Storm Warning: What does climate change mean for coastal communities

4 Oct 2023-6 Jan 2024

Focal Point Gallery
Southend-on-Sea SS1 1NB


‘Storm Warning’ is a collaborative project between Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea and Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange which seeks to raise awareness of the impact of the climate crisis on coastal communities in South Essex and Cornwall.

Climate change and global warming are no longer distant concepts. Year-on-year, world records for floods, heatwaves and droughts are being broken, with devastating effects. This is all a result of human activity, in particular, the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is released through burning fossil fuels in homes, factories, and transport.

The scale of the climate crisis, and the change that needs to happen to counteract this situation often seems overwhelming and unachievable to individuals. Yet everyone can play a part in the transition to a low-carbon society.

For this exhibition, we invited artists Angela YT Chan, Rebecca Chesney with Lubaina Himid, Wyrd Flora, Joey Holder, Andre Kong, Harun Morrison, Ellie Robinson-Carter, Something & Son, Heloise Tunstall-Behrens, and David Watkins to explore issues and research into the impact of climate change, and work being done to respond to this crisis, particularly for those living in coastal communities. The resulting artworks and engagement projects have inspired us to look at how we can be more environmentally responsible at our two collaborating venues. We hope the exhibition will also inspire visitors to find out more, get involved and take positive climate action to protect our natural world and own living environments.

One aim of this project is to highlight work already taking place by partners at the forefront of climate action, such as Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Essex Wildlife Trust, Southend City Council, and The Environment Agency, through projects piloting pioneering nature-based solutions to reach carbon-neutral objectives in both Cornwall and Essex.

Each artist has taken a different approach and area of research to create new works for each venue. Something & Son have been researching the benefits of seagrass meadows, which support diverse marine ecosystems, defend against coastal erosion and combat against climate change: a hectare of seagrass may store two tonnes of CO2 a year and hold it for centuries. In collaboration with Cornwall and Essex Wildlife Trusts who are conserving existing seagrass and restoring new beds, Something & Son have engineered a new, sustainable seeding gun that will be presented in the gallery and available for future use, alongside prints that offer a reimagining of the South Essex Coast and South Cornwall with natural sea defence system, rather than man-made. Harun Morrison presents a constellation of works that include a mural of a smiling starfish that reworks ‘Smiling Sun’ (the iconic anti-nuclear motif), the reuse and re-presentation of two fiberglass seahorses originally built for a department store window display and a growing series of interviews with coastal environment activists and scientists. These works are starting points for a visual essay that considers the ‘coast-as-commons’ in relation to marine pollution and the role of the seahorse as an indicator species, i.e. an organism that can serve as a measure of the environmental conditions in a given location.

David Watkins has created two scaled topographical representations of the South Essex coastline and Mount’s Bay titled Slowly Sinking and Slowly Rising, respectively. Water gradually fills the models making apparent the potential impact of sea level rising on our coastal communities, and how an increase in sea temperature and more turbulent weather can contribute to an increase in severe flooding. In Southend, Focal Point Gallery presents Rebecca Chesney’s With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea, 2019, a 8.75m long drawing showing more than100 years of mean sea level data recorded at Newlyn Tidal Observatory since 1916. Each of the specially made record cards represents a year and the pencil line undulates and slowly rises across the gallery wall. Combining field recordings and spoken word, Chesney, with artist Lubaina Himid, has created a sound piece to conjure up a message of urgency, originally commissioned by TONSPUR Kunstverein Wien. It will be re-presented at Newlyn Art Gallery, as well as at several benches around Mount’s Bay and on Southend Pier. At The Exchange in Penzance, Andre Kong will create a large-scale installation that will use the weight of discarded plastic to create a space for discussion and contemplation.

In Model Organism, 2023, comprising both a large wallpaper print and a film, Joey Holder investigates the importance of marine plankton in our ecosystem, as rising temperatures and plastic pollution are changing the behaviours and lifespans of these creatures. The artwork presents us with an array of semi-speculative creatures produced by scientific observation and AI. The film’s narrative follows the journey of the discovery of ‘Metis’, an unknown creature which had been lying dormant for centuries, but now awoken due to the rise of technology, capitalism, and its impact on the climate. Meandering through a map of hydraulic catchments, Angela YT Chan’s video work, Waterscapes on Land, follows water’s flow towards its destination of the coast before restarting its cycle as rain. It interacts with several waterscapes through nature-based solutions and hydro-activities. The illustrative style inspired by geography textbook diagrams is made playful by a pastel palette that collages digital drawings, animation, and photographic and generated media. This video work is a continuation of Chan’s Railway Bridge Commission for Focal Point Gallery, in partnership with the Catchment to Coast project. Led by Southend City Council, this project is one of 25 projects within the Environment Agency’s Flood and Coastal Resilience Innovation Programme (FCRIP).

Hope on the Horizon is a sea shanty written by Heloise Tunstall-Behrens in collaboration with poet Ella Frears. Through this commission, Heloise brought together a group of people from Newlyn and Penzance to brainstorm ways in which the local area could adapt to sea level rise. Stimulated by inputs from Prof Ilan Kelman (Professor of Disasters and Health at UCL), the group responded with their fears as well as hopes for the future. Ella Frears also gathered creative materials from the group through writing tasks, which informed her libretto for the sea shanty.

As part of ‘Storm Warning’, and in partnership with Sensory Trust, a new commission by Ellie Robinson-Carter will connect dementia-friendly Paul Nature Group with a local primary school in Penzance to capture their experiences of how climate change affects their coastal community.

In Southend, Wyrd Flora are collaborating with a group of FPG’s Contemporary Elders and young people and families from local communities on a series of workshops to discover ways of highlighting and taking action to protect our environment. These aim to empower the oldest and youngest members of our community in skill-sharing and conversations that spark creativity, positivity and a connection to the land you call home. The resulting collaborative artworks will be exhibited in S For Southend 2024, on view from 24 January to 9 March 2024.