Although it is impossible and unnecessary to identify a hierarchy of tragedies warranting attention, surely the human destruction of the environment is one of the most pressing and urgent. Yet, it is difficult to marshal a commitment to changing behaviours that have created and sustain the destruction. Rachel Carson said, “It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.” Artists and curators have a vital role to play in spurring action on climate change and it is to that end that Celina Jeffrey has curated “Ephemeral Coast”, a multi-site, four year exhibition that addresses the theme of, as Jeffrey describes it, ‘uncertain coastal geographies and the loss, exile or destruction of their associated cultures.’

The initial exhibition in Swansea, Wales, at the Mission Gallery, a former Seaman’s mission, brought together four separate works around Jeffrey’s curatorial vision, which exemplifies the idea of ‘engaged artist’, extended to the ‘engaged curator’ or artist /curator. Three of the four artists have deep personal connections to the exhibition location, a trend that will continue in each location. The apocalyptic facet of coastal destruction is represented in the exhibition in a manner that reflects its complex unfolding rather than a heavy -handed threat. Stefhan Caddick’s installation Drowned World is perhaps the most blatant, with its almost overgrown tropical backdrop against a boat fashioned of plywood containing ‘survival’ tools, food and water. This work maps both present events – recent floods in the area – and those yet to come with climate change. Julia Davis’ Consilience: as the world turns, is a time lapse video that includes extracts of sound from NASA recordings of Voyager expeditions. Its sound and visual combination – a dark starry sky and a dark ocean – transport the viewer/participant to a mode of being in which sky and ocean are blurred. Fern Thomas uses her own speaking performance and ocean images in her From the Watchtower Radio Station to express caring for the ocean. Her work foregrounds the romantic relationship humans have with the ocean while exposing both the necessity yet inadequacy of mere caring. Gemma Coop’s Leaving Tide is a 40 minute video of the tide ebbing in real time. The nebulous status of the land between high and low tide reiterates the blurred boundaries of Davis’ work and is suggestive of both the crisis of the disappearing coast, but perhaps, a path toward recovery.

Emotionally the works in Ephemeral Coast, S. Wales suggest aloneness and perhaps loneliness. Human beings are social creatures, and the aftermath of our collective destruction of our habitat feels bleak. Survival is possible and even likely, but has a ‘bare life’ essence. There is a also, though, a simultaneous capturing of the stark beauty and strength of the world we live in and perhaps a more subtle message that Gaia will continue on without human participants. The theme of blurred boundaries offers a possible resolution: when we can fully appreciate the interconnectedness of all manner of life and stop privileging human life we may be able to see the way toward a new way of being with the world.

One unique element of Ephemeral Coast is its strong commitment to the creation of dialogue through the inclusion of multiple partners, including community members and scientists. That dialogue is facilitated through a number of strategies, including discussion panels, integration with the local schools through the Swansea University Summer Science school (swansci4) and of essays in the catalogue from a number of vantage points outside of a strictly ‘artistic’ perspective (including one by Mary Gagen, a physical geographer). As the exhibitions unfold, Jeffrey is planning to expand dialogue sites, creating an ongoing blog response and an open forum website with a magazine format that would permit the viewer to insert ‘articles’ responding to the exhibition content. These exhibitions challenge the tendency toward polarized areas of expertise that keep scientists, artists, those who make their living from the ocean and those who live by the ocean from sharing information and developing a deeper understanding of the cultural geography of change that accompanies coastal change and destruction. The promise of the exhibitions is a new process of alliance building that can more effectively mobilize to respond to environmental destruction. Although Jeffry understands this exchange as creating an intellectual nexus, it also simultaneously creates a vitally needed nexus of practice.

The political content of Ephemeral Coast, S. Wales is present but subtle. The upcoming exhibition in Mauritius promises a different kind of politics, with the involvement of the local Fishermen’s Union and other political players during the creation process of the exhibition content. Ephemeral Coast raises the ongoing question of how to respond to this massive human-created destruction, much of it in the name of the accumulation of a particular kind of wealth. Is mapping the destruction and predicting its path enough? How to mobilize action to a problem that has become both overplayed and trivialized and underplayed, swirling beneath the surface like a rip tide that is acknowledged to exist but ignored—until someone drowns. Each location of the exhibition promises a different intonation, and a unique contribution toward answering and raising questions related to climate change, with the final exhibition promising a reflective gathering together of the contours of the artistic expression of the Ephemeral Coast. 

Mission Gallery
13th June 2014 — 3rd August 2014