Arts: Framing change

Daniel Cressey tours scientists and artists who are showcasing elusive environmental shifts.

Heterotopias and Other Domestic Landscapes

House 2013: Brighton and Hove's curated and programmed visual arts festival. Brighton and Hove, UK. Until 26 May

Imagine opening a door and zipping from the sea floor to Arctic skies in the space of a few minutes. In a Regency townhouse on England's south coast, you can. Heterotopias and Other Domestic Landscapes, artist Mariele Neudecker's extraordinary installation in Hove, sets on different storeys of the dwelling artworks sparked, in part, by global environmental issues. The juxtaposition jars the observer into seeing them with a fresh eye.

Neudecker is the lead artist for the HOUSE 2013 festival. This shows contemporary art in domestic contexts and is part of the annual Brighton Festival, which bills itself as “England's biggest arts festival”. Heterotopias also features the latest product of a series of collaborations set up by Invisible Dust, a London-based organization that brings scientists and artists together to highlight environmental shifts that, curator and founder Alice Sharp says, “are difficult to see or understand” because their triggers and effects are invisible to the naked eye.

Mariele Neudecker's There is Always Something More Important (Iceberg) is on display in Brighton, UK. Credit: ALTANA/GALLERY BARBARA THUMM/MICHAEL HABES

Neudecker's domestic 'biosphere' mirrors strata of the living world. The basement features The Great Day of His Wrath, videos of deep seascapes; the ground floor, an iceberg-inspired sculpture 4.5 metres long; and the first floor, Recent Futures, photographs of the Sun in the Arctic sky. This is, Neudecker says, a “slice through my work as much as through geological space”.

Alex Rogers, an eminent marine researcher at the University of Oxford, UK, collaborated on the deep-sea videos, which were filmed by remotely operated vehicles in the southwest Indian Ocean and reveal human detritus, such as fishing equipment. For the 'Arctic' upper floors, Neudecker spent weeks in northwestern Greenland taking photographs of the ice sheet and sky with everything from a biscuit-tin pinhole camera to a cutting-edge digital rig. Each environment — sea, ice sheet and atmosphere — is both isolated from and intricately interlinked with the rest, not least in terms of the effects of human activity, from overfishing to climate change.

Neudecker is not forcing a simplistic message about human intrusion into untrammelled spaces. “I don't see it as my role to make linear statements,” she says. There are conceptual layers in this work. By confining her landscapes to the bounds of a house, she has created what philosopher Michel Foucault called 'heterotopias' — described by Neudecker as “spaces that are neither here nor there ... they are simultaneously physical and mental”. The conscious framing in her work — by the limits of the human eye, the torch beam of a deep-sea vehicle or a doorway — adds to the disquiet generated by the compression of vast landscapes into humdrum domesticity.

Invisible Dust is becoming known for its subtle delivery of powerful messages. Its contemplative handling of environmental damage sprang, Sharp says, from discussions of nineteenth-century artist J. M. W. Turner's paintings of London, in which the vividly coloured skies clearly show the diffraction of sunlight caused by atmospheric pollution.

But some of today's pollutants — such as the minuscule particles discharged by car engines — are not so easily made visible. To draw attention to them, Invisible Dust curated 'Invisible Breath', a series of installations between 2010 and 2012. These included Breathe by artist Dryden Goodwin, a 'flickbook' video of drawings of a child breathing that was projected onto a huge screen on the roof of London's St Thomas' Hospital, opposite the Houses of Parliament.

Collaborations with the Tyndall Centre Newcastle and the UK Space Agency are planned. Invisible Dust is also teaming video artist Elizabeth Price — winner of the 2012 Turner Prize — with Hugh Mortimer, a planetary scientist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot, UK, and a consultant on the science-fiction blockbuster Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012).

Sharp is developing a reputation for “bringing strong artists together with strong scientists”, says Meroë Candy, a senior arts adviser at London's Wellcome Trust, one of the funders of Invisible Dust. And audiences for three of the Invisible Breath projects that it backed have vastly exceeded predictions. Organizers expected 30,000, but 300,000 came to see these visible manifestations of hidden, shifting change.

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Cressey, D. Arts: Framing change. Nature 497, 187 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/497187a

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