Rising Tide: art, the climate crisis and Indigenous resistance in Oceania

By Caitlin MacDonald

Rising Tide: Art and Environment in Oceania, on display at the National Museum of Scotland, maps out a not-so-distant future for our planet

A deep blue hue and the sound of the ocean splashing onto the shore welcome me into the exhibition. It’s a Saturday morning so I have the whole place to myself. This is Rising Tide at the National Museum of Scotland, a look into Polynesian culture and art through the lens of climate change.

Polynesia (a region of the world consisting of many islands in the Pacific Ocean) will be the first victim of climate change. The rising sea level threatens many communities, with nations such as Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands dated to sink into the sea as early as 2035. Rising Tide aims to explore both how the increased plastic usage and waste in Polynesia has affected local art as well as examining the Indigenous resistance to the rapid change in climate.  

A stunning five-piece kimono tapestry, entitled Song of Samoa, is what catches my eye first, its beaded embroidery twinkling in the light. Created by Samoan and Japanese artist Yuki Kihura, the piece illustrates the real-life consequences of our pollution; a turtle swims unknowingly towards a plastic bag, the coral reefs have been bleached dead. A tangerine octopus’ eyes stare at me judgingly. Kihura’s embroidered kimono sheet blends both halves of her heritage together to represent her pan-Pacific identity, as well as highlight the damage we have knowingly caused to our environment, our oceans.

The only real sound in the exhibit is the sound of water rising and receding; a reminder that time is running out for many Indigenous populations scattered across Polynesia. Tell Them by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner is a video that plays on loop in the exhibit, a fierce declaration that Marshallese Islanders will not accept their fate lying down. A sign next to the looped video reads that the Marshall Islands could disappear as early as the year 2035. Kathy urges me through the screen: tell them we fought hard.

Anthony C Guerro, an artist hailing from Guam, weaves plastic baskets in the same way his grandmother did. He says it’s fun to use washed up plastic in his art because he can feel himself making a difference. Florence Gutchen, an artist from the Torres-Straut Islands where millions of fishing nets are discarded each year (so called “ghost nets”) recycles them into fish-like structures. “The ocean holds all mankind together,” Her little plaque says, next to a picture of her beaming. “We are all connected by it, and we must look after it.”

Past some traditional Māori te tai’s (a type of head dress) made from colourful plastic straws is a wall of sorts, a curtain if you’re pedantic. Hanging from the ceiling are jellyfish, all constructed from single-use plastic. A whole monolithic curtain of these charming plastic jellyfish bottles, splashed in ultramarine blue light. Through the curtain, at the heart of the exhibition itself, is Bottled Ocean 2123. Bottled Ocean imagines a world nearly 100 years on, where life has gone extinct. Instead, the world belongs to plastic now, a world where plastic has outlived all life. There are hammerhead sharks and manta rays and fish in the piece, but they are all made of clear, single-use plastic; artificial and static. There is no life in Bottled Ocean, not anymore. A traditional Māori canoe (a waka) sits atop a legion of plastic bottle ends, which represents our ocean. Inside the waka is one lone animal skull, the only organic feature of the piece; our own mortality on display.

Bottled Ocean 2123, as artist George Nuku conveys through his work, is our future. This is what will happen if things do not change. I keep coming back to the animal skull, all alone in a sea of plastic. Life where there should be none.

Rising Tide is a short exhibition, only a few rooms long, but its message stays with me. It’s a reminder that time is running out, and that only we can do something to change our fate. 

Rising Tide: Art and Environment in Oceania is on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh until 14 Apr 2024, and is free to enter.


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