Standing on the headland at Scarborough Castle, buffeted by wind and looking out to the North Sea, it’s not hard to imagine a future where humanity has caused its own destruction. Behind you the castle (in ruin) tracks nearly 3,000 years of human endeavour. Ahead, brambles and wire fencing signal the danger of a steep drop and eroding cliff. The houses and shops sitting steeply below are tiny, insignificant – an historical blip – compared to the vast, enduring ocean.
The castle site, managed by English Heritage, typically encourages visitors to look back at the span of its human history: from pre-historic settlement (circa 800 BC), through the building of the medieval castle to a First World War attack by German warships. Today’s invitation for a future focus comes from a new public sculpture by artist Ryan Gander. Commissioned by Invisible Dust and Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, the sculpture forms part of their Wild Eye programme – an ‘art and nature’ project for the North Yorkshire Coast. The programme seeks to foster greater understanding of the region’s wildlife and to raise awareness of nature, biodiversity and climate change. Alongside Gander’s piece in Scarborough, March also saw the launch in Whitby of three sculptural benches by artist duo Juneau Projects designed in collaboration with members of the local community. Quite different from one another in approach and tone, the projects tap into important questions about if – and how – art can help us confront and potentially respond to the realities of climate change.
Gander’s sculpture ‘We are only human (Incomplete sculpture for Scarborough to be finished by snow)’ (2022) takes the form of a dolos: a complex geometric shape usually cast in concrete and used as a defence against coastal erosion. It’s similar to the ‘Accropode’ blocks stacked in multiple along Scarborough’s seawall but is larger and more aesthetically pleasing. Gander’s dolos is only partially formed. Designed (we are told) to be ‘finished’ if and when snow rests on sections subtracted from the usually symmetrical structure. When designing the piece the artist used a computer programme to simulate snowfall, an actuality that is increasingly unlikely due to changes in weather patterns caused by global heating.
On reading the project information the proposition of a sculpture to be completed by snow irked me. It is a cerebral gesture that – in the abstract – I interpreted as too knowing an update of Land Art’s interaction with the environment, now rendered sterile. In its material presence and in context however I found Gander’s work powerful. The removed sections create a semi-organic shape, allowing the dolos to evoke both the built environment (coastal defences, defunct machinery, a fragment of modernist architecture) and living or once living forms (the dorsal curve of porpoise or dolphin, the carapace of some alien organism). The accompanying information explains that the work is cast in ultra-low carbon concrete, incorporating limestone formed from shells and skeletons of prehistoric sea creatures.
If the dolos’ myriad associations are intriguing, so is its temporal ambiguity. Is this the ruin of past or present, or of some potential post-human future? This odd debris appears as if it could either have been placed intentionally or washed to the shore following a cataclysmic sea level rise. I imagine an unsuspecting castle visitor spotting it from a distance and assuming it to be part of the heritage display, like a canon or anchor placed on the grass, until niggling doubt prompts them to approach it directly. The work’s scale – standing just above human height – makes it an insistent presence that holds its own without dominating the landscape or seeming out of keeping with the existing site.
The success of Gander’s sculpture is in how it mobilises the castle context to foreground the unfolding climate crisis. With sea stretching as far as I could see, imagining snowfall became less of a conceptual conceit and more of an effective prompt to consider the interrelationship between snow and ocean wherein human behaviour causes melting glaciers, rising sea levels and necessitates more coastal defences. The contemplative setting gives space for the mind to wander, to confront the brevity and fragility of life – and to recognise how social formations that appear permanent when you’re living them are inevitably subject to change.
Down at sea level in Whitby the vibe is somewhat different. Streets thronging with tourists make navigating to Juneau Project’s ‘There is Another Alphabet’ (2022) a less reflective and more hectic experience. Their three benches are spread along a kilometre route, tracing the Esk estuary’s habitats from river to tide to coast. Placed within or close to existing seating (locations in demand for resting, for eating seafood and ice cream) the benches stand out for their colourful appearance and upright, brick-built structures.
Each bench depicts wildlife found in its given habitat, such as otters and freshwater pearl mussels for the river location, and curlew and kelp at the coast. The ‘trail’ format provides a clever way to convey how these habitats are interlinked. Designs were carved into the custom brick and painted by the artists based on linocuts created by Whitby residents. Contributors who participated in a series of workshops run by Juneau Projects in 2021-22 included Whitby Yacht Club, Esk Estuary Partnership, WHISH charity users and local primary schools. From these workshops the intent also emerged that the artworks be functional. In their realisation they act as paintings, information panels and really rather comfortable seating.
Pausing at the ‘tidal’ bench with scrap-hunting seagulls idling around me and with stacks of lobster pots on the nearby boat-crowded estuary bank, I am glad to learn of the less obvious wildlife above and below the surface. Unfamiliar species’ names (scurvy grass, turnstone, horned wrack) form pleasingly on my tongue as I read the bench’s information ‘key’ and then search the image to discover if they are a plant, a bird or other.
The benches succeed in raising my awareness of wildlife in the Esk – fulfilling one of the project’s stated aims. By fostering wildlife appreciation they have the potential too, to inspire greater environmental care. But, for me, the colourful storybook-style images – in which the plants and animals appear as happy cartoons – do not fully make the link between biodiversity and human activities. Recalling swimming pools and seafront decorations of my 1980s childhood, they evoke nostalgia for a time when an appreciation of nature could be compartmentalised into school projects and I was blissfully naive to the realities of climate breakdown.
Nature is a complex term, defined as a ‘keyword’ by Raymond Williams for its power to shape how we perceive the world. It refers colloquially to aspects of the material world not made by humans: plants, animals and ecosystems that exist outside our intervention. However, we know that climate, ecosystems, biodiversity and human societies are irrevocably interlinked. Unadulterated ‘nature’ doesn’t exist and to envision the planet as if it does vacates our culpability. Juneau Projects clearly understand this, as evidenced in another recent project ‘Shoreline, Skyline, Treetop, Messenger’ (2020) also produced by Invisible Dust (reviewed by Jay Drinkall). The beautiful resulting publication looked in depth at ornithology and habitat decline around North Lincolnshire. It compiled collaboratively produced imagery with texts by scientists, melding joyful birdlife appreciation with a critical message. In ‘There is Another Alphabet’ this critical engagement (appreciation plus understanding) may be available to workshop participants but translating all of this into the concise format of the benches is a very challenging a brief.
Reflecting more generally on the role of art in a time of climate crisis, the Wild Eye projects prompt me to consider: is fostering wildlife or environmental appreciation enough? Can this provide a starting point for understanding, and then action? Or are more drastic portrayals needed? The writer Ben Okri recently called for a new existentialism, propounding a need to ‘imagine the end of things, so that we can imagine how we will come through’. Gander’s ‘We are only human’ does imagine the end, conveying a blunt shock of realisation that we too could be wiped out. It’s something we all know, of course, but we mostly live in denial, failing to significantly alter our fossil-fuel dependent way of life. The intent of the work’s title is humble, reminding us – Gander asserts – ‘how small we are’ in relation to the scale of the climate crisis. In an audio recording released to accompany the sculpture he continues: ‘we have the solutions to deal with the problems, we just need really urgent action to put those solutions into place’. His sculpture is produced in low-carbon concrete, made from otherwise wasted industrial products, hinting that material innovation could be part of the solution. Still the tone of the work feels predominantly fatalistic. Its title can alternately be read as an excuse – as if letting ourselves off the hook for our failure to act.
So how do we go from imagining the end to imagining how we will come through? In this respect Juneau Projects’ practice, when considered more broadly than the outcome benches, is more optimistic. Their title ‘There Is Another Alphabet’ – taken from a poem by Dejan Stojanović – alludes to alternative ways of thinking, to a rebalanced relationship with the environment, other animals and each other.
On the day I travelled to the Wild Eye commissions the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published part three of its 2022 report, covering ‘Mitigation of Climate Change’. The data here evidences that much of the crisis is driven by the world’s wealthy (that’s us) and shows we must change how we live and consume. What Juneau Projects’ core methodologies of collaboration and hands-on making suggest are social principles other than consumerist individualism. Creativity can be an enabling force when habitual gratifications (like tourism or shopping) may no longer be viable.
The IPCC report stresses that a shift to a low carbon economy is still possible but urgent. It’s now or never. As such it is vital to keep an awareness of climate breakdown in the public mind. Projects like Wild Eye help here, making it harder to deny or turn away from the inevitable. Life will change. It could be change forced upon us by the crisis or change managed by strategy and civic agreement. The mix of desolation and possibility embedded in these commissions help us imagine these alternate futures and to consider how to respond.
Juneau Projects’ three sculptural benches are permanently installed around Whitby Harbour. Ryan Gander’s sculpture is installed at Scarborough Castle until 2032. The next free open days for local residents at Scarborough Castle are 18 and 19 June, and 25 September. Local residents can access the castle and view the sculpture free of charge with proof of postcode. Both projects are part of Wild Eye, a programme by Invisible Dust and Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.
Amelia Crouch is an artist based in Yorkshire.
This review is supported by Invisible Dust.