Sugar and scale and all things frail in climate change show

Can an art exhibition about climate change have any potency when it avoids polemic? The Irish Cultural Centre in Paris takes a gentle approach to a giant issue

What if we’re wrong about climate change? What has art got to say about it, and how can it help? With COP21, the next conference on the subject, due in Paris this December, those converted to the cause are wondering how to get their arguments across.

Perhaps Nora Hickey M'Sichili was thinking of some recent advice when she curated Et Si On S'Était Trompé?/What If We Got It Wrong?, currently at the Centre Culturel Irlandais (CCI) in Paris. Simon Kuper had suggested in the Financial Times that lessons could be learned from "the improbably successful gay marriage campaign": keep the message positive, immediate and, crucially, not too liberal.

The exhibition, which will tour in Ireland in 2016, takes its title from a Lemn Sissay poem: “what if our wanting more was making less? / And what if all of this wasn’t progress?” This sets the tone for a show that deliberately avoids polemic, in which the work of 19 artists flirts with questions of nature versus culture, climate change, the meaning of progress and our undoing of the natural world.

These include gently delicate Blaise Drummond paintings, of snowscapes and sensitive plants, people colourful yet small in a whitened world, and brave structures almost lost in Arctic vastness. Drummond had gone to the Arctic in 2014 on a commission to create a travel book for Louise Vuitton. Ruth Le Gear also went to the Arctic, and her 2012 video is a poetic reflection on a landscape in infinitesimal flux, yet the sense of timelessness is undermined by the accompanying cracking sounds of melting icebergs all around.


Arctic artists


What If?

was written as a result of a trip to the Arctic. You could actually be forgiven for thinking the Arctic was almost over-populated with artists, so many seem to have made the – surely not carbon-neutral – trip to step on its unspoiled snow. John Gerrard’s photograph, a preparatory piece for his brilliant 2014

Lincoln Center


Solar Reserve

, offers a warmer alternative.

Here, Gerrard focuses on the circling structure of a huge Nevada solar power plant. The final installation, editions of which are in now in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, hints at religious ceremonies, tracing a line from sun worship to our current adoration of technology. This image simultaneously calls to mind both spaceship and planet. It’s a marvellous piece, reflecting both humanity’s ability to do huge things and our minuscule presence in the magnitude of the solar system.

Sheep farming in Leitrim may seem like a small thing, but Hungarian artist Brigitta Varadi, now based in Leitrim, perhaps gets closest to the heart of the dilemma embodied in the challenge of What If We Got It Wrong? with her enticing ox mountain sheepskin sofa, from the 2015 Markings series. Changes in farm pricing and policy mean that it is frequently cheaper for farmers to bury the wool of their sheep, which once clothed swathes of northern Europeans against the cold, than it is to refine it for sale. How far can we come from material and making without losing any possibility of finding the way back?


Scale is again at play in Séamus Dunbar’s

What Lies Beneath

, 2015, a collection of plastic tubes, each construction two metres wide by two metres tall. On the top of the central structure sits a tiny model of the Eiffel Tower. This is Dunbar’s reimagining of a shale gas extraction (fracking) operation, as seen at 1:1,000, above ground. Installed in the elegant courtyard of the CCI, it gives pause for thought, not least about the lack of opportunities for genuine discussion about future energy options: each side seems to claim absolute territory, and any call for consideration of a middle ground can be taken as tantamount to capitulation to the ideas of the enemy.

The arguments at play in What If We Got It Wrong? are gentle ones. Christine Mackey explores the world of seed banks, in places as diverse as Norway, Russia and Iraq. These are the places in which seeds are stored against potential extinction, which is something small to be positive about in an any end-of-days scenario. Mackey undercuts such an idea by noting that the fortress-like Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway is part-funded by GM giants Monsanto and Syngenta.

Overall, the works in the exhibition carry a sense of hope, even if only the hope of the endurance of beauty in a destroyed world. However, Frank McDonald’s accompanying commissioned essay is bleaker stuff, as he takes the opportunity to note how government policy is still driven by clientelism. Short term trumps long term, it seems, even when the consequences may last for millennia.

Beguilingly beautiful

The exhibition is aesthetically satisfying – the works by Gerrard, Le Gear and

Alice Clark

, for example, are beguilingly beautiful – and even while it prefers suggestions of ideas, rather than aggressive statement making, what emerges most strongly is the idea that there are alternatives to current political thinking.

This is summed up in the conclusion of Darragh McKeon’s specially commissioned short story: “The fanaticism of our globalised economic system insists that growth, expansion, accumulation is equal to progress. It proclaims, with the unwavering certainty of the fundamentalist, that no alternative is possible. And this is simply not true. Tens of thousands of years of tribes and communities, living in every corner of the planet, stand in refutation of this claim.”

Whether those alternatives can ever gain any currency in our dominant global- capitalist-driven societies is another question entirely.

A pleasant 20-minute stroll across the Seine from the CCI, at the Pompidou Centre, Sugar Metropolis, by Northern Irish artists Brendan Jamison and Mark Revels, is haunted by the ghost of another idea so wrong that it's hard to believe any rational mind could ever have been convinced by it: slavery. Their sweetly glistening, interactive imaginary city, made entirely from sugar, sprawls across a basement space. Get down on its level to be drawn into its world.

Commissions have taken the pair around the globe, from Berlin to Beijing, Los Angeles to London, though perhaps the most surprising one has been the permanent installation of one of their sugar sculptures at 10 Downing Street.

The publication of the University of London's research on reparations to British slave owners following abolition makes for shocking reading (see the database online at Many of the beneficiaries were the owners of sugar plantations, and yes, they included relatives of current British prime minister David Cameron. Reparations amounted to 40 per cent of the treasury's annual budget at the time. The slaves themselves got nothing. It's an unsavoury reflection.

Et Si On S'Était Trompé?/What If We Got It Wrong? is at the Centre Culturel Irlandais (CCI), Paris, until November 11th. It will tour to venues in Ireland in 2016. Lara Marlowe chairs Climate Change: Thinking About Solutions, a series of discussions at the CCI, in association with the Skellig Foundation, on November 6th; Sugar Metropolis is at the Pompidou Centre until November 22nd; COP21 takes place in Paris on December 7th-8th;