Exhibition Review: Unfold: Art from Cape Farewell

Following on from our Special Issue on Changing Climates (TCS 27.2/3), we sent Jennifer Barth to review artistic responses to climate change at Cape Farewell’s Unfold exhibition

Photo from Chris Wainwright: ‘Here comes the sun, there goes the ice’

When a Cape Farewell expedition sets sail for the harsh climes, receding coastlines and melting glaciers of the Arctic, the group on board includes scientists, artists, writers, musicians, and commentators. While the scientists attend to measurements and experiments, the artists seek creative ways to respond to the transformative processes of climate change. Harnessing the potential of new and life changing experiences, the inspired artists return home to communicate eyewitness accounts of changing landscapes through publications, events, websites, music, and exhibitions.
One such response is Unfold: Art from Cape Farewell 2007-2009, a travelling exhibition of artworks inspired by two Cape Farewell expeditions to the Arctic in 2007 and 2008, and one to the Andes in 2009. Co-curators David Buckland, artist and Director of Cape Farewell, and Chris Wainwright, artist, travelled together on the 2008 Disko Bay expedition, creating provocative pieces along the way. Contributing artists Chris Wainwright and Lamn Sissay were on site at King’s Place to present their results and discuss the exhibition.

One feels, both in the art and in the lucid descriptions of the journey by the two artists, that experience is everything. Creating a cultural response to climate change is inspiring and overwhelming, productive and daunting. Sometimes the artist can engage audiences beyond the reach of scientific discourse and papers. “The musicians,” Wainwright notes, “are interesting, really interesting, because they have such massive audiences”. There is, he suggests, “massive public-ness about some work”. “And then there is the much more quiet stuff that has a different register altogether. In a way it is good that there is the loud stuff, it means that we can do the quiet stuff. We are trying to highlight the experience of climate change more subtly in this exhibition”.

One of the projects Sissay completed after returning from the Arctic is a video installation of spoken words set to music entitled What if?, exploring the role of responsibilities of decision making.

Sissay describes how he understands the artist’s role in Cape Farewell

Sissay suggests, “We are all artists of climate change. We work with the tools of nature”. He searches for the words but reflects that, if nature is both subject and object of artistic rendition in various guises, and ‘nature’ is a changing nature then, actually, aren’t we all artists of change?

Cape Farewell works to make visible the accelerated transformation of the coastline as a manifestation of environmental, geopolitical and economic atmospheres. Art in numerous forms has the ability to communicate, as this exhibition aptly illustrates. But if a goal of Cape Farewell is to make concrete the abstract transformations, and to ask, as Sissay does, “Where did we get it wrong?”, one wonders why an academic cultural or social theorist has not yet taken part in these expeditions. Such subtle, beautiful and inspirational communications are important but so too are the potential responses, responses that social theorists are well placed to initiate. In the 1980s, French philosopher Michel Serres spoke of the constantly changing coastlines of the Arctic and the cycles of freezing and thawing of fractal ice floes to visualise the instability and interconnectedness of ideas. Others, including those in the TCS Special Issue on Changing Climates (27.2/3) earlier this year, work to make visible the social concerns that will be central to the feel and function of a future low carbon economy and society. The canvas for imagination and live art is vast in the Arctic and the same opportunities for inquiry apply to all critical theorists working from experience.

The question lies on the issue of communication of the message and the forms of response required. As Wainwright puts it, “The show is not just about climate change. It is dynamic. It is about what comes next”. In the context of the next round of climate talks it is, indeed, about next steps.

Jennifer Barth is a Researcher for the TCS Website

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