpret the humbleness of Turner through current and ever-changing atmospheric conditions, also in the abstract dimension.
The weather, or in its own autonomous role as a planetary character: weather, is one of the fundamental natural phenomena that we encounter every day, and should no longer be considered merely as “weather”. It can simply signify local conditions, but also at an abstract level of climatic phenomena (and as context) it has relations to political interventionism, capitalism and history. In her book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe states that, “the weather is the total climate; and that climate is anti-black”. In introducing a symbolic phenomenon for the weather, Sharpe suggests how the local working practices of enslaved people or the traffic of products made by oppressed people may be determined by the climate. How can we approach this distant and abstract phenomenon when it becomes subject matter in artworks or art-related projects?
In the collaborative project Weathering: Tidal Spill (day 331) at SixtyEight Art Institute, the Danish curator Miriam Wistreich refers to the expanded concept of weathering, addressing the question, how do you weather others? She points to the idea that we truly weather each other, every moment, and as “weather-bodies” we are weathering the world. This makes us think holistically about how to live together in a non-hierarchical relationship: you and I, subject and object, human and non-human, and the living and non-living. As part of the project curated by Wistreich, the Dutch artist Isabelle Andriessen presents a sculpture installation, which is comprised of three sculptural elements that have undergone different types of treatment through chemical substances and reactions. These constantly generate formations of crystals and rashes on the surfaces of the sculptures.
Dwelling on the border, visibly, between the living and non-living, or organic and non-organic matter, Andriessen’s “zombie” sculptures signal their vitality through the chemical processes she manipulates, very much like a weathered body of ambiguous identity. The metamorphosis of the sculptures over time seems to reflect an allegory of our lives in a fragile future, and on how we can continue to live under conditions where life is threatened by resource (even chemical) depletion. In J.G. Ballard’s apocalyptic novel The Drowned World, which Andriessen was inspired by, the main character, a biologist called Dr. Robert Kerans, struggles with the tropical environment somewhere above what was once London, which is submerged under water in the year 2145. The zombie figures that can only react to the environment, systems and inputs that humans have influenced, have a similarity to Kerans’ muddling position between fantasy and impulsive nature.
The sculptures, without any sense of good and evil, imitate the vital power and metabolism of living creatures and will do anything to survive for 331 days (and probably much longer). In the sculptures as well as the novel, the preconditions for living no longer exist, only endurance and persistence remain. The desire for immortality in these sculptural bodies might be a silent revelation about our control over the natural world.
The growing interest in nature in the art world is not new. After the Second World War artists began to pay attention to civil criticism and environmental issues. The civil rights movement and anti-war movements expanded into the environmental movements based on the ecological views of the 1970s. Denying art as material, land artists took themselves out of the galleries and made new art that intervened in specific sites in nature.
For land artists modern civilization was understood as a state of chaos and an opposition to the flow of nature. Robert Smithson, for instance, who wanted to experiment with the resilience of nature by transforming environmental elements, declined the intolerant institutional system, or its “cultural prison,” saying “museums, like asylums and jails, have wards and cells” - in other words, neutral rooms called "galleries."(1) Smithson’s straight and decisive actions in the open environment reflect the status of art in human life when art is located in nature. However, a contradiction expressed through the opposition of environmentalists, who thought that Smithson damaged the natural landscape, shows the inadequacy of his ecological thoughts, or lack of consideration for the future environment.
Here at SixtyEight Art Institute, we see gestures which differ from Smithson’s, gestures that experiment with the relationship between our inner world and climatic changes through bodies. Today, in an environment in which nature is in discord, with excessive heat, droughts, floods, biological disasters and melting ice, promising action seems to be necessary.
Instead of invoking sympathy, the Danish author Ida Marie Hede and curator Miriam Wistreich borrow experimental writing methodologies that elicit ecological thinking and contemplation of coexistence in a series of workshops that further expand this exhibition.
The practice-based workshop Weather Writing is one of the programs in the project Weathering: Tidal Spill (day 331), where Hede motivates the embodied weather imaginary of the participants. The weathering practice is initiated from the ideas of feminist philosopher Astrida Neimanis who uses this experimental exercise as teaching material. As a practical tool the participants are invited to write about what they perceive by the weather, how they are transcorporeally affected, in other words, what changes do they experience when bringing the weather to the body instead of simply observing the weather that exists over there, and what happens in the inner workings of their bodies in the weather world. The physical engagement of the participants is an action against anthropocentric ethics. Instead of turning on an air conditioner or heating apparatus, they plainly expose themselves to the weather and concentrate on this non-human nature as it is. What do they see in the relationship between human subjects and non-human nature? What do human-weather interrelations mean?
Sitting in a circle in a quiet room, the participants create still and peaceful gestures. Feeling the unknown tensions among their prompt texts while participating in the first workshop, I suddenly thought about the meaning of these provocative gestures and the role of those who are somewhere between activists and mediators, like the character Ashitaka in Hayao Miyazaki’s animation Princess Mononoke, who seeks the way of reconciliation and coexistence of human and nature, freely crossing boundaries between human society and the non-human world. This mythological story shows how humans lock themselves into a closed consciousness. In the open consciousness, in contrast, humans, fairies, animals and monsters can live together in harmony, interacting with each other. The significant condition for sustaining open consciousness is a respect for and communication with other worlds. Against the system of “otherising”, as well as the closed consciousness, this eco-conscious practice of language seeks different ways of looking at our relations with climatic nature. One interesting thing was to see the subtle distinctions in the workshop when changing the subject from “I” to “we” in the sentences, putting two texts together as one and exchanging the writings. When “I” becomes, for example, “we”, a sense of similarity is noticed. After the third part of the practice-based writing in which the participants experience the actual weather with their bodies, the embodied dialogues extend to a larger scale such as local/global, media control and politics. These are indeed “weather”, and “weathering is a situated phenomenon embedded in social and political worlds.”(2)
I am currently in the centre of Seoul, South Korea’s capital and largest city with a population of over 10 million people, where breathing isn’t pleasant. It feels painful to imagine that this air filled with fine dust enters my lungs every time I inhale. By the road full of luxurious vehicles, the fundamental act of breathing reminds me, if I may be allowed a little exaggeration, of the contemporary version of minimal possibilities faced by Black people in “the wake” and “the transformative properties of being free to breathe fresh air.” (3) Plainly visualising through breathing what is lacking in environmental justice or, depressingly, what is given through environmental racism. That freedom is, in Seoul, contingent upon having the means to purchase air purifiers for cars and flats, which would not be an option for the subjugated classes. The necessity of clean air is a desperate issue and the question of “who has access to freedom?” is agonising. Some of the arts institutions in Seoul urgently handle the theme of the ecosystem or environmental issues with subprograms such as seminars and workshops. But those engagements feel somehow very distant and absurd when I breathe the air here.
Moreover, my understanding of how we approach the concept of weather has been confused over the last few days by my travelling from Malmö to Seoul. It is probably because of the complexity of the climatic environment, which is related to the different life habits and social systems.
Returning to my previous question about the role of the project Weathering: Tidal Spill (day 331), I do not mean that art practitioners should become activists or undertake a great task like Robert Smithson. The workshop Weather Writing, based on a wide-range of reading materials, activates the necessity of planetary rethinking through bodies, and the whole project as a knowledge-making collaboration succeeds in including both the presentation of the artworks and experimental practices. But a small question still remains. How can the project develop further with more embodied, realistic and expanded narratives, so that all the activities avoid remaining in the illusion, in the gap between the cruel breathing and the composed gestures?
R. Smithson, ‘Cultural Confinement’, in J. Flam (ed), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, The University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California; University of California Press, LTD. London, England, 1996.
A. Neimanis and J. M. Hamilton, ‘Open Space Weathering’, Feminist Review, vol. 118, no. 1, 2018, p.80-84.
C. Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Duke University Press Books, 2016, p.113.
This essay is part of an initiative to foster Danish and English Language critical writings from a range of new talents across the visual arts; and as a partnership between I DO ART and SixtyEight Art Institute.
Daeun Jeong (b. 1979) is an independent curator who lives and works in Malmö, Sweden. Jeong studied fine arts in Seoul, Korea and received an MA in Critical Writing and Curatorial Practice from Chelsea College of Arts, London. Jeong is a member of a sustainable art project group Crackker in Seoul and works on art-related collaborative projects that seeks to make connections between Nordic and Asian countries. Daeun has contributed to idoart.dk since 2019.