In the sunlit somnolence of London’s Senate House Library, four floors above the grassy quadrangle, treetops flutter outside an open window. Is it a breeze, a zephyr, an intemperate flurry? A faint chill shifts through the air. Where did it come from, how can we measure it or catch it by the tail in words? Such efforts we make to be precise, scientific, onomatopoeic, in our description of this phenomenon: the ever-changing atmosphere of weather.
Two artists have put their minds to this universal endeavour in Artangel’s captivating new project, A Thousand Words for Weather. Jessica J Lee is a writer, Claudia Molitor a sound artist. Together, they have created a multilingual dictionary of words and sounds for weather. It is embodied in several different forms through the library. A shimmy of weather words in different languages, white on white, appears like snowfall on a screen in the uppermost attic. Historical images of weather appear in vitrines in the marble hallways. There is even an echo chamber of both words and images in a miniature one-person library known as a carrel.
Above all, there is a soundscape. This is mesmerising and subtle. It hovers in personal headphones, tactfully contained, which are available on every floor of the library. It lingers in the stairwells like internal weather. At 1pm it emits through speakers everywhere: a sonic lunchtime each day.
It all begins with a plangent one-note frisson, possibly piano keys, perhaps tubular bells. It is nearly impossible to detect which instrument you are hearing, though at one point I felt sure it was an accordion carrying ghostly intimations of some kind of squall. Not that the soundscape is any kind of direct transcription, nor even illustration. It is its own kind of climatic analogy.
It runs through precipitous arpeggios and prolonged thrummings, pauses, circlings and something between sizzle and deluge. Words eventually emerge, synthesising with sound. Some are in English, but soon they are in other languages – blustery, ventoso, rüzgarli, stürmisch; the more attuned your ear, the more you start to ask which is the most apt, the most descriptive, all of which sends the mind straight to the visions of weather in the halls.
An 18th-century comet with a human face, Daniel Defoe’s account of the London hurricane of 1703, a meticulous yet impotent attempt to chart the horrific 1864 Calcutta cyclone, which killed more than 60,000 people, through cloud observation and barometric pressure alone. Here are the desperate and yet heroic efforts of humankind over the centuries to comprehend the weather or even to hold it still. Classification is poetry as much as science, from the cloud types of cirrus, cumulus and stratus named by Luke Howard in 1802, to Robert Fitzroy’s drawings of the same in The Weather Book of 1863, where the skies blaze with a glory expressed entirely in black and white. Most poignant is the book of weather signs by a Victorian cleric who promises the parishes of Montgomeryshire that “the prevailing wind during summer will be that which blows on March 21”.
The soundscape eventually builds into a polyphony of female voices, moving gently through the words against the musical instruments. The variations seem to be endless, and always unpredictable, exactly like the infinitude of weather. Artangel, always so sensitive to location, has set this commission in the great tower of the library, with its high windows and cloudscapes, the weather always intensely apparent. The wind in winter is by all accounts deafening. It is the perfect place to contemplate this universal phenomenon that we live with in perpetuity and yet find so hard to define, control or even grasp.
Wild weather, specifically the climate crisis, amounts to a theme at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, its chief coordinator the sculptor Alison Wilding. This feels like a dire mistake. The annual show, now restored to its June spot following the pandemic, is at its best democratic, all-encompassing and free. This edition puts limitations on subject matter.
Trees are ideal, of course. The opening gallery is full of depictions: spreading oaks that resemble lungs, violently flailed hawthorns, blackened trunks, threatened forests. Douglas White has a charred palm made out of blown-out tyres. The general quota of horticultural and landscape art looks almost political in the context of endangered nature but I doubt that is why sales have been so good for a cute print of Charles Darwin’s greenhouse.
There is a gallery of skies and cloudscapes, many ravaged by pollution. The best of these is John Gerrard’s film installation of a flagpole emitting a banner of black smoke. A chainsaw dangles from the ceiling near an abstract sculpture carved out of scorched wood, and we are back to trees again.
Insect protein: the words twinkle above a bug on one LED sign. The world is fucked, shrieks another. For lighter relief, try a life-size Adam and Eve made of plastic flowers, a painted polar bear giving us a resentful finger or Grayson Perry’s selection of submitted black-and-white prints presented on a screaming yellow wall, against which they have to fight for breath. In another room, all the works are predominantly blue, as if they were chosen entirely by colour.
This is no way to treat art or artists, though a telling aspect of this edition is the licence conceded to fame. Anselm Kiefer paints history; Tracey Emin paints nudes; Isaac Julien is showing a gigantic photograph of a Renaissance altarpiece of Saint Sebastian. Gillian Wearing has a wan little watercolour of Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The treasure hunt produced very little this year – Richard Long’s beautiful word work commemorating a spring walk across Dartmoor, for instance, or Nathan Huxtable’s Goyaesque painting of refugees marooned in a sea of sand, mordantly titled When the Boat Comes In. But otherwise there is a high degree of uniformity. Originality has had to compete for wall space with slogans, pieties and cheap gags – Free Ukraine, Free Lebanon, Free Wifi! Not that this has stopped the shoppers from seeking out prints of nature’s beauty as if the world really was about to end. Normal service, it seems, has resumed.
Star ratings (out of five)
A Thousand Words for Weather ★★★★
Summer Exhibition 2022 ★★