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Coral: Rekindling Venus

by Lynette Wallworth, Artist; Felix Media and Forma, Producer
Royal Observatory Greenwich, London
7th June to 6th July 2012
Event website:  http://coralrekindlingvenus.com/.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Straughan
Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences
Aberystwyth University
SY23 3DB

Departing from its traditional, astronomical remit, the Royal Greenwich Observatory’s Peter Harrison planetarium is currently hosting the dome installation Coral: Rekindling Venus (1), the work of Australian artist Lynette Wallworth, which takes the fragility of a marine ecosystem as its subject matter. The June 6th premiere coincided with showings at planetariums across the globe in Europe, Australia, Asia, North America, and South America––all timed to mark one of the rarest astronomical occurrences within the solar system, the transit of Venus across the Sun. This event takes place when Venus passes through the Earth’s orbital plane and becomes visible as a small black disk against the Sun’s glare.  The pattern of occurrence for this event is 243 years, with pairs of transits separated by 8 years, reflecting the orbital periods of Earth and Venus. Thus, prior transits occurred in 1874 and 1882, whilst the next pair will occur over 100 years from now, in 2117 and 2125.

Drawing her audience on a journey into the ocean depths, Wallworth’s project is inspired by the 1761 and 1769 transits of Venus that occurred in the Age of Reason. These set in motion the first ‘global’ scientific co-operative effort in a period otherwise marked by war and hostility; warring nations united to enable scientific teams safe passage in order that they may observe and measure the transits from various vantage points. This is a story told in the Royal Greenwich Observatory’s companion exhibition Measuring the Universe: From the Transit of Venus to the Edge of the Cosmos (2), which notes the travails undertaken by explorers such as James Cook and Guillaume Le Gentil. It is upon this unified and unifying effort, made in the face of such adversity, that Wallworth’s Coral: Rekindling Venus hinges.

Opening in London with a one-off 45 minute viewing delivered to an audience of invited heads of state, diplomats, and ambassadors from nations, such as Angola, the Pacific’s Cook Islands, and Australia, and attended by Wallworth herself, Coral: Rekindling Venus aims to draw attention to another phenomenon of global interest, climate change and its effects below the waves. As this distinguished audience signals, the message behind Wallworth’s ‘geopolitical’ work is a call for greater international co-operation -- particularly amongst those nations whose territorial boundaries intersect with coral reef systems -- to tackle the threats posed to such ecosystems.

Importantly, then, this is itself an international, collaborative ‘art-science’ piece. While Coral: Rekindling Venus is conceived, written, and directed by Lynette Wallworth, the work is produced in concert with marine biologists from around the world, including microscopic imaging laboratories in Australia and laboratories specializing in bioluminescent research in Florida.  Furthermore, among Wallworth’s collaborators for the works visual elements are a host of cinematographers working in Indonesia and Florida, as well as internationally acclaimed cinematographer David Hanna working predominantly in Papua New Guinea.  To give the work its acoustic element, Wallworth invited musicians such as Antony and the Johnsons, Tanya Tagaq Gillis and Gurrumul Yunupingu to write songs, and Max Richter and, Fennez and Sakamoto to compose the musical soundscape that accompanies the rich, visual ensemble of film frames.

Coral: Rekindling Venus takes the audience below the waves with a trail of bubbles that depart upon reaching a colony of seals who inquisitively peer towards the audience, successfully establishing a reciprocity of observation between marine life and terrestrial visitor.  A darkened sea, pin-pricked with plankton, emerges into which the nose of a whale shark, adorned with white polka dots, silently slips into view and, at times, all but disappears, camouflaged as it is by tone and pattern with the tiny organisms that surround it.  From the first, Wallworth invites her audience to consider the relations between micro and macro life, terrestrial and marine, using a coral community as her canvas.

This community is composed of a vast array of biological organisms, making this one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems gathered around the hard calcium carbonate skeletons that hold in place and protect the individual sessile animals – polyps -- that reside within and secrete these structures. Coral species bring an array of forms to the reef, from the trailing maze of brain coral to the swaying tendrils of sea whips. Some branch as trees and others encrust substrates such as bedrock. The forms captured by Wallworth creatively mirror and reflect the bright tips of anemones, and the bioluminescent organisms that form their own constellations in the dark sea above the reef and which fall as dust towards the audience, or dance as moving trails of light.

Dispersed within these reflections are a series of frames that highlight the structural and genetic qualities of this community.  White shapes that abstractly relate to the cellular structure of shells spiral within a black sea that eventually overpowers them such that they melt into the pale underside of a manta ray. Elsewhere, genetic import is revealed by colour instead of form, as frames are filled with the glowing green tendrils of mushroom coral polyps, amongst other organisms, all lit up by the Green Florescent Protein, a protein now central to scientific imaging.

Coral: Rekindling Venus offers a celebration of the majesty of the reef ecosystem: a basket starfish stands to attention high atop a coral bommie; hunting lion-fish, their pectoral fins outstretched, patrol their territory; and the power of polyps is aptly demonstrated as they capture and feed on plankton whilst rendered sedentary by their skeletal home.  Conversely, however, Wallworth works into the piece an ominous darkness that shrouds this ecosystem; a basket starfish free falls as if helpless through dark water whilst pale jellyfish pulsate in a monochrome frame, and a crown of thorns moves across the reef sucking out life as it devours coral polyps.

Against this ominous backdrop Wallworth offers the audience a sense of possibility that hinges on community action. Coral: Rekindling Venus turns to consider the collective effort made by brain coral as they release gametes in a mass-spawning event that is sychronised to coincide on one night a year.  Gametes pop away from coral polyps as if tiny, helium filled balloons that sail on mass into the night, a move that simultaneously relates the work to its planetarium setting, as well as serving to signal the impetus that drove Coral: Rekindling Venus to fruition.  For Wallworth’s work is a call for collective action and responsibility; it is a call for a global acknowledgement of the value of coral reef systems that span across nation boundaries, and an ecosystem that teeters precariously within a narrow temperature range.

On reflection, choosing to present Coral: Rekindling Venus in a planetarium inverts our usual relations with an aquatic world dictated by gravitational pull and elemental forces that hold water below the terrestrial world in which humans are normally immersed.  Rather than peer down into the depths of the sea the audience is directed to look skywards.  The coral mouths that appear as portals between an iridescent interior and darkened exterior, as well as the expansive shots of bioluminescent constellations, enable the work to resonate with its planetarium context as well as the astronomical phenomenon that inspired the work. Rendering the somewhat familiar unfamiliar in this way, Wallworth uses film to present a different and subtly disturbing perspective on this marine ecosystem. The aquatic realm swims into the audience’s vision, enabling an awareness of shared challenges ahead.


1. Coral: Rekindling Venus will play at the planetarium Thursdays through to Sundays at 17.00 from 7th June to 6th July.

2. Measuring the Universe: From the Transit of Venus to the Edge of the Cosmos is on display from the 1st March to 2nd September 2012.

Last Updated 3 July 2012

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