Exposing climate change with human aquarium art

Performance artist Lars Jan was inspired by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to create Holoscenes (above), an installation piece about flooding, which struck a chord with audiences.
Performance artist Lars Jan was inspired by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to create Holoscenes (above), an installation piece about flooding, which struck a chord with audiences.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
Performance artist Lars Jan (above) was inspired by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to create Holoscenes, an installation piece about flooding, which struck a chord with audiences.
Performance artist Lars Jan (above) was inspired by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy to create Holoscenes, an installation piece about flooding, which struck a chord with audiences.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

MIAMI • The ordinary man settled into his ordinary ritual.

He lay down at the bottom of the empty, cube-like aquarium with his fluffed-up pillow, crawled under his sheet and shut his eyes.

But he was roused abruptly by a stream of water and, in less than a minute, he was a man whose day had turned topsy-turvy: He floated and twisted, rose and sank, fought and surrendered. Then, just as suddenly, the water level dropped, only to rise and fall again for the next 45 minutes.

As scientists and politicians in Paris wrestle with the complexities of battling climate change, artist Lars Jan is inviting people in Miami to view it in a way, he said, that makes people "feel climate change in their guts, rather than just understand it".

When he brought his installation, Holoscenes, to Miami Dade College last week to coincide with the annual Art Basel extravaganza, he knew Miami was the ideal city to spotlight the increasingly delicate dance of climate change, water and everyday life. The ocean, after all, made the city famous.

But, today, Miami and particularly ritzy Miami Beach across the causeway, are more vulnerable to sea-level rise than almost any other place in the country and now the bill is due. Roads must be raised, water pumps updated, homes built high off the ground, sewage plants safeguarded, and estuaries and the Everglades protected from encroaching saltwater. And no one knows if that will ever be enough.

"I know how exposed Miami is, and Florida," said Jan, 37, who developed the concept for his installation after seeing the damage wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and stumbling across a particularly vivid photograph of a major flood in Pakistan.

"It was classically beautiful, but it depicted a horrific situation. It opened a door that I walked through and I kept walking."

Jan, who lives in Los Angeles and is half-Afghan, half-Polish, immersed himself in research on floods and climate change. In time, his visualisation of rising seas in mundane situations led him to the human aquarium, where the idea plays out in eight scenes. They depict everyday life jumbled by the rise and fall of water and arrived via video submissions from the public.

Inside the aquarium, there is a man tuning a guitar. A woman putting on and taking off an abaya, the overgarment worn by Muslim women. A couple engaged in a duet.

There is hose guy - a man in sneakers and jeans who begins to coil and uncoil a garden hose. The aquarium fills and empties unpredictably, over and over. The hose wafts from his clutch, and as it does, he tumbles into fits of pique, resignation, futility and determination.

Later, a fruit seller in Indian finery sits in the empty tank with her basket of persimmons. As the water rises, the persimmons float away. Sometimes frantically, sometimes placidly, she gathers them once again.

The project, Jan said, is as much about the ability to adapt as the ability to fight back. And, while it was serendipitous that world leaders gathered this week to discuss climate change, he said he was hoping to reach people in a way that eschewed statistics. "The conversation needs to happen on the street," he said.

Pulling off the project took imagination as well: calibrating the hydraulic rise and fall of water; allaying the fears of sponsors who worried about performers drowning (they can breathe at the surface); training performers to hold their breath for extended periods (sometimes more than three minutes); designing costumes that are waterproof yet billowy (the bedtime sheet is actually a shower curtain).

"What's amazing is that in all of these situations you feel yourself adapt," said Geoff Sobelle, 40, the choreographer and performer who coils the hose, describing life in the tank. "There is a sense of surrendering."

For Jannet Dannon-Mairena, 45, who watched Holoscenes with her three children, an element of fear coursed through the water scenes. A Miami resident, she joked that she was building a boat in her backyard, just in case.

But she said the scenes depict a loss of control, which is where the fear is rooted.

"They are struggling to do all the things they used to but, with all the changes, now they can't," she said.

"The water coming up and down, it's like the points in your life when you think, now I have it under control and you don't."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2015, with the headline 'Exposing climate change with human aquarium art'. Print Edition | Subscribe