Documenting Climate Change Through Art

The newly launched World Weather Network is mounting 28 art projects around the world to track the climate crisis. Will it make a difference?

“Spiral Jetty” (1970) by Robert Smithson. Photography by George Steinmetz, ourtesy of the Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation

During an unusually dry six-day period in 1970, Robert Smithson set out to the northeastern shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake to assemble what would become his most seminal work. Spiral Jetty, a giant earthwork sculpture made of mud, salt crystals, and black basalt rocks, forms a 1,500-foot-long hypnotic coil jutting out from the shore near Rozel Point, a barren landscape neighbored only by railway tracks and abandoned oil rigs. But heavy rains completely submerged Spiral Jetty by the time Smithson died, in 1973, and it would only reappear a few times until 2002, when heavy droughts shrunk the lake by two-thirds. The sculpture’s bone-dry 6,650-ton mass has been visible ever since—an indicator of the dire condition of the lake’s health. 

Spiral Jetty’s reemergence portended a troubling spate of discoveries found within diminishing bodies of water. Severe droughts have shrunk Lake Mead—the once-sprawling reservoir at the Nevada, California, and Arizona border—for the past four decades, revealing submerged Indigenous dwellings and skeletal remains of people thought to have been whacked by Las Vegas mobsters. As Europe confronts its worst drought in 500 years, plunging water levels in Spain are revealing the stone megaliths of the Dolmen of Guadalperal, a prehistoric monument known as the Spanish Stonehenge that dates to 5,000 BCE. Meanwhile, archaeologists recently excavated a palace, fortification walls, and storage buildings filled with cuneiform tablets within a 3,400-year-old city in Northern Iraq on the Tigris River.

The Enoura Observatory in Odawara, Japan

As these new discoveries mount, arts organizations are using them to highlight issues surrounding the climate emergency in softer terms that invite more people into the conversation. The World Weather Network, a new alliance between 28 international arts institutions, has launched weather stations around the world that document how climate change is impacting our surroundings through a new lens. For example, the Holt/Smithson Foundation will share unseen footage and rare images of Spiral Jetty taken over the past 50 years, and called on Oglala Lakota Nation poet Layli Long Soldier to create an original work inspired by the sculpture’s evolving relationship with a climate in flux. 

The World Weather Network is spearheading dozens of similar projects around the world in collaboration with London-based nonprofit Artangel. Others include photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto’s live broadcast of a sunrise over his Enoura Observatory in Odawara, Japan; composer Stavros Gasparatos penning a symphonic interpretation of meteorological data recorded by weather stations in Greece; Xiaoxiao Zhao’s measurement of cloud formations over Qinhuangdao, China; and writer Jessica J. Lee’s audio dictionary of weather-related words in different languages at London’s Senate House Library.

Fogo Island, Canada

“In recent years, inspirations of the past—which are to do with how the weather makes us feel, what the weather does to us—have really been replaced by a concern about what we’re doing to the weather,” Michael Morris of Artangel told EcoWatch. “There’s been an inhibition to relate to the weather we’re experiencing now, the extreme weather in many parts of the world, and artists and writers are somehow keeping away from it.”

Some stations will offer scientists the resources to pursue projects that illuminate the climate crisis with a more research-based approach. On Fogo Island, a fishing stronghold off the Newfoundland coast, artist Liam Gillick built a two-thirds-scale model of a traditional fishing hut that scientists will use for weather analysis. Built by the island’s fishing community using locally sourced wood and recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, the structure will also host events overseen by the organization Fogo Island Arts. “A lot of the imagery around climate change is cliché,” Gillick tells the Art Newspaper. “My project is a realist, naturalist take, something concrete that can be measured, more than a feeling.” 

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