It swims in calm waters, surrounded by the twittering of birds and frolicking otters … doesn’t that sound a little too utopian for 2020? I know, but such a place really does exist. And perhaps most incredible is it here in the capital, at the London Wetland Center.
Described by David Attenborough as “London’s Extra Lung” and home to more than 2,300 different species, including gadwalls, pigeons and bitterns (incredibly eccentric ducks for the uninitiated), the vast Barnes Wetland Reserve is now home to a number of beautiful new species of creatures in the shape of five special commissioned works of art. You’re here thanks to Unraveled Arts, led by curator Polly Harknett and artist and curator Caitlin Heffernan, who urge artists to create works for environments that are very different from the empty gallery walls, triggering unexpected dialogues between art and places.
The couple’s previous projects include bringing the work of 30 artists to three different National Trust properties. Wetlands Unraveled has been in the works since 2017 and should start the week before the country lockdown. Despite the headache of the delay when Harknett gives me a tour, I can’t help but feel like it comes at a time when we will appreciate it so much more. Going outside is still the main thing keeping us from going doolal this year.
The works of art range from deeply personal to urgently political – and what a canvas. The mischievously titled first work, Whether it changes something. Weather – it changes everything, by Anne Deeming, even rewards going out when it rains (you can’t stop art, second winter lock). When the sky opens, his five floating sculptures will give off a shimmer of color into the surrounding water, with rain activating their hydrochromatic color. Every time you come back it will look different. Like us, “they are totally at the mercy of their environment,” explains Harknett. “Works of art always try to oppose their surroundings. We always try to put them in boxes or control the temperature and humidity – that’s the opposite of that. “
Jonathan Wright’s gilded floating mansion /. Julian Abrams
While Gavin Osborn was inspired by the wetlands to create an album of soundscapes that includes the voices of the center staff and sounds that keep the mind focused on your surroundings, Tania Kovats eventually created her own newspaper. She spent the night alone in one of the center’s bird skins, which has breathtaking views of the heart of the wetlands. Her experience was profound and documented in detail on the pages: The sun sets at 5.48 p.m. and without artificial light she realizes that time is slowing down. “I sit as if I were banned in the cinema,” she writes.
“It’s starting to become part of the environment and get lost in it, which is incredible,” says Harknett. But of course it’s not entirely pure – every now and then the peace is disturbed by planes flying overhead. In another way amazing is the picture by the sculptor Alec Stevens, That Sinking Feeling, a set of three model houses made of different types of wood, each installed at a different height in relation to the waterr level. A Bangladeshi house on stilts has already been submerged; An Art Deco hotel in Miami is on the sidelines, and a Victorian house in London is ten inches above water. It’s an exciting visualization of the reality of the climate crisis surrounded by blissfully unsuspecting birds.
Folkestone-based artist Jonathan Wright’s definitive work of art challenges the heritage of the wetlands. Surrounded by water and reeds, it’s a gleaming gold miniature version of the 18th-century Barn Elms Manor House that once existed here and where the literary and political group Kit Kat Club lived. Wright is interested in the cycles of nature and politics; For Harknett, the realization that nature always goes on makes it one of the more hopeful works.
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The goal of Unravelled’s work is “to uncover what is not necessarily always obvious,” says Harknett. This makes the Wetlands Center an obvious choice for artists: while it appears to have a ragged, gorgeous ferocity, it is entirely man-made and very strictly managed. This was one of the paradoxes that Harknett and Heffernan considered of the artists (five other artists are creating works to be exhibited there in 2021). The human intervention to create wetlands in the capital, instigated by the late WWF founder Peter Scott, is also a fitting metaphor for the future of our planet. Almost 40 percent of all species rely on freshwater wetlands, but they are declining three times faster than forests. “It is an indication of the situation we are in right now,” says Harknett, “where we have to manage what we do and manage the life that is not human around us – otherwise it will not be able to survive . ” When acts of creation save us, it makes a lot of sense to talk to artists. We all have to start using our imaginations: our future depends on it.