Earlier this year, Scottish artist David Cass held an exhibition titled Where Once the Waters, as part of the Venice Biennale. Occupying the Latterina Moderna, a former dairy shop turned exhibition space between the Arsenale and the Giardini, with large windows facing out onto Via Garibaldi, it was a show divided neatly into two halves.
On the left hand wall as you entered the space, Cass presented 365 of his trademark “sea level” paintings, each one depicting a different nautical scene, and each one painted onto the top or side of an antique tin, sometimes with original text or decorations still visible beneath the image. On the right hand wall, meanwhile, he displayed some 600 letters typed on vintage paper, each addressed to a different person, telling them how much the sea level had risen since they were born at the coastal location nearest to their place of birth. “Dear Sandra, Since your birth year of 1967, sea level at the coast nearest your birthplace of Austin TX has climbed by 321mm”... “Dear Giovanny, Since your birth year of 1989, Acapulco has seen sea level rise of 248mm”...
Grouped together, the paintings read like a visual diary of a year at sea, and also suggested the way in which sea levels are rising inexorably almost everywhere, no matter how far you travel. The letters, meanwhile, spoke to the alarming rate at which these changes are taking place. Sure, 321mm or 248mm may not sound like much, but these are still measurements it's possible to visualise. According to the IPCC, the average annual sea level rise for the last 2,000 years has been less than 0.2mm; in the decade from 2006-2015 it was 3.6mm. And, of course, the rate of change is accelerating.
Cass has now released a beautifully illustrated book of the exhibition, with essays from various artists and writers. One of these is David Gange, a history lecturer at the University of Birmingham and an expert sea kayaker, whose excellent 2019 book The Frayed Atlantic Edge charted a voyage he made along the western seabord of the UK, all the way from from Muckle Flugga at the extreme northern tip of Shetland to Seven Stones Reef, some 15 miles west of Sennen Cove in Cornwall’s far south-west.
In his introductory essay to Cass's book, titled “A New Aesthetics of the Sea”, Gange notes how climate change is making certain "ocean-facing ways of life" increasingly difficult, from fishing, made harder by the increasing frequency and severity of storms, to the way in which coastal farmland has been degraded and eroded by sea level rise. He also argues that, whereas "in the classic texts on 20th century art, the seas of modernist painters are described as infinitely empty and abstract" now, with a heightened awareness of the effects of climate change, "the new aesthetics is not primarily about the ocean's visual qualities and rarely does it abstract the ocean from experience. Always, and unremittingly, the sea is now political."
He cites work by artists such as Petta Niultyverta and Timo Aho to support his case. In 2019, the Finnish duo made an LED light installation on various buildings in Lochmaddy on North Uist – glowing white strips showing the "not-too-distant reality" of the level the sea might reach as a result of climate change.
I'm not sure if Gange is necessarily correct in saying that the sea is now "always and unremittingly" political in art; there do seem to be some artists out there still making work that engages with it in a purely aesthetic way. That said, the body of work relating to sea level rise is certainly growing, and it's very much an international movement.
Earlier this year, and almost like a harbinger of the devastation recently wrought by Hurricane Ian, Miami-based artist Anastasia Samoylova had an exhibition of her work on sea level rise in South Florida at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. Titled FloodZone, her photographs set out to show the disconnect between the idealized, beach-side paradise image of Miami the local tourist board would seek to promote and the less-than-perfect reality, with water flooding streets, construction sites and more. In the Maldives, meanwhile, another part of the world where sea level rise is now a very real threat, local artist Hussein "Iphpha" Iffal has been making his point in an unusual but effective way by donning scuba gear, swimming down to the coral reefs off the Vaavu atoll, and making paintings underwater.
Individually, of course, none of these interventions is likely to make much of a difference. However, as Cass says in the introduction his new book: "This project is a quiet offering of hope, a creative model devised to encourage dialogue. In a world where every fraction of a degree of warming counts, the coming together of many individual actions will make a difference, no matter how insignificant they may seem."