art in Uncharted waters

Visions of nature blend art and science

Four artists inspired by water tell us how they capture its energy to explore our relationship with the natural world – creating bubbles, puddles and sonic drops that will be heard from Italy to Japan

Artists are creative leaders who should not soil their hands with technical problems. Scientists, on the other hand, are dispassionate folks who deal with cold facts, with no opinions on public affairs.

This type of absurd reductionism was called out by the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow in his 1959 ‘Two Cultures’ lecture (published as a book the same year). Snow’s beef was that Western culture had created a false divide between science and the arts where much of the cultural elite expressed little interest in the scientific world. He argued that we need to break down this harmful dichotomy in education systems, politics and cultural life.

Fast-forward to 2022 and it feels like Snow’s point is more relevant than ever. The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed how quickly science can become politicised. In a depressingly predictable turn of events, some public health experts have even received online abuse for merely stating Covid data. 

In the long run, climate change presents a far graver threat than Covid, and has an even bigger potential to divide us. Climate hazards can be complex, disproportionately impact the most vulnerable, and it can be hard to see the threats growing on a daily basis. Scientific facts alone will not convince everyone that we need to start treating our planet with more respect and find more sustainable ways of living. To inspire wider change, we need to seek new visions of the natural world.

One small start is to encourage collaborations between scientists and artists. Here, a selection of artists talk about their projects that bridge the art–science divide to shine a light on environmental challenges. In some shape or form, water is at the heart of many natural systems and these four creative endeavours explore our relationship with good old H2O.

1. Witness a dancing glacier

Water as liquid and ice was an inspiration for British artist Emma Critchley for Witness, an installation that premiered at 2021’s Venice Biennial. Two hanging screens play footage of dancers performing underwater at Y-40 in Padova, Italy, the world’s deepest swimming pool.

Dancers’ movements are inspired by the bubbles inside glacier ice, which contain air preserved from Earth’s ancient atmospheres – a valuable resource for scientists to understand past climates.

“What amazes me is how these tiny bubbles of air are trapped atmospheres from hundreds of thousands of years ago,” Critchley says. “I was very inspired by the way these bubbles contain stories.”

HERO Uncharted water Critchley_WitnessStill2

Critchley was the first artist in Science Gallery Venice’s new Earth Water Sky residency programme, which brings artists and scientists together. She worked closely with researchers from the Ice Memory Project, an initiative to preserve ice samples from glaciers melting at alarming rates. 

Glaciers are true sentinels
… and endangered archives

Critchley’s film is premised on the idea of a post-mortem of a glacier, looking at events that led up to its death. Dance footage is accompanied by the artist reading witness statements from interviews with people from communities in Peru and Kenya who live alongside glaciers.

These communities rely on glacial meltwaters for drinking water and agriculture. “Something that was important in my thinking was whose histories are being told and by whom,” says Critchley.

2. Listen to the soul of the sea

Another exhibition inspired by a science residency is The Soul Expanding Ocean #1 by Taloi Havini. Havini was born in Buka, an island in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in the Southwest Pacific Ocean. Now based in Brisbane, Australia, Havani’s ecological conscious work explores themes of place, politics, and the contested histories within Oceania.

Did you know? Water

There’s a conspiracy theory that James Cameron based the blue-skinned people fighting for their land in Avatar on Bougainville.

“In Pacific epistemologies, it is not just the land, it’s the sea before us, it’s the sky, it’s the atmosphere. We depend on the ocean. A lot of our names and stories come from living in this large body of water. How we treat the ocean is how we treat life itself,” says Havani. 

In December 2020, Havini spent three weeks on the research ship RV Falkor as part of the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s Artist-at-Sea programme. Researchers on the mission were mapping the Australian Great Barrier Reef by reflecting acoustic signals from the ocean bed and generating a 3D image based on the time it took for signals to return. 

Havini onboard RV Falkor vessel, mapping watch
Photos by Aimee Catalan

“I spent weeks floating and cruising along in the ocean learning about the science, environment and the Pacific, rubbing shoulders with the captains and learning from crew-life,” she adds. “It showed me how much commitment goes into conservation projects and that we are all connected through the oceans.” 

Responding to this experience, Havani developed a 22-channel sound piece based on the idea of calls and responses. Visitors at Venice Biennial could walk through a landscape of varying shades of blue – representing varying ocean depths – and the exhibition space at Venice’s San Lorenzo church adds additional layers to the story. Indeed, this 9th century building with a rough and unfinished facade is rumoured to be the resting place of Marco Polo the Venetian merchant who ventured across Asia at the height of the Mongol Empire.

“Art has the ability to convey the human story of our times and is often portrayed as more visually expressive forms of knowledge than science proposes. I believe that practitioners in the arts and sciences are highly creative people who desire finding solutions together.”   

3. Feel the rhythm and chaos of the coast

Another sound-based project inspired by water is Drumming the Waves, a collaboration between geoscientist Ronadh Cox and percussionists Cormac Byrne and Rónán Ó Snodaigh. The trio is creating music and educational materials inspired by giant waves and how they sculpt coastlines.

One of Cox’s research interests is how extreme storm waves can shift giant boulders. Following the 2013/14 winter storms that lashed the Aran Islands off Ireland’s west coast, Cox and fellow scientists documented the movement of one colossal stone weighing 620 tonnes – the size of a small house. Global warming is adding energy to the oceans and studies suggest that large storms are becoming more powerful and frequent, posing a threat to local communities and people visiting the coast.

Cox, who works at Williams College in Massachusetts, is well aware that not everyone appreciates waves from a scientific perspective. “People experience and understand the world in different ways, and they also come to knowledge along different paths,” she says. For that reason she reached out to Byrne and Ó Snodaigh, specialists in the bodhrán, a traditional Irish drum that she also plays recreationally. 

Since Drumming the Waves launched earlier in 2021, the group has been coupling visuals of turbulent wave activity with music and sound design. “We have been creating music to try to convey the feeling and the unpredictability of the ocean waves,” says Byrne, a composer and researcher at the University of Limerick who grew up in the Irish coastal city of Waterford. Among Byrne’s current inspirations are the percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, the contemporary pianist Max Richter, and the electronic duo Disclosure.

4. Observe the fragility of the machines

The Industrial Revolution, enabled by scientific advances, undoubtedly helped to raise living standards for many. But our technologies and infrastructures have isolated us from nature, while leading us to the brink of environmental catastrophe. Our evolving relationship with technology is a theme that inspires the Japanese-born ecofeminist-artist Maya Masuda. “It has been my great interest to explore how machines which were once unstable, improvised, and often transitory turn into stable, perfected, isolated entities after the advent of capitalism,” Masuda says. 

Despite the climate crisis, our reliance on machines looks set to continue. Visions of a green transition presented by governments and corporations tend to focus on the shift to renewable energy and personal technologies such as electric cars. The collective sales pitch is clear: ditching the fossil fuels will not mean we need to consume less, in fact we can have more shiny technology than ever before.

In Masuda’s most recent project, Nyoro-nyoro machines, Bara-bara machines, Picha-picha machines she presents an alternative reality where we return to more organic, less reliable machinery. She has created a set of devices resembling spindly creatures with primitive movements, where organic substances like soil and jelly have been incorporated in their circuits. Exposure to puddles of water and the air leads the machinery to become fluid and unstable over time.

“I’m exploring the possibility of machines in cooperation with the environment and sites, developing a gardener-gardens relationship with machines, rather than the master-slave relationship that humans and machines currently have,” says Masuda. 

The work’s title plays with the unique onomatopoeia in Japanese language, which can indicate sound, movement and situations. Nyoro-nyoro suggests a crawling movement of snake-like entities, Bara-bara suggests a state of things being fragmented, and Picha-picha is a word that represents the sound of a water-drop falling. It was on display in London in January and February at the Royal College of Art’s Sculpture Work in Progress show.

What’s so good about this?

Education systems can guide students to believe they either have a ‘logical’ scientific mind or a ‘creative’ artistic mind. Projects that bring professional scientists and artists together help to break down these artificial barriers – they can reveal global challenges in a new light and inspire interdisciplinary solutions. 

Meet the writer

James Dacey is a British journalist who left Banksy’s Bristol for the sunshine of Madrid. He usually covers environment and sustainability, though he’s also written about night cycling in Mexico and spotting Ringo Starr’s face in a water droplet. Three things he loves: snapping photos (@jamesinspain), eating croquetas, Jürgen Klopp’s hearty laugh.

Sign up for

A World of Good

Subscribe to our free fortnightly newsletter for a kaleidoscopic look at culture, nature and positive impact