The Rising Tide: Environmental Art in London
Environmental art doesn’t come more immersive than sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor’s The Rising Tide. At high tide twice a day, the four apocalyptical riders and their grey horses disappear almost entirely underwater. It’s metaphor and magic. It’s a reminder of the power of nature and our effect on the environment. But this Totally Thames Festival sculpture is also a very muddy business, as I found out when I lost my shoes…
Up to my ankles in environmental art
I am sinking. One foot is ankle deep in mud and as I pull it out my shoe gets left behind. I wrestle it out of the sand and find it has been coated and filled with claggy liquid. I take a step back. The other shoe, foot and ankle now suddenly disappears, burying deep into wet shale and riverside swamp. I release my foot and dig my hands into the slime of the beach, throwing up wet mud as I scrabble to find the once white leather pump.
I am hoping the London Duck tour bus doesn’t turn up and mow me down like Cinderella’s carriage from the dark side. I free both my shoes but now resemble swamp woman. I stumble up the beach and try to wash the slick from my feet in a trickle of river water left behind by the tide. I have mud up to my knees, patches of brown on the sleeves of my white cardigan and an eerie sense of being watched. Yet on the bridge the office workers get on with their walking and biking. The lady with the pile of Totally Thames magazines has her back to me. And those on the beach with me? Unseeing. Unfeeling. Unmoving. Unconcerned. Their strange horses continue drilling down into the blackness of the Thames, as though fuelling up for winter. The children’s eyes remain shut. The men continue to stare into infinity. I could be claimed by the beach today. And no one would even blink.
An environmental immersion
This piece of art is more immersive than I bargained for. But I get the sense the artist who created the tableaux in front of me might approve of my discomfort. These sculptures, just off the slipway at Nine Elms near Vauxhall Bridge, are all about being submerged and rising again. Twice a day the creatures appear to slide into the Thames and back out as the river creeps and retreats. They stand, dripping, for two hours either side of low tide. Dark horses and blind watchmen, emerging on cue to the pull of the moon, before the tide envelopes them again. An integral part of the environment they are commenting on.
Underwater art and the environment
The figures were installed for a month as part of the Totally Thames festival. They were due to be carted away in October but they are likely to stay around a while longer- perhaps until Christmas according to one of the festival workers. They are made of cement, and their legs are reinforced with steel. They took a barge and two tides to install. And they are popular with the office crowds. Between 8.30 and 9am on a Tuesday morning I watch at least a dozen people make a pilgrimage to see them.
Their creator, Jason deCaires Taylor, is a British artist and climate change activist known internationally for his underwater art installations. He created the world’s first underwater sculpture park off the west coast of Grenada which has been listed as one of the Top 25 Wonders of the World by National Geographic. He went on to establish the world’s first underwater museum in Cancun. He has spent his career highlighting the fragility of our environment. He is currently based in Lanzarote planning an underwater museum for the Atlantic Ocean.
Like Anthony Gormley’s Another Place, the figures here show signs of the weather and their endless soakings. Buttons are chipped. Hands are pock marked and shoes are scuffed. (Not that I can criticise!) But these creatures are not like the benign beach sentries at Crosby. The Thames-raddled men in business suits have their eyes on Westminster and the cityscape. The horses, with their oil pump heads, are unflinching guzzlers. The children can’t look. Why? Have they seen the future from the South Bank?
It is the horses’ heads, a comment on our addiction to fossil fuels, that really pinch at my skin. But the businessmen in suits who look away and don’t notice their world is about to go underwater also scratch at me, in much the same way as the wet shale pricks at my toes from inside my shoes. Maybe I feel it more because I am carrying the Thames with me too. Perhaps you can only really empathise with environmental art when you have felt the pain and humiliation of losing your footing in the world.
I am joined on the beach by a businessman in a blue pin striped suit with salt and pepper hair. I imagine he is a politician. I find myself blaming him for the carelessness of humanity. For the rising tides and the political apathy. For not doing anything to stop climate change. And then I realize I am behaving just like the people on the horseback. Thinking it is all someone else’s fault.
The politician joins me at the foot of the lead horseman and we chat about the sad beauty of the sculptures. He is not a politician, he laughs. Just a businessman on his way to the office. He will maybe return at a time of day when it is all underwater. I don’t need to. I have had my warning. I will tread a little more carefully for a while. And aim for a lighter footprint.