Carbon 12: Art and Climate Change

Celina Jeffery Carbon 12 is an exhibition by the climate change group Cape Farewell whose edict is ‘climate is culture’, at the Fondation EDF in Paris. Cape Farewell describe themselves as being "a bridge between contemporary art and the earth sciences" and initiate multiple forms of creative dialogue and curatorial practice to promote climate change awareness. Founded in the UK in 2001 by artist David Buckland and about to launch a North American extension in Canada, Cape Farewell’s prolific expeditionary, curatorial and cultural programming have become critical and high profile contributors to the discussion. Carbon 12 is a large exhibition of works especially commissioned and curated by David Buckland, director and founder of Cape Farewell and brings together an eclectic range of art works produced by five teams of artists in collaboration with earth scientists. It signals a change in direction for Cape Farewell, away from the overtly expeditionary led and largely High Arctic focus of its previous exhibitions notably, the seminal touring exhibition U-n-f-o-l-d: A Cultural Response to Climate Change, (2008-present).  In this exhibitions, the concept and process of the expedition became a curatorial platform: "each expedition has a scientific and cultural objective; the boat is a research platform, a vehicle for social engagement and creative exchange.”[1] Artists, architects, musicians, writers and film makers at the heights of their career: Ian McEwan, Laurie Anderson and Ryuichi Sakamoto amongst many other visual artists, were on the expeditions which led to U-n-f-o-l-d, signaling the popular reach and potential of Cape Farewell’s objectives. The photographs by Chris Wainwright, like Red Ice 3, 2009, of pink icebergs (achieved using a red flash) which suggest a somewhat romanticized and iconic symbol of the vulnerable, disappearing Arctic, have become synonymous with this phase in Cape Farewell’s art and curatorial practice. In contrast, Carbon 12 shifts away from this distanced, contemplative and sometimes sorrowful demise of the High Arctic in particular, by focusing specifically on biodiversity, oceanography and marine technologies. It also seeks to reveal the process of art-science collaboration in a more evident fashion, offering perhaps a more meaningful and critical departure from their expedition led exhibitions. Amidst the diversity of aesthetic dispositions, which are far more idiosyncratic than the ‘wonder’ oriented U-n-f-o-l-d, is the articulation and evidence of collaborative research and process: Information and analysis in the form of extensive explanatory wall texts, maps, and contextual imagery, not only sit side by side with artworks, but assume an aesthetic inquiry in themselves serving perhaps to ‘bridge’ the institutional divisions between the art gallery and science museum. Carbon is the foundation of all life - our bodies, our environment and creation, including a fundamental and ancient tool for artists; carbon dioxide is also the primary cause of climate change.[2] The exhibition catalogue, which like the exhibit, is a blend of information and analysis, makes deeper and broader links between the relationship between carbon and art: beginning with an image of a rhinoceroces from Paleolithic paintings in the caves Chauvet, whose dark outline and contours are the product of carbon black - art’s ‘first’ black. The caves also speak of extinction and of course, the escalation of dramatic and irreversible climate change of the anthropocene.  Ideas of vanishing species and ecological disappearances permeate throughout this exhibition, but are more of a sub-theme than an overt, didactic message.


Installation shot. On the ground floor: Cache, David Buckland: upper level, Perpetual Amazonia, Lucy + Jorge Orta.

The ancient roots of the relationship between art and carbon factor in one of the five major installations of the exhibition by David Buckland and Dr. Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez. Iglesias-Rodriguez, a biological oceanographer, researches organisms that produce chalk and alsoprocesses of calcification, which in combination with rising CO2 levels cause carbonic acid and the subsequent acidification and warming of the ocean. The collaboration between Buckland and Iglesias-Rodriguez focuses on the single-cell organisms – coccolithophores visible only by microscopy, which produce oxygen. Their dead shells produce chalk and over hundreds of thousands of years, cliffs – a concept made manifest in the miniature chalk floor. The microscopic imagery of these coccolithophores alongside human cells are embedded on to chalk shards by Buckland and displayed in cabinets as if they are fossils of a prehistoric era. Both works are enveloped by ‘chalk board’ text on the wall written by Iglesias-Rodriguez and a video in which the collaboration is explained in both scientific and creative contexts. Continuing this theme of the momento mori, are the porcelain sculptures by Lucy + Jorge Orta, who took part in a Cape Farewell expedition to the Amazon in 2009.  Here, an egg of an elephant bird, the limb bones of dinosaurs and an elephant ancestor, originating from the Natural History Museum, London are cast, painted with flowers, butterflies and insects and presented in a high mirrored cabinet. Accompanying this work is Perpetual Amazonia a series of photographs and three-dimensional textiles of flowers from all over the world, but inspired by their observations of and collaborations with the Environmental Change Institute in the Amazon. The photographs are intended to be sold for ‘moral ownership’ and speak of the interconnectedness that the collaborative group wishes to convey.  

Perpetual Amazonia (Detail), Lucy + Jorge Orta

A common thread of this installation and the exhibition in general, is an engagement with anthropogenic time versus the slow rhythm of environmental time: the staggering increase in CO2 and the subsequent radical effects and disappearance of certain ecologies and life forms. Annie Cattrell’s collaboration with the marine biologist, Dr. M. C. Bell and lead scientist of Cape Farewell, continues this theme but through an inquiry into wave technology. Here too is an explanatory video and two large installations, both dealing with the concepts of the ‘fetch’ or the length and duration of a wave which can give rise to energy and associated discussions of the rising temperatures of the ocean. Reminiscent somewhat of Hans Haacke’s condensation cubes, Cattrell’s wave machine is one of the more overtly ‘contemporary’ art oriented works in the show.


Installation shot, Renew, Annie Cattrell (background images, Fetch and The Wave Machine)

Perhaps the most unexpected installation in Carbon 12 is the collaboration between HEHE and Jean-Marc Chomaz, Director of the Hydrodynamics Laboratory, Ladhyx, Ecole Polytechnique, which focuses on gaseous emissions. Domestic Catastrophe No. 3: Laboratory Planet is a luminescent toy model of the earth, revolving in a glass chamber full of water and situated in a dark room. A tube drips fluorescein-tracing dye onto the spinning globe, which then creates a bright green gaseous like substance enveloping the world as an indication of the indiscernibility between the environment and toxicity, the natural and the manmade. The chamber is situated in a black out room and glows at certain moments in accordance with the playing of Clara Rockmore’s theremin performance of The Swan ­– an eccentric but sincere ode to the death of the world perhaps? The gaseous-like emissions highlight the irreconcilable relationship between man-made emissions and ‘natural’ atmosphere: floods, warming, acidity, and violent storms are evoked which interact with the toy-like fragile earth. Apocalyptic in message it maybe but the blend of wonderment and whimsy transforms it into a more playful yet arresting take on the topic.