Earlier this year, Scottish artist David Cass curated an exhibition called Where Once the Waters, as part of the Venice Biennale. Occupying the Latterina Moderna, a former dairy-turned-exhibition space between the Arsenale and the Giardini, with large windows overlooking Via Garibaldi, it was a show neatly divided into two halves.
On the left wall as you enter the space, Cass displayed 365 of his “sea level” paintings, each depicting a different nautical scene, and each painted on the top or side of an antique box, sometimes with original text or decorations still visible below the image. On the right wall, meanwhile, he posted some 600 letters typed on vintage paper, each addressed to a different person, telling them how much the sea level had risen since they were born at the coastal spot the closer to their place of birth. “Dear Sandra, Since your year of birth in 1967, the sea level on the coast closest to your birthplace of Austin, Texas, has risen 321 mm”…”Dear Giovanny, Since your year of birth in 1989, Acapulco saw the sea level rise by 248 mm “…
Grouped together, the paintings read like a visual diary of a year at sea, and also suggest how sea levels are rising inexorably almost everywhere, no matter how far they travel. The letters, meanwhile, spoke of the alarming rate at which these changes are occurring. Sure, 321mm or 248mm might not sound like a lot, but they’re still measures that can be viewed. According to the IPCC, the average annual sea level rise over the past 2,000 years has been less than 0.2 mm; in the decade 2006-2015 it was 3.6 mm. And, of course, the pace of change is accelerating.
Cass has now published a beautifully illustrated book of the exhibition, with essays by various artists and writers. One of them is David Gange, professor of history at the University of Birmingham and expert in sea kayaking, whose excellent 2019 book The Frayed Atlantic Edge traced a journey he made along the west coast of the UK, from Muckle Flugga at the far northern tip of Shetland to Seven Stones Reef, about 15 miles west of Sennen Cove in the far south-west of Cornwall.
In her introductory essay to Cass’s book, titled “A New Aesthetics of the Sea,” Gange notes how climate change is making some “ocean-facing lifestyles” increasingly difficult, from fishing, rendered more difficult by the increasing frequency and severity of storms. , to the way coastal farmland has been degraded and eroded by rising sea levels. described as infinitely empty and abstract” today, with an increased awareness of the effects of climate change, “the new aesthetic is not primarily the visual qualities of the ocean and rarely abstracts from the ocean of the Always and relentlessly, the sea is now political.
He cites works by artists such as Petta Niultyverta and Timo Aho to support his case. In 2019, the Finnish duo made an LED light installation on various buildings in Lochmaddy on North Uist – bright white stripes showing the “not-too-distant reality” of how high the sea could rise due to climate change.
I don’t know if Ganges is necessarily right that the sea is now “always and relentlessly” political in art; it seems that there are still artists who still make works that engage in it purely aesthetically. That said, the body of work relating to sea level rise is certainly growing, and it is indeed an international movement.
Earlier this year, and almost as a harbinger of the recent devastation wrought by Hurricane Ian, Miami-based artist Anastasia Samoylova presented an exhibition of her work on sea level rise in the South Florida at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. Entitled FloodZone, his photographs aim to show the disconnect between the idealized paradise image of Miami that the local tourist board would seek to promote and the less than perfect reality, with flooded streets, construction sites and Moreover. In the Maldives, meanwhile, another part of the world where rising sea levels are now a very real threat, local artist Hussein “Iphpha” Iffal made his point in an unusual but efficient by donning scuba gear, swimming to the coral reefs off Vaavu Atoll, and doing underwater paintings.
Individually, of course, none of these interventions is likely to make much of a difference. However, as Cass says in the introduction to his new book: “This project is a sweet offering of hope, a creative model designed to encourage dialogue. In a world where every fraction of a degree of warming matters, bringing together many individual actions will make a difference, no matter how insignificant.”