The Art of Weather

Programming

The Manchester Jazz Festival just ended this past weekend (on the flamboyantly playful sounds of Journal Intime, a French trio featuring a mighty bass saxophone) and despite fears of flooding, the damp Mancunian weather didn’t succeed in deterring music fans from their annual rejoicings.

Is it because the British weather is a little bit more awful than anywhere else that Britons are so obsessed with it? “Talking about the weather” is apparently the number 1 self-identified national trait (according to the same poll, other top qualities include “being overly polite”, “gossiping with neighbours over the garden fence” and a “fondness for mowing the lawn”, painting a charming portrait of a nation).

While manners, back-stabbing and gardening would all make great themes for a festival, for the purpose of this post, I will focus on what really matters to most people, looking at a few artistic explorations that embrace the elements.

How it feels

On my very first visit to Tate Modern in 2003, I came across one of the Turbine Hall site-specific installations by chance, and was transfixed by pretty much everything about it: the space itself, for its scale and the sheer ambition of repurposing it; the way the artist invested it with deceptively simple means; and the public’s joyous abandon of museum etiquette.

The Weather Project, by Olafur Eliasson, featured a giant sun, hanging high at the far end of the cavernous Turbine Hall and radiating a warm and soft orange glow. Looking up, the ceiling seemed to shimmer, just like on a hot summer day.

Weather Project, Olafur Eliasson, 2003, Tate Modern

On further examination, the sun was in fact a half circle of light, reflected to form a full figure, and the mirrored ceiling was not made of a single piece, but covered in hundreds of slats, creating a vibrating illusion. A light mist added to the heat-wavering summer feeling, so powerfully suggestive that the best way to enjoy it was to lay down and bask in it, just like in a park or on a beach.

In this short video interview below, the artist talks about the Weather Project and another experiment on perception, Your Blind Passenger (2010), a long tunnel with very limited visibility and changing levels of light, reproducing extreme fog conditions. He explains his interest in creating collective experiences where people can explore social constructs – such as “the weather” – and define their own singularity as part of a collectivity.

The Weather Project is as much about how we relate to the weather, real or imagined, as it is about the way the museum setting – yet another social construct – shapes our perception and understanding. The artist thought carefully about the viewer’s experience, even choosing himself the marketing messages to control the visitors’ expectations, as explained on the Tate’s website.

This emotionally charged review in the Telegraph is a good starting point to delve further into the Weather Project experience, and a few copies of the exhibition catalogue are still circulating (US / UK).

How it sounds

Music critic Alex Ross, author of the excellent The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, has published a new collection of essays under the title Listen to This, exploring many different genres, periods and artists, from Schubert to Björk, with the same attention to context and reception.

One of these texts, originally featured in the New Yorkerfollows composer John Luther Adams on his musical journeys, as far as Alaska. Adams is passionately interested in environmental questions and his compositions and books are based on his research on climate and natural phenomena, as he explains in this short video portrait.

The Place Where You Go To Listen, an immersive data-based light-and-sound installation (also used as a title for a creative writing piece and a book on the ecology of music), is located within the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North. It is described as such on their website: “(an) ever-changing musical ecosystem (that) gives voice to the rhythms of daylight and darkness, the phases of the moon, the seismic vibrations of the earth and the dance of the aurora borealis, in real time.”

There is nothing romantic or figurative about Adams’ notion of the weather, as he declares himself in the video above: “I’m not interested in telling you a story”. The music of the world is what you hear when you listen.

Whilst The Place Where You Go To Listen is, in a way, composed by nature, John Luther Adams uses a variety of compositional devices in his other works. Many audio excerpts are available on his online catalogue and on the Audio Guide of Listen to Thisfor a more recent creation, this video excerpt of the première of Inuksuit at the Armory gives yet another flavour of John Luther Adams’ sense of sound-in-space.

How it looks

The art of weather can veer from the collective experience of the social body to a focus on the singularity of the listener; it can also be purely contemplative, creating a safe distance between the viewer and the elements.

Stormy skies, hazy mornings and glowing sunsets abound in Romantic and Impressionist paintings, and on this occasion I’ve discovered a fantastic free resource, WikiPaintings, a non-for-profit Arts Encyclopedia online since December 2011 that already contains over 100,000 works. William Turner and Monet are safe bets for expressive skies, and a quick search on series returns the following results.

William Turner - Landscapes Series

William Turner – Landscapes Series – WikiPaintings.com

Claude Monet - Houses of Parliament

Claude Monet – Houses of Parliament Series – WikiPaintings.com

Land Art also provides a fairly obvious catalogue of weather-related works, from Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels to Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field. Although these works happen in situ, and not on canvas, distance is almost ineluctable, due the number of conditions needed to experience them in person.

James Turrell - Skyspaces

James Turrell – Skyspaces

On the other hand, James Turrell has circumvented this inherent contradiction of Land Art – which should be experienced on site, but realistically will mainly be encountered in a mediated form – by creating a replicable experience with his Skyspaces. The artist’s official website lists 47 such structures, dotted all around the world, all unique in shape, proportions and design, but providing a similar experience: an intense view of the sky, sublimating natural phenomenons such as sunrise, sunset and the passing of clouds.

Like Olafur Eliasson and John Luther Adams, James Turrell’s experiential art can be likened to a phenomenological approach, inviting the visitor to sharpen their focus, become conscious of their own consciousness and pay attention to the interrelation of the collective and the singular.

In other words, he is far from encouraging the weather chit-chat, and on the contrary is often quoted for saying:

I want to create an atmosphere that can be consciously plumbed with seeing like the wordless thought that comes from looking in a fire.

More elements

The weather in art is certainly a hot topic, and recent installations are playing in their own ways with storm, rain or wind. To explore more elemental works, from clouds, fog and snow to rainbows and midnight sun, here’s a nice top 10-type compilation of “art installations that imitate weather”.

Last but not least, the world’s only Festival of Weather, Art and Music (WAM) is taking place in Reading, England, in September 2013. Amongst scientific talks and sound installations, it most excitingly features a free “Weather Factory” event, a mass experiment pitching as many people as possible against one laptop to predict the weather using nearly 100-year old methods.

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