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July 06, 2006

After seeing the Natural History Museum's exhibition on the art of climate change, Christopher Peachment is reminded why he is not a green: The Ship: the art of climate change at the Natural History Museum

Posted by Christopher Peachment

The Ship: the art of climate change
Natural History Museum, London
3rd June - 3rd September 2006
Daily 10am - 5.50pm (Sundays from 11am)

This exhibition came about because someone had the idea of shipping a boatload of artists up to an Arctic island north of Norway.

The item which greets you as you enter is Stranded, from Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey. Lying on the floor is the bleached skeleton of a small whale, which was washed ashore in this country. The two sculptors flensed the blubber off the bones, and the video of them doing it shows that it was disgusting work. (My mother ate a lot of it during the war, and said that the problem was that it never properly congealed when cooked, and you ended with something like a decomposing fish jelly.) Ackroyd and Harvey then covered the bones in sparkling white mineral crystals.

The result is horrible. The bones alone, without ornament, would have been beautiful, and proof that God is a great artist, only a little hampered by realism. With sparkly stuff all over them, they look like the sort of cheap broach a six-year-old girl would covet from the Christmas tree. Gilding the lily springs to mind.

There's a large-screen video work by David Buckland called The End of Ice. It shows an upright, top-heavy chunk of ice, standing proud in the arctic water. Its base has been washed away by the lapping waters to a narrow needle, and it can only be a matter of time before it comes crashing down. I watched this for about five minutes, and was reminded of the moment in Night Moves when Gene Hackman was asked what an Eric Rohmer film was like, and replied, "Like watching paint dry".

An enthusiast for the piece might say that it was hypnotic, but then all water is that. I sneaked a look around the corner of the screen at the artist's label. It said the video lasted 25 minutes. It was just as I came back around the corner that there was a heavy "whump", like a diver belly-flopping into a pool. I just managed to catch the moment critique out of the corner of my eye.

Half a dozen other people weren't so lucky. Alerted by the noise, they swivelled to look at the screen, but all they caught was some bobbing ice cubes and a wave radiating outwards. I looked at their faces. They showed disappointment and frustration, something akin to coitus interruptus. One man checked his watch, muttered something about not waiting around for another 25 minutes and wandered off.

And herein lies the problem for the Greens. Man would far rather watch destruction than construction. A building site at lunchtime will excite my curiosity, and I can spend five or ten minutes watching the skill of men at work and speculating as to how it will turn out. Tell me that the building is being demolished however, and I will happily stand there for hours in a state of savage glee. All that anyone in the audience at this show wanted from that needle of ice was to watch it collapse.

The Greens are busy telling us that it all has to be preserved. Whereas we would much rather watch it all come down. They argue for stasis. Whereas the greatest wisdom that Solomon passed on, inscribed in a gold ring, was "This too will pass".

Thinking about it later, I couldn't help wondering if the artist gave that ice needle a little nudge. Otherwise he might have been there for months. And the ship would have sailed on.

Anthony Gormley, the sculptor of The Angel of the North, decided to lie in an oblong hole in the ice and let water freeze around him. The resultant ice-man, called Marker One, was propped up next to the grave-like trench. No doubt the photo of it is saying something about life and death, but I wish I could shake off my first impression of it being "What I did in my hols," by N Molesworth.

Elsewhere there’s a video of a woman dancing around with sticks attached to her body. I can’t see what it has to do with anything, let alone Norwegian islands or global warming. Like all modern dance, it is a waste of time.

There is a large humourous painting, by Gary Hume, done in bold browns and pinks, of the underside of a polar bear, complete with paw prints and genitalia, called Hermaphrodite Polar Bear. According to the blurb, it makes a point about the genetic damage done by pollution to polar bears' genitalia, thus causing them much grief. I was grateful for this extra information, since my knowledge of bears' genitalia is sketchy. One wonders if the artist did it from life.

The best installation of all is a series of letters and photos from Alex Hartley to the Norwegian authorities, telling them that he has discovered a new island off their coast, which he has named Nymark, (Undiscovered Island), and would like to claim as his own. He promises them that no mining will take place there. This could have been one of those shaggy dog jokes beloved of stand-up comedians with half an hour to fill on Channel 4. But Hartley then ruins the whole joke by covering up the one letter which would be the punch line of the gag.

As far as I can make out from the left-hand half of the letter from the Norwegian authorities, they are telling him to "fuck off out of it and don't come back" albeit couched in the most exquisite diplomatic language. And backed up by some heavyweight knowledge from m'learned friends about international treaties and boundary law. There may be artistic intent behind the partial blanking-off of that letter, but it looks more like a sense of humour failure.

I have saved the most egregious item till last. It is worth quoting the penultimate paragraph of Ian McEwan's end-of-term report:

Pessimism is intellectually delicious, even thrilling, but the matter before us is too serious for mere self-pleasuring. On our side we have rationality. Which finds its highest expression and formalisation in good science. And we have a talent for working together – when it suits us.
It is that "self-pleasuring" that gives the game away. He reminds me the games master, who doubled as head of scouts, lecturing us all at my prep school before the up-coming big rugby game:
No masterb… um, self-pleasuring the night before the game lads, and I want to see you all pull together on the field. No place for individual swanking.
That kind of smug Puritanism left me with a life-long aversion to team sport and a healthy scepticism about scouting. Thanks to Ian McEwan, I can now add to them the Green Party.

Incidentally, I always forget, between visits to the Natural History Museum, what a fabulous building it is. Schoolchildren would absorb a much better sense of beauty from this wonderful example of Victorian German Romanesque than they would from The Ship exhibition. Or they would, if only it were visible. Most of the interior walls, with their lovely barley-sugar columns, are blanked off by partitions, false hardboard corridors, and screens for video installations.

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.

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