‘It’s a slow catastrophe’: artists try to tackle the dangers of rising sea levels

·6 min read

In two new exhibitions, shocking photography and video simulations give an idea of the effects of the climate crisis


How should culture respond to the climate crisis? Can it provide a wake-up call that isn’t so brutally loud and depressing that we don’t just smash the alarm clock and go back to sleep?

Related: Don’t Look Up: four climate experts on the polarising disaster film

Exhibit A in such debates right now is Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay’s comedy/disaster film about two astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) trying to warn that an Everest-sized comet is hurtling toward Earth. The star-studded allegory of distraction and denialism has been panned by critics but praised by climatologists.

Don’t Look Up zooms out on a stellar scale; FloodZone: Photographs by Anastasia Samoylova zooms in to hyperlocal effects of sea level rise, tidal flooding and shoreline erosion in Florida. But the exhibition – at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia – takes aim at the same human flaw of cognitive dissonance.

Samoylova is well placed to explore it, having been born in the Soviet Union in the 1980s and observed the gap between its government’s utopian imagery and the grind of everyday life. When she moved to Miami Beach in 2016, she again found a disconnect between idealised visions of tropical paradise and the reality of flooded construction sites, rusted infrastructure and endangered wildlife.

After riding out Hurricane Irma in a mandatory evacuation zone, Samoylova wandered the deserted city and photographed gleaming high-rise condominiums towering over flooded streets. Her show juxtaposes giant adverts selling an optimistic image of the future with scenes of decay and disrepair – testament to a rapacious property market determined to keep partying on the eve of apocalypse.

She talks quite a bit about looking at Soviet propaganda images of the good life and how that counteracted her personal experience of things and that, I think, is what she first found in Miami, too,” says Seth Feman, the Chrysler Museum’s deputy director for art and interpretation and curator of photography.

“You have the wraparound privacy screens that they put over building sites and those will have images of what is to come: beautiful minimalist condos with happy people lounging about in them. It is propaganda at its core.”

But before climate anxiety turns to despair, visitors to the museum will find a companion exhibition: Waters Rising, which includes scientific models, video simulations, photos and artwork examining sea-level rise in coastal communities across Norfolk and other parts of the Hampton Roads region – and some potential solutions.

The show, a collaboration with the Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience at nearby Old Dominion University, offers a series of action steps including practical advice on green electronics, light bulbs and washing clothes and how commuters can reduce their carbon footprint.

Feman says: “We really wanted to put this in people’s hands to give them a sense that they’ve seen something pretty horrific but they can leave the museum thinking about what they can do.”

He adds: “It goes beyond that, too, because I wanted people to try to come to terms with how to express what’s going on. As somebody who lives facing water every day, I often feel like I don’t have the terms to even describe what we’re facing because it’s a slow catastrophe.

“It’s not like a volcano erupts or an earthquake happens. It’s this slow wearing away and rising of water. One of the installations in the exhibition specifically focuses on language and how we might grow new terms in order to express the strange feelings that we have when confronted by this.

“That really goes hand-in-hand with Anastasia’s work because she is visually expressing this strange emotion of fear and anxiety but also there are moments of real beauty. How do you hold this all together at the same time?

The threat to Norfolk from sea level rise is comparable to that facing Miami and New Orleans. The Chrysler Museum overlooks an inlet from the Elizabeth River, a tidal estuary at the southern end of Chesapeake Bay. During storms, the museum itself can be cut off, effectively becoming an island.

“Every day I have to look at the weather and make a decision on how I’m going to walk into the office, how I’m going to walk my dog,” says Feman, 42, who lives four blocks away. “There are roads that are impassable depending on what’s happening.

“If there’s a flood or if there’s been heavy rains or sometimes if there’s been heavy winds, it can cause water to pile up in certain areas. So sometimes I have to go right instead of left because I can see from where I’m coming that the road will be impassable if I go down that way. It’s anecdotal, it’s not scientific, but it’s to my mind much worse than it was nine years ago when I got here.”

The museum hosts a two-day symposium examining themes and questions raised by the exhibitions on 12 and 13 February. Feman welcomes the ways in which artists are trying to think and feel about the climate crisis differently.

There’s an important role to play for document here but I’m also interested in images that might help us get our minds and our actions moving. Part of the motivation here is that we wanted people to take time and look closely at a problem and it’s really hard to show people images of disaster and to get them motivated.

“Sometimes fear works, but oftentimes people will just turn the page or look away and finding artists who can really invite people in to think seriously and effectively about about the world around them is immensely valuable.

The curator notes that Samoylova’s exhibition includes two photos that are not from Florida but Tangier Island, a Virginia fishing town of about 400 people with a rich seafaring culture that appears doomed to sink under water.

“She presents two very beautiful images from Tangier and it gets to the point that, since we know it’s about when not if, how might we live differently now? Do we just go wild – the sky is falling so let’s do whatever we want? – or do we meaningfully connect with people?

“Do we find another way to move forward in the time in the places that we’ve got? Those images depict things but they are, at their core, about absence. They’re about loss and there’s no escaping it when you look at them.”

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