Devised as a response to flooding, extreme weather, and our changing relationship with the natural world the Weather Station has, for two summers now, travelled around South West England gathering traces of its journey and of the actions of its residents. Aside from showcasing a raft of new commissioned works, ‘part two’, which takes place on Portland as part of the island’s annual B-Side Festival, revisits several works from the Weather Station (Part I), most notably Simon Lee Dicker’s ‘Red Sky in the Morning’. This twin audio work features Dicker’s parents’ accounts of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami as it reached their beachside breakfast bar in Sri Lanka. ‘Red Sky in the Morning’ is a darkly comic tale whose power lies in the juxtaposition of the Dickers’ matter-of-fact delivery with the unbearable imagery that too easily comes to mind when recalling arguably the most documented natural and humanitarian disaster in history.
The titular Weather Station is a translucent orb large enough to accommodate an adult human. Indeed, Alexander Stevenson crawled into it and on through fields and streams mapping what he saw through its base, from leaf litter to insects and fish, directly onto its inner membrane. Artist collective Stair Slide Space repurposed the giant ball as a recording device by smearing it with Vaseline and taking it on a journey through the streets of Portsmouth. They collected all manner of debris and information including comments from passers-by such as ‘Make sure you use your indicators’, ‘Art, I love all that’, and ‘Why don’t you get inside it?’ Over half of the artists commissioned for The Weather Station did get inside it, despite the knowledge that its seal can only be broken from outside and that once inside one has around twenty minutes until one’s lips begin to turn blue.
Laura Hopes’ ‘Lacuna: The Colour of Distance’ is a quiet contemplation of presence and place which, despite its being set in a chasmic china clay pit where signs warn against danger of death, speaks of calm and serenity. Watching this quiet, introspective film one feels almost inside the scenery. It is as though one has the lunar landscape to oneself. An accompanying series of ceramic china clay orbs that have ruptured and deflated while drying is a reminder of the fragility of both the natural and built environment.
Nicola Kerslake’s catalogue text has the feel of an outcome in its own right, describing as it does her attempts to remain upright inside the orb as she traversed the shoreline and, inside a condensation-fogged bubble, was lifted by waves that she could not outrun. Kerslake describes trusting in the orb as she ceded control to the elements, unlike James Hanky who climbed into the orb and willingly hurled himself from the top of Cornwall’s biggest sand dunes. Hanky’s absurd, barely controlled tumble allows him to experience this unique landscape in a way only this particular type of transport permits.
It’s no surprise that in response to themes of flooding and extreme weather so many of the recipients of the Weather Station headed for the coast. Elaine Fisher entered the orb and, walking a straight line she’d drawn around the inside of its circumference, set about walking along Chesil Beach. Though pitched as an attempt to determine changes in the surface beneath her feet through an audio recording of the event, I
would defy even the most dedicated of geologists to ascertain the size of stones underfoot from the muffled sound of pebbles crunching and scraping against one another. The audio playback abstracts into a kind of white noise which, when played through Fisher’s chosen medium – vinyl record – sets the viewer onto a contemplative journey where the record’s eternal cycle puts one in mind of Fisher’s own trundle-wheel traversal along the shore, and after a while the rotation of Earth itself.
Inspired by the collapsed dome at St. George’s church, Portland, which was modelled on London’s St. Paul’s, writer Phil Smith has contributed a short piece of prose asking visitors to the island to imagine walking with a copy of themselves, an imperfect ‘crumpled’ version, and then to consider adopting that crumple into themselves, in order to ‘become more than you are’. In the exhibition catalogue Smith offers a treatise on what it is to spend time with the orb, and how futile the whole performance feels when measured against global climate change. He describes the ‘crucible of attraction’ model, where over time isolated incidents creep up to lip of the crucible before everything rushes in at once. This draws one’s mind back to Simon Lee Dicker’s parents in Sri Lanka, and rightfully art is put into perspective once more. Smith’s writing makes it clear that he would rather respond to the call without having to deal with the orb itself, which brings us to Laurie Lax’s ‘Scotoma’; a medical term meaning partial loss of sight or blind spot. Lax built a viewfinder device – with its own scotoma – behind which she positioned the orb as a means of framing the landscape before making pencil drawings of what she saw. Lax performed her micro-residency on Bristol’s Narroways Hill, where she has since volunteered at the local nature reserve and inaugurated a small local drawing group.
One can see how the orb is considered cumulative rather than collaborative, as it is imbued with the experiences and purpose given by each resident before it is passed on to the next. In most cases, however, any physical trace is barely detectable. Only on viewing these nine projects together does one begin to piece together a narrative in which the orb is the central location around which everyone involved has framed their experience.
By stepping inside or interacting with the orb these artists knowingly placed a barrier between themselves and the natural world, a barrier which paradoxically appears to have brought them closer to nature as it afforded them a critical distance through which to view things anew. The work in the Weather Station demonstrates that although human presence has long ceased to be a part of the natural ecology of a landscape, there remains a deep connection between ourselves and the environment. Perhaps we need the time and space that only artists, with their self-styled remits, can justify in order to understand the deeper consequences of our occupation of a landscape that is considerably less sympathetic towards us than we are towards it.