On an overcast day in November 1946 the American chemist and Nobel laureate, Irving Langmuir, was in the control tower at New York’s Schenectady Airport. An aeroplane took off over his head, carrying a cargo of dry ice which was discharged when the plane was above the clouds. Soon thereafter rain fell on the airport and Irving Langmuir rang a reporter with an ecstatic message: “Mankind has finally learnt to control the weather”.
As artists for more than thirty years we have interested ourselves in how, with the help of science and technology mankind has sought to control the weather and to create an artificial climate. The weather constantly affects us, both physically and psychologically, and human history would have been very different but for its capriciousness. The Climate Experiment is an exhibition showing artworks created over a period of 30 years that all share climate as a common theme. The title of the exhibition is ambiguous and it can be read as a hypothesis in which we liken climate change caused by humans with a gigantic experiment. And we have no idea how it will end. But the title also alludes to our own experiments with climate and weather in which diverse elements are employed both as an artistic medium and a source of inspiration.
In the beginning was the incubator, a machine made popular by a physician named Martin Courney at the beginning of the 20th century. This was a revolutionary invention that saved the lives of thousands of premature babies. The artwork that visitors first encounter at Dunkers, the Incubator for Earthquakes from 1992, is by no means a place for babies but offers visitors a table set for a meal beneath an inflated plastic dome. From time to time the dinner table is subjected to an earthquake and the china starts to rattle all the more vigorously. A natural catastrophe that has been given the best possible conditions for its development? A crazy experiment or a paradox? Frequently both. With a starting point in the laboratory and in scientific discoveries that often raise the eyebrows of visitors, as an artist one finds inspiration and adopts elements of the scientific operations into one’s own work. In the two climate chambers from 1994 included in the exhibition one can step into the eye of the storm or encounter a snorting, steaming rhinoceros. These are two sculptural rooms that enclose viewers, activating all their senses. At times we have referred to this installation as a “psychiatric examination” (which originally consisted of five different chambers) in which cold, steam, heat and wind have replaced classical artistic elements like clay or oil paints. Here we catch a glimpse of the exhibition’s formal aspect that refers to the experiment about developing the anonymous white art cube into an experience-based climate laboratory.
In 1927 a real climate laboratory was created in Cambridge Massachusetts, the Human Fatigue Lab built and financed by the American military and consisting of various rooms featuring extreme climates in which soldiers could train endurance. World War I had encouraged both physicists and meteorologist to experiment and create new methods for winning on the battlefield, aided by money from the military. The armies that were best equipped and that could predict the weather would have an enormous advantage. History is full of examples of the weather playing a decisive part in military conflicts. Here we examine this theme in the mobile sculptures under the general heading Inside the Weather – A Synoptic Battlefield. The five sculptures consist of meteorological symbols (isobars, cold and warm fronts, wind barbs, triangles for hail, etc.) each of which forms spatial weather maps for specific historic dates. Inspired by the minimalists’ codification of abstract phenomena (such as Walter de Maria’s Broken Kilometer) the meteorological symbols are elevated into highly polished artworks. But the flattering and reflecting metal also carries dramatic narratives like when Kubla Khan’s forces were planning to invade Japan in 1218 but a violent typhoon destroyed the Mongol armada. The Japanese gave the typhoon the name Kamikaze – the divine wind. In the exhibition, this work consists of a series of circular isobars that are held together by wind barbs that together indicate a typhoon’s inner anatomy.
An interest in dissecting and dismembering science into its smallest component parts is something that we often begin with in order to be able, at a later stage, to create our own version of the experiment. As with the work entitled If You Don’t Like the Weather Change It from 2007. This is a four-channel video installation in which films are projected inside parabolic antennas. Here we can follow Bigert & Bergström’s attempt at recreating Langmuir’s experiment with seeding clouds with dry ice in order to generate rain. While the artists are preparing their geo-engineering performance, various scientists and historians appear in the film which places the experiment in a larger context. The dream of controlling the weather is as old as mankind, but rain dances have been replaced today by ever more powerful computers and speculative “quick-fix” methods in which scientists are the new weather gods. But whether they ultimately become heroes or are thrown onto the compost heap of scientific history is always difficult to determine at the time. In Adrenaline Dream, 1993/2018 a human form in heat-resistant clothing is seen reclining on a bunk in a greenhouse. Every now and then the figure is seen to shudder. The greenhouse has developed protection in the form of a camouflage pattern that trails over the panes of glass. The title suggests that the human form is alive but is sunk in a hypnagogic state in which the adrenaline gives rise to sporadic tremors. Perhaps it is the scientist himself who has sought protection after something has gone horribly wrong with the experiments in the neighboring laboratory? Established but Incomplete, Stationary and The Party is Over from 2017 seem to have been taken from a climate scientist’s laboratory in which something has influenced the experiments and has given rise to new mutations. Here a snow-covered landscape has been transformed into meat, while thermometers have turned into an aquarium and cold and warm fronts have disintegrated.
Climate experiments are also documented in Expedition from 2006 in which a trip with Swedish icebreaker Oden materialized as a molecular photographic sculpture. In this work the artists appear in their role as explorers. Even the sculpture’s formal execution can be described and can be linked with how artists and scientists have experimented with different methods of visualization in order to describe nature. Here we gain an insight into how science and art can fertilize each other. The experiments that climate scientists conduct on the icebreaker can be glimpsed in the video documentation Drip Drop Future from 2006 on the wall beside it. These can seem absurd given that the samples that were analysed in the icebreaker’s laboratories are so delicate and so tiny in comparison with the enormous machine that rocks its way through the Arctic ice. The solid ice that once provided a secure platform for polar bears to hunt seals from. As the ice covering has melted (in 2017 the maximum ice cover in the Arctic Ocean was the second lowest since measurements were begun in 1981) polar bears have lost their hunting grounds. Polar bears turn up at the end of the exhibition too and they can be glimpsed in one of the three works on the walls, Backstage Diorama from Biologiska museet in Stockholm. Here we view the diorama from the back and the images show the practical anatomy that Gustav Kolthoff used in 1900 when the dioramas were created, with a view to maintaining an illusion of an Arctic biotope. The museum was the first of its type when it opened in 1893. It represented the multimedia tools of the day for presenting nature “as seen in reality” to visitors to Stockholm’s General Art and Industrial Exposition shortly thereafter. The stuffed polar bear that now lies with its snout pointing outwards towards Öresund, was shot by zoological conservator Gustaf Kolthoff on Svalbard in 1900. On one occasion when we visited the museum we discovered this dusty, forgotten animal behind the scenes where it had been used to support a member of staff’s winter tyres. Winter Storage from 2017 is an objet trouvé, a found object. Here the unfortunate polar bear has been raised in status to become a work of art which encapsulates several of the complex questions that the exhibition raises.
Bigert & Bergström, about their work as artists and the exhibition The Climate Experiment, May 2018
Photos: Dunkers Kulturhus