Jacky Bowring

2023 Michèle Whitecliffe Art Writing Prize runner-up – Rock, Fire, Salt, Ice, Rain: Tragic Tales of Art and Climate Change

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This essay was selected as one of two runner-ups in the 2023 Michèle Whitecliffe Art Writing Prize.

Each year entrants into the Michèle Whitecliffe Art Writing Prize respond to a theme and in 2023 the theme was ‘Art in the Time of Climate Crisis'. Writers were invited to reflect on the role art might play in addressing and combating this pressing emergency. 

This year's judge was Tristen Harwood, an Indigenous writer and editor, and a lecturer in Critical and Theoretical Studies at the Victorian College of the Arts. His writing on art, architecture and literature has been published in The Saturday Paper, MeMo, The New York Times T Magazine, Artlink, Art + Australia, Art Guide, Art Almanac, The Monthly, Overland, unMagazine, ArtReview, among others. He is a member of the Plumwood Committee, a contributing editor at MeMo Review, he recently co-edited Artlink, and he is currently a PhD student at RMIT University. 

Commenting on Jacky Bowring's entry, 'Rock, Fire, Salt, Ice, Rain', Harwood commented that: 

'Rock, Fire, Salt, Ice, Rain'  is an engaging text, which draws attention to pressing issues in art and ecological crisis. For the author, art isn’t simply a means to comprehend climate disaster but is threated by climate change.

Looking at rock art sites in the region, the author tells of how climate change, in particular bush fire, has wreaked havoc on this culturally and historically significant work. But it isn’t simply outdoor works that are under threat, the author also documents recent flooding at Auckland Art Gallery. In these instances, as the author writes, ‘art is a gauge of climate change'. 


It is 1769. Tupaia (1725­–1770), Tahitian high priest and navigator on board James Cook’s Endeavour is at work beneath the rock overhang at Opoutama (Cook’s Cove), near Tolaga Bay on the East Cape. He is making drawings in ochre and charcoal, depicting a ship with masts and sails, surrounded by dolphins, and he is adding text.

Local Māori show the rock drawings to an early European settler in 1835. Pointing to a particular group of drawings, they tell James Polack that they were done by Tupaia. At this point the drawings are still discernible, and Polack writes how, ‘above our reach, and evidently faded by time, was the representation of a ship and some boats’.[1]

<p>Still from <em>Tupaia&rsquo;s Endeavour&nbsp;</em>showing Tupaia&rsquo;s drawing of a dolphin. Reproduced with kind permission from the film&rsquo;s director, Lala Rolls.</p>

Still from Tupaia’s Endeavour showing Tupaia’s drawing of a dolphin. Reproduced with kind permission from the film’s director, Lala Rolls.

Nearly two centuries later, in 2020, Fijian-born Lala Rolls directs the documentary Tupaia’s Endeavour, with artist Michel Tuffery who has ancestry from Sāmoa, Tahiti and the Cook Islands, and actor Kirk Torrance (Ngāti Kahungunu). In the documentary they visit Opoutama in the hope of seeing Tupaia’s rock drawings and speak to Anne Iranui McGuire, a local Te Aitanga-ā-Hauiti woman, who recalls seeing a drawing of a ship on a rock. It was ‘as a child would draw it,’ she explains, and had three masts and square sails. Maguire also remembers seeing drawings of something like sharks or whales.

Tuffery and Torrance scan the surface of the rock but are disappointed to find only the merest hint of drawings on the rock. Almost at the point of giving up, one of the film crew sees something. It is part of a marine mammal’s tail and body, and a text. Rock art expert Nick Tupara visits the site and confirms the authenticity of the work as Tupaia’s, pointing to similarities with the watercolours he made, including the iconic image of a crayfish being traded with one of the Endeavour’s crew. Tupara reads out the letters from Tupaia’s writing: ‘a – i – h – e’ – aihe, the Māori word for dolphin.

Having survived centuries, still visible in the living memory of Anne Iranui McGuire, Tupaia’s drawings have almost disappeared over recent decades. Rock art is a vulnerable art form, and even under overhangs like the Opoutama drawings the actions of the weather can be damaging. Environmental change is a pressing issue for rock drawings, including the hundreds of examples of rock art further south in Te Waipounamu, the South Island, some of which could be up to 1000 years old.  Rock art is often made on porous surfaces, as on the limestone of the Te Waipounamu examples. Cautionary tales from Indonesia and Australia reveal the mounting effects of climate change on rock art.

Indonesia’s rock art has survived over 45,000 years, but in recent decades has been decaying. The images are flaking and blistering away from the rock surface, and scientific investigations have found that the reason is the growth of salt crystals, a process called haloclasty, in porous rocks like limestone. Salts are left behind on rocks after evaporation and swell and shrink with heating and cooling. The salts’ activity can cause the rock to crumble, or to create small columns between layers, essentially lifting the drawings away from the rock surface. The climate crisis is amplified in the tropics, where wetting and drying periods are intensifying, causing the salt crystal actions to become more devastating for rock art in this region. Humidity is increasing, because more water is being detained on land, allowing the salt crystals to keep swelling over longer time periods.

Across the Tasman, in Australia, it is fire that is damaging rock art. Extensive fires throughout Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria in 2020 destroyed millions of hectares of vegetation and unknown numbers of Aboriginal sites. The radiant heat from fires can directly damage the surface of rock and destroy drawings, and soot has also caused indirect damage to rock art. Even the measures put in place to protect rock art can become destructive when fire is involved. Recycled plastic walkways installed to protect rock art at Baloon Cave in Queensland’s Carnarvon Gorge exploded into fireballs when fires reached the site in 2018. The same thing had happened at the Keep River rock art site in the Northern Territory, where the heat from a burning plastic walkway was so intense that the rock crumbled, taking the artwork with it. It is believed that the hand-stencilled images could have survived the fires if not for the intense flames from the walkways, or the water damage from the steam released from their burning plastic boards.

<p>Johann Franz Julius von Haast, <em>View from Meins Knob looking West, the Southern Alps with the Lyell Glacier</em>, 1867, Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, A-149-003.</p>

Johann Franz Julius von Haast, View from Meins Knob looking West, the Southern Alps with the Lyell Glacier, 1867, Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, A-149-003.

It is 1867, and another visitor to Aotearoa is making art in the landscape. German geologist Johann Franz Julius von Haast (1822–1887) is painting the Lyell Glacier in the Southern Alps. Haast came to Aotearoa with an eye to the possibility of promoting it as a destination for German immigrants and became involved in surveying the geology of regions throughout the South Island. He discovered the potential for coal mining, found a route to realise the Lyttelton railway tunnel, and became the first professor of geology at Canterbury College. And he also, unwittingly, documented the impacts of climate change.

Haast’s painting of the Ramsay and Lyell glaciers was one of his many field sketches made in the Southern Alps. Scientists and art historians have studied Haast’s watercolours and confirmed their accuracy in rendering the terrain, and therefore in providing the benchmark of the extent of the region’s glaciers in the mid-19th century.

Just over 150 years later, scientist Andrew Lorrey is flying above Haast’s vantage point on Meins Knob, and he photographs the Lyell Glacier. The photograph is part of the snowline survey that has been undertaken annually at the end of summer since 1977. Lorrey’s photograph from 2018 is shocking. The glacier seems to have completely disappeared, and all that remains is a small puddle of melted ice. The glacier is still there, somewhere, but has retreated to the mountain tops and large parts of it are covered with gravel debris. Scientists are now using the word ‘skeletal’ to describe the appearance of the glaciers in Te Waipounamu.[2]

The loss of the huge volume of rippling ice shown in Haast’s painting is chilling. In just 150 years a sublime landscape been reduced to an underwhelming pile of gravel and a puddle. All the ice lost to glacial melt contributes to sea level rise. Around the globe, the melting of glaciers and the ice caps contributes about 25% of the waters that are causing the seas to rise.

Once the glaciers are gone, so too is the fresh water they supply. The Lyell Glacier feeds the Rakaia River, one of the spectacular braided rivers that cross Kā Pākihi Whakatekateka o Waitaha, the Canterbury Plains. The waters of the Rakaia irrigate the vast agricultural landscapes of the plains and power the Coleridge Power Station, which supplies power to Ōtautahi Christchurch and across to the West Coast. The river is an important cultural landscape for Ngāi Tahu, and a habitat for native fish and birds, including 73% of the entire population of ngutuparore, Anarhynchus frontalis, wrybill, a tiny bird with a distinctive long beak curved to the right.

<p><a href="https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/auckland-art-gallery-basement-floods-what-next-for-up-to-500-rescued-artworks/C6XJRW4IYJFUZISZHYN36FM524/#:~:text=Daylight%20revealed%20remedial%20work%20on,of%20the%20pending%20roof%20repairs).">&lsquo;Auckland Art Gallery Basement Floods &ndash; What Next for Up To 500 Rescued Artworks?&rsquo;</a>, <em>New Zealand Herald</em>, 28 January 2023</p>

And now it’s the summer of 2023. It is Auckland Anniversary weekend and Auckland Art Gallery’s basement is flooding. The flooding over the Anniversary weekend is the most extreme rain event ever experienced in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, with 245mm of rain falling in a 24-hour period. It is more than the city usually receives for the entire summer. The volume of rain exceeds the recent floods in other cities around the world, such as Hurricane Ida in New York and the flooding in Cologne and London in 2021.

The basement begins to fill with water. This is the part of the Gallery which houses art and conservation labs, and some artworks are quickly removed before it becomes unsafe to do more. Throughout the Gallery around 1000 square metres of space are impacted by the floods and 3000 artworks are under threat. The Gallery closes and staff spend the weekend cleaning up.

Galleries are typically places that are characterised by an absence of anything organic, free from moisture and dirt. The conceptual ‘white cube’ of the gallery space is seen as a neutral, climate-controlled, odourless realm for the display of art. Yet this rupture, this invasion by the weather, heralded something far beyond the normal. Water came in through the walls and floor, pooling several centimetres deep. While none of the artworks were damaged in the floods, humidity was an issue and extra dehumidifiers were needed.

The media coverage of the Gallery’s flooding included a photo of the water-covered floor which showed a curious black receptacle labelled ‘Disaster Bin’. Signalling a preparedness despite its unprecedented use, the enigmatic bin’s small size seems to amplify the magnitude of the events unfolding around it. The intensity of rainfall in Auckland’s Anniversary weekend floods exceeded what that National Institute of Water and Atmosphere (NIWA) classify as a 1-in-250-year storm event, in their worst-case forecasting for climate change. The ability of the air to hold this amount of water, to unleash it as rain, is a consequence of the air being warmer: for every degree of increased temperature the air can retain up to 7% more fluid.

Around the globe artists are ‘approaching’, ’responding’, ‘looking at’, and ‘addressing’ the climate crisis. In London, the Barbican’s Our Time on Earth exhibition in 2022 sought to ’inspire hope and positivity’, and this past summer, while the city sweltered, the Hayward hoped to ‘inspire joy and empathy’ with its Dear Earth: Art and Hope in a Time of Crisis. At the Serpentine, Back to Earth asks the question, ‘how can art respond to the climate emergency?’ Here in Aotearoa, at Christchurch’s Centre of Contemporary Art Toi Moroki in 2018, Precarious Nature, ‘responded to’ and ‘interrogated’ ‘how humans are affecting an increasingly fragile global ecosystem’. And the British Council exhibition Trouble in Paradise — Climate Change in the Pacific travelled around Aotearoa with a collection of photographs submitted to a competition run by the UK government, aiming to ‘encapsulate the reality of climate change in the Pacific’.

Beyond the exhibitions — beyond the looking, addressing, approaching, hoping, inspiring, encapsulating and responding — art and the climate crisis is getting real. Art is not just about the climate crisis; it is not simply reflective, not just a mirror held out. 

Art is a victim of climate change. Art has directly been destroyed by climate change. Beyond the gentle processes of weathering on environmental art like rock art, the ferocity of the changed climate is amplifying the impacts of salt crystal action and fires. Scientists and archaeologists researching the accelerated loss of rock art are calling for ‘urgent action’.[3]

Art is a gauge of climate change. Recording prior conditions of glaciers and other landscape features, art provides evidence of the climate’s rapid change. Paintings like Haast’s Lyell Glacier shift roles from artwork to data.

And art is a climate crisis panic button. The rupturing of art’s hermetically sealed sacred container of the gallery brings climate change into sharp focus. Shit hitting the fan in this way transforms the connection between art and the climate crisis. No longer is the climate crisis pounding at the door of the gallery, it is now all over the floor.  

[1] J S Polack, New Zealand: Being a Narrative of Travels and Adventures in that Country between the Years 1831 and 1837, London, Richard Bentley, 1838, p 136.

[2] Eva Corlett, ‘Many of New Zealand’s Glaciers Could Disappear in a Decade, Scientists Warn’ ,The Guardian, 31 Mar 2022.

[3] J Huntley, M Aubert, A A Oktaviana, R Lebe, B Hakim, B Burhan, L Muhammad Aksa, et al., ‘The Effects of Climate Change on the Pleistocene Rock Art of Sulawesi’, Scientific Reports, vol 11, no 1, May 2021, pp 9833–10.