Can art help raise awareness about climate change?

For Maison Ruinart, Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno created a permanent and innovative art installation to help the public visualize what the difference a single degree Celsius can make in our warming world.

Published 19 Jul 2021, 15:03 BST
Augmented reality aeroglyphic sculpture formed by a site-specific trajectory made with the Aerocene Backpack. A Movement ...

Augmented reality aeroglyphic sculpture formed by a site-specific trajectory made with the Aerocene Backpack. A Movement to free the air from fossil fuels, lifted only by the air and sun and moved by the wind. For Maison Ruinart.

Photograph by TOMÁS SARACENO FOR MAISON RUINART

“Life on Earth can recover from a major climate change by giving space to new species and creating new ecosystems. Humanity cannot”. This is, in a nutshell, what one can extract from the new draft report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), disclosed by the AFP agency on June 23rd. IPCC experts stress that if individual and collective behaviours do not change and the climate emergency is not considered as a real emergency, existing climate trends will worsen.

It may be tempting to think that at a global level, a temperature difference of one degree Celsius – or even two degrees – will simply be the promise of a mild weather. But this will not be the case.

This additional degree is arguably one of the less tangible signs of an increasingly tormented world. Tornadoes, rapidly melting glaciers, dramatic hail episodes destroying agricultural areas and vineyards are obviously more visible, more alarming.

But this additional degree would contribute to climate change. With an increase of 1.5°C in cities, 350 million more people would be exposed to water scarcity. This figure will rise to an additional 400 million people if the temperature rises by 2°C. At 2°C deadly heatwaves could multiply. Above + 2°C, the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps, which contain enough water to cause the sea level to rise by 13 meters, will become catastrophic – reaching a point of no return.

Considering this unprecedented worst-case – but potentially realistic – scenario, how could we better raise awareness with optimism or even with poetry? How could we materialize this difference of 1 or 2°C to mobilise people to take action? How can we imagine a more sustainable world for terrestrial species?

ART CAN HELP US RISE 

This is the challenge Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno accepted. This former architect is best known for his spectacular artistic performances and his conceptualization of humankind’s place on Earth, in the universe, and its relationship to the air.

 

For aesthetic purposes, Tomás Saraceno imagined the Aerocene as an international movement for environmental awareness. He fleshed out this concept with an air balloon that looks like a big black berlingot sweet, a poetic and utopian mode of transport for people, goods and services.

This balloon can rise into the air without any kind of power burner and is completely carbon-free. Just one-degree’s difference in temperature between the air trapped in the sculpture and heated by the sun and the surrounding air is enough to make it fly. This additional degree – the same amount that could change everything on Earth – is materialized in an ocean of air.

Our changing world suddenly slows down, like the Aerocene, carried by the wind. Poetry emerges in the middle of the Taissy vineyards that belongs to Maison Ruinart, for whom Tomás Saraceno imagined this highly symbolic installation at the crossroads between art and science. Poetic carte blanche was given to the Argentinian artist as part of the countdown to the 300th anniversary of Maison Ruinart, the world’s first and oldest Champagne house.

The history of Maison Ruinart goes back to the 18th century, when Nicolas Ruinart abandoned the family linen trade to devote himself to champagne production. This new “bubble wine” was then more and more appreciated by French aristocrats. Inspired by his uncle, Dom Thierry Ruinart, who passed on his vision to him, Ruinart had to wait for the royal decree of May, 25th of 1728, signed by French king Louis XV, authorising the transport of glass bottles of wine to properly launch the champagne trade. Before that, wine could only travel in barrels, which made the delivery of champagne impossible.

Three centuries later, the artistic aerial structure stands out above the Maison Ruinart vineyards in the early morning light. We feel the power of the air, this air that we must preserve to ensure the survival of humankind and of the species we share this world with.

WITNESSING GLOBAL WARMING FROM THE VINEYARDS

Thomas Labbé, historian at the Leipzig University, and his colleagues studied the archives of the vineyards of Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy in the Côte d'Or department in eastern France. Consigned in the Church of Notre-Dame de Beaune, these records go from the 14th century to modern days. Records show short periods of warming and unusually warm years like 1540. But since the late 1980s, the heat has been reaching record highs. The eight earliest harvests of all time have been registered during the last sixteen years alone. Harvests traditionally started at the end of September a few years ago, when some harvests now begin in mid-August.

This is also true in the Champagne region, where climate change has been a reality for years. The oenologists of Maison Ruinart documented an increase of 2.5 ° C between 1961 and 2020. On the Reims mountain, a wooded plateau where the Taissy vineyards are located, the vine grapes were harvested at the end of September in 1981. Forty years later, harvests start a month earlier, at the end of August.

The effects of a couple of degrees Celsius on the vine are variable. The regions framed by high hills are more protected than the vineyards of the Southwest of France, where the heatwave in the summer of 2019 burned vine leaves and made the grapes dry faster.

Left: Top:

Augmented reality aeroglyphic sculpture formed by a site-specific trajectory made with the Aerocene Backpack. A Movement to free the air from fossil fuels, lifted only by the air and sun and moved by the wind. For Maison Ruinart.

Right: Bottom:

Augmented reality aeroglyphic sculpture formed by a site-specific trajectory made with the Aerocene Backpack. A Movement to free the air from fossil fuels, lifted only by the air and sun and moved by the wind. For Maison Ruinart.

Photograph by TOMÁS SARACENO FOR MAISON RUINART

The aroma of French wines and champagnes also changes as the temperatures rise. The alcohol percentage of wines has increased from around 12 percent in the 1970s to an average of 14 percent nowadays, although figures vary across the country. This is partly due to the faster ripening of the grapes. Maturation gives the grape its sugar which is then transformed into alcohol during the winemaking process. Therefore, the more sugar there is, the higher the alcohol percentage will be. In Champagne, during maturation, experts now observe a decorrelation of sugar and acidity, which until recently evolved in parallel.

In the Taissy vineyard, too, global warming has become a major issue. Between the heat waves of 2003 and 2019 in France, Champagne had five early harvests. The grape being at the mercy of the elements; each heat peak can be dramatic for vine makers.

In order to preserve the lands where its champagne is produced, Maison Ruinart had gradually adapted all its agricultural practices. A strong commitment for this 300-year-old Champagne house. The use of farm inputs - fertilizers and plant protection products - and fungicides has been reduced by 50 percent and no herbicides have been used since 2020.

Augmented reality aeroglyphic sculpture formed by a site-specific trajectory made with the Aerocene Backpack. A Movement to free the air from fossil fuels, lifted only by the air and sun and moved by the wind. For Maison Ruinart.

Photograph by TOMÁS SARACENO FOR MAISON RUINART

In the heart of the vineyards, an ambitious biodiversity project has been launched by the Champagne house: a collaboration with Reforest'Action will allow the planting of nearly 25,000 trees in the Taissy vineyard by 2022 to regenerate the soil and bring back endemic wildlife on these lands. If the products sprayed on the vines in the past have scared undesired insect pests away, they also chased away the wildlife that was useful for the cultivation of vines such as ladybugs, birds, lacewings and bats.

The aeroglyphic structure still floats above the Taissy vineyard. This educational metaphor of climate change ripples in the air, reminding us how art can sometimes help us to go a bit further.

This bubble of hope sways in the wind as a little reminder of the ephemeral nature of our time on this planet, which needs to be protected, now more than ever.

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