Onassis Stegi and the National Observatory of Athens, 2022.
Thomas Wrede’s panorama of Rhône Glacier looms large at the entrance to the main hall of the ‘Weather Engines’ exhibition; a natural planetary defence against excess heat, its bright white surfaces reflect the sun’s rays back out to space. Responding to its dramatic retreat over only five years, a local family, the Carlens, started wrapping as much as they could in a white fleece in an attempt to slow the melting. A seemingly futile act, it reveals a human compulsion to act with care nevertheless. Could the remnants of this act of intimacy and closeness remain as a gestural but potentially lasting act of caring for the planet amid the surrounding decline? The politics of melancholia, born from the overwhelming repetition of narratives of doom and irrevocable disaster, is a self-fulfilling prophecy that curators Jussi Parikka and Daphne Dragona have sought to counter with ‘proximity’. Weather is the means by which we feel climate on our skin; it is the embodiment of infinite interactions of flows, ebbs, rhythms, fluctuations and metamorphoses at constant play on our planet’s surface, as energies transform and contort around us. It can also be measured and predicted. Meteorology has shaped civilisations; the subject of weather covers the personal in society, politics and the environment. Unlike climate, weather refers to short-term changes, specific to time and place. ‘Weather Engines’ positions weather as the tangible fabric of climatic shifts that touches each of us, individually and collectively. Through the practice of observing the minutiae of weather and its signals, perhaps new optimism can be found with which to instigate new forms of aligned action: ‘How do we intervene and modify the conditions upon our skin in ways to make the world – and the weather – somewhat more tolerable?’
‘Weather Engines’ – comprising an exhibition, expansive public programme and several publications – takes part across two sites with starkly different characters. In the first, 18 artists are crammed into the dark windowless cavern of the Onassis Foundation’s basement galleries. Here, the works vie for attention, each compromising or even drowning out the others. Dark, spot-lit and unavoidably theatrical, moments of quiet contemplation are hard to find; screen light from neighbouring works flash across walls, floors and ceilings, and sounds bleed throughout the space. This was also the venue for the extensive four-day conference. Programmed to coincide with the launch of the exhibition, it represented the unfortunately all-too-predictable common contradictions: flying in artists, speakers, participants and press from all over Europe; branded reusable aluminium water bottles shipped from China for those who already have them stacking up at home; and piles of beautifully formed and rigorously written publications on climate, amounting to over-produced greenwashing. Many of these could have been easily circumnavigated or at least significantly minimised. We are all-too aware of the uncomfortable hypocrisy of it all. But, I must admit, travelling from my temporary home in a small sleepy town in the south of the Netherlands to Athens, I too felt driven by the desire to be around people to discuss in person, to feel around the subject together, after so long a period of physical isolation and digital exchange. Unfortunately, both the exhibition and the conference mimicked the bombardment of content produced on the subject across cultural and scientific sectors: impossible to digest and overwhelming to navigate. Individual contributions that could otherwise have sat as poetic cacophonies in themselves instead ended up utilised as illustrative threads in a didactic fabric, attempting to draw conclusions in a boundaryless subject. As one speaker noted, there is a terrifying disjuncture between knowledge that is communicated to the world’s populace and the lack of any real collective action. Didacticism isn’t working, poetics need to come to the fore instead.
It is not insignificant, however, that ‘Weather Engines’ takes place in Athens; from the second exhibition site, at the National Observatory of Athens, artworks look out on the enduring remains of one of humanity’s greatest empires, part of the imperial legacy leading to the contemporary Anthropocene. The Observatory houses a lineage of tools for meteorological discoveries: an understated drawing displays the almost 33,000 irregularities of the moon’s surface, painstakingly mapped by Julius Schmidt from 1840 to 1874; 19th-century chronographers used to record the transit of the stars; and pencil drawings of Mars observed through telescopes in the 1920s showing distant yet familiar peaks and undulations. Among these poignant artefacts and the contemporary weather-capturing contraptions that sit in the surrounding grounds, works draw subtle connections between historic moments, contemporary quandaries and possible futures. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s video installation The Wilding of Mars, 2019, situated at the foot of the 150-year-old telescope in the domed Sinai building, simulates the growth of a planetary wilderness seeded from Earth. Thriving in what is perceived by some as the next frontier of humanity’s colonial expansion, the work poses the possibility of leaving the planet to other forms of life as being perhaps the ultimate altruistic act for humans. And among the craggy hilltop rockfaces surrounding the garden, housing an oasis of ferns, mosses and other thriving plant life in their nooks is Coti K’s Click Ensemble, 2022, which fills the evening air with soft tonic clicks as balls roll softly inside and among wooden structures, responding to atmospheric relations and fluctuations beyond our human perception.
Climate change is palpable in Greece; wildfires were often broached by the conference’s speakers. James Bridle spoke of life on a nearby island in the summer months being like living inside a tinder box, always on the cusp of immediate danger. As many of the artworks, conference presentations and publication texts allude to, we are all to some degree complicit. Yet, these statements wouldn’t hold the same gravity in London, Berlin or Lisbon; in the sheltered concrete cityscapes of western Europe, it is rare that we are confronted so demonstrably with the catastrophic repercussions of the climate emergency. Here in Athens, however, we are confronted with both the Anthropocene’s beginnings and its contemporary consequences, an arc of our planetary destruction playing actively in the air.
Once the excess falls away, the potent residue of some of the more poetic works continued to resonate. Anca Benera & Arnold Estafan’s Proxy Climates, 2019–, is a collection of pollens that archives the deforestation and subsequent de-vegetation of regions as they imprint food chains and geologies. Felipe Castelblanco’s film Rio Arriba, 2020, meanders up river through contentious territories in dispute, imbued in conflicting natural and man-made mists and fogs, while Hypercomf’s Benthic Terrazzo, 2022, amalgamates the plastics and human detritus washed ashore into a deceptively beautiful terrazzo of the future. The compelling premise that ‘Weather Engines’ puts forth is that ‘weather observation’ has agency, as local observations accumulate, build, relate and form networks of understanding: ‘To write about the weather and injustice is not merely a personal feeling but one of collective struggles.’ In the accompanying Words of Weather glossary, Geocinema (Asia Bazdyrieva and Solveig Suess) call for a reimagining of weather and the body ‘not as separate phenomena or natural backdrop to one another’s earthly affairs, but as something that has the capacity to affect and to be affected’. Bodies and weather are, after all, already innately entangled; and always imprinting on one another. I am reminded of the screen-printed slogan on my tote bag, ‘invitation to observe birds’, made by a friend’s six-year-old daughter in the days after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of her home country. A child’s innocent note of the movement birds in our communal garden takes on a powerful political message: that of localised positionality and the power of tuning into what is directly in front of us as a way to navigate the otherwise incomprehensible complexity of that lies beyond our vicinity.
If weather is the embodiment of complex entanglements, to practice ‘weather observation’ can perhaps bridge the imagination of perceived distances: between the body and the weather; between what is known and what is perceived; between now and the future. As the world teeters at the edge of turmoil, can this intimate and embodied observation offer a way forward for our planetary futures?