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Sea Change

by Elinor Gallant and Ruth Little, Curators
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
8 November 2013-26 January 2014
Event Website: http://www.rbge.org.uk/whats-on/sea-change.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Straughan and Phillip Nicholson
School of Geographical and Earth Sciences
University of Glasgow, Glasgow

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.––Shakespeare 1610-11, The Tempest

The etymology of the phrase 'Sea Change’, which titles both the project and current exhibition by arts organisation Cape Farewell, lies in Shakespeare’s Tempest, where a deceitful Ariel sings to Ferdinand of a post-human body: a body that is at once both human and non-human.  This is a mood of inter-connectivity taken forward by Sea Change, a project that seeks to unpack and influence how humans live with environments and non-human others in the face of anthropogenic climate change.  Now in the third of its four-year programme of activities and events, Sea Change is currently exhibiting a collection of art works at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, created in response to a rendering of Scotland’s Western and North Archipelagos as artist research site.  Such a rendering has taken the form of two, sea faring expeditions that have woven through and amongst these island collectives during the summers of 2011 and 2013 involving crews of artists, islanders, architects and filmmakers alongside physical and social scientists.  Dispersed between these voyages Sea Change has, in partnership with Island Art Centres such as Mull’s An Tobar and North Uist’s Taigh Chearsabhagh, facilitated a number of residences in the Isles.  Across these various modes of engagement Sea Change has engendered a mode of thinking with place through attentiveness to the flux of elements and materials on and around these islands (and embodied experiences of the same), which are pioneering practices of adaptation, mitigation and sustainable resource use.

Currently exhibiting in the John Hope Gateway building Sea Change draws on the work of 28 artists engaging with a range of art forms and mediums including photography, print making, sound works, poetry, film and installation to augment the building's science studio, education room, shop, restaurant and permanent exhibitions. The building, which acts as a visitor centre and gateway to the gardens, is celebrated for its green construction and sustainable exhibits, a fitting space that, with its ultra-efficient transparent plastic roof, its unique helical structured and veneered lumber staircase and ‘quiterevolution’ wind turbine echoes the spirit of the institution.  Introducing visitors to the space and gardens via a glass-box foyer, which instils a theme of transparency that continues into the main space of the building to offer views onto the gardens outside, the John Hope Gateway has an architectural design that serves to blur any simplistic distinctions between interior and exterior, a blurring made tangible by the fig tree that grows in the buildings centre.  This architecturally suggestive melting of spatial distinctions resonates with Ariel’s song, for flora contribute oxygen to the gaseous compositions that enter and impact the intimate spaces of the body, itself a space not easily defined in terms of interior and exterior, human and non-human.

Bringing into dialogue both exhibition and venue, Sea Change showcases the work of botanist May Sherwood Campbell who, in collaboration with the institution now known as the British Museum, led the first botanical expedition to the Isle of Lewis in the early 20th century.  Pressed specimens of bog species, collected during this expedition and drawn from the botanic garden’s herbarium, introduces the Sexy Peat/Tìr mo Rùin (2013) project. A partnership between Cape Farewell and the Highland Print Studio, Sexy Peat saw seven artists undertake residencies on the isle, the outputs of which feature collectively for the first time in Sea Change. Peat, which forms from organic matter over time, is one of the world’s most important stores of atmospheric carbon.

Turning away from the misconception of an austere environment, the artists in this group chose a perspective deeply fixated on the interpretation of the terrain. For example, Fabric Lenny’s work (2013) comprises a series of screen prints and an animation inspired by the experience of walking and living in the island landscape. These embodied encounters are translated into somewhat surreal interpretations of his experiences. Deirdre Nelson’s textile work, FASANLIRIGH shieling chic (2013), takes inspiration from the peatland fauna to focus on the social history of women in moorland life. Meanwhile, photographer Alex Boyd, in his series’ Stacashal /Stacaiseal and The Isle of Rust /An t-Eilean Ruadh (2013), reflects upon his use of a compass to maintain a sense of orientation whilst making studies of the landscape and abandoned farm machinery. Jon Macleod’s photographic work (2013), displayed as a triptych with circular frames, exhibits a sophisticated understanding of semiotics and photography. Here a dirt road cuts through the landscape, a feather is held by a human hand against a backdrop of fertile peatland and a disembodied antler lies parallel to a dead grouse laid out on the grassy peatland. In each there is a complex mingling of human and non-human.

Beyond the works of the Sexy Peat artist’s creative mapping of the Lewis carbon store, there is an explicit reference to the airy realm of the atmosphere in various pieces that comprise Sea Change.  Shona Illingworth’s Topographies of air/Ruith na Gaoithe (2013) is a work that addresses the ‘Air spaces’ of the Outer Hebrides and Atlantic Ocean where air in motion as wind acts as the mechanism for the production of energy as a renewable alternative to fossil fuels.  Taking the form of a panoramic blue print series, Illingworth presents four frames that include a wind turbine documented in its various stages of rotation as blade and wind work to produce what is hoped to be a new wind based economy.

Other works in Sea Change take a different approach to the consideration of air in the Scottish Isles, this time through an incorporation of its non-human occupants, birds.  In paper and ink Hanna Tuulikki draws a link between the human and avian occupants of the Hebrides, where Tuulikki notes a mimesis between the words of Gaelic song and the call of, for example, an oyster catcher. Air falbh leis na n-eoin/Away with the Birds (2013) depicts the forms of flying birds and the currents they ride, through Gaelic words and their letters that repeat, amalgamate and trail off into negative space.  Elsewhere Amanda Thomson takes a different approach to the avian communities of the Scottish Isles through a sound and sculpture work titled Flocht/On the Wing (2013).  Here, the recording of a bird call is played alongside the carved, smoothed interior of a birch tree trunk, which presents a contoured, three dimensional sound graph whose peaks and troughs mirror the change from high to low notes heard in the recording. Spilling out of the gallery space Deidre Nelson’s Bird Yarns (2012) comprises an 80 strong flock of woolly Arctic Terns that have gathered together on a wire in the Jon Hope Gateway building. A relational arts project that initially brought together a community of knitters on the Isle of Mull, before inspiring a global community of knitters, the instillation is accompanied by a didactic recording written by Kenny Taylor and narrated by Mull born Gordon Buchanan, which relays the migratory path these birds take from Pole to Pole. As such, Bird Yarns draws attention to the worlds changing ecosystems and subsequent issues of migration.

Attentiveness to moving through different environments also emerges in It’s the skin you’re living in (2012) by David Harradine/Fevered Sleep, a work that presents a polar bear in various stages of undress as it morphs into a human walking from the glaciers of the High Arctic, via the M1 motor way, into a London flat to make a cup of tea. Connecting distant non-humans with proximate, human, routines and habits, Harradine plays with the spatiality’s of climate change, implicating the way in which we live with the dissolution of distant environments.  Contemplation of the proximate also emerges in the intimacy conveyed by John Cummings Ditty Boxes (2012), a collection of carefully carved boxes filled with objects such as eggs, stones and fur wrapped, carved sticks placed for example, on a bed of lichen.  Ditty boxes were spaces for personal belongings taken by islanders when they went to sea. Cummings’ rendition suggests that these were receptacles for internal thoughts and emotions, of hopes, memories and dreams for those individuals who lived a life without privacy as they crossed the oceans.

Sea Change is an exhibition that signals a need for change as anthropogenic climate change takes hold in the materiality of the environments in which we live. As the exhibition venue, the John Hope Gateway building attests, changes in how we live with environments, both proximate and distant, are possible.  As works such as It’s the skin you’re living in and Bird Yarns suggest, however, such spatial distinctions between environments are unhelpful. That is, a sea change in climate temperatures can only occur if private, intimate and everyday habits and actions with immediate environments are altered.  Such thinking requires cultural as well as scientific considerations of environments and their role in the carbon cycle to understand how past communities have, and future communities may, live sustainably.

Last Updated 1 December 2013

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