The Red Regatta sails through Venice's lagoon. Courtesy of Melissa McGill

Climate art fills Venice’s waters with a red alert

Artist Melissa McGill uses traditional sailboats to speak on climate change in the sinking city

About a month ago, researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology released a paper on the psychological impact of climate art, a growing art genre that uses creative mediums to speak out on climate change. What they found is that works of art depicting solutions and imagery of “sublime nature” have the power to make viewers feel that the climate decline is not something they must idly witness, but something on which they can act.

But what if the work is also a part of nature? What if the art itself is a solution?

On 1 September, Venice’s waterways will fill for the third time this year with 52 shades of red riding on the wind – an examination of these questions through artist Melissa McGill’s Red Regatta. As part of the 2019 Venice Biennale, these regattas fill the city’s waters with 52 traditional Venetian flat-bottomed sailboats, known as vela al terzo, with their sails painted in one of the color circle’s most symbolic inhabitants.

Shades of red developed by the artist reflect different emotions and elements of the city. Courtesy of Melissa McGill
Shades of red developed by the artist reflect different emotions and elements of the city. Courtesy of Melissa McGill

“Each shade references the visuals of the city. Venetian red – it’s the flag, the history of the pigment trade, Titian paintings, the bricks and terracotta,” says McGill, who initially developed more than 100 variations in her studio in New York’s Hudson Valley. “But there’s also the emotional impact of red. Red stands for love and passion and life force, and also alarm and warning. These multiple shades of red speak to that.”

Up with works like Olafur Eliasson’s melting glaciers in Paris (Ice Watch, 2014) and JR’s 500 faces watching over San Francisco’s city hall during last year’s Global Climate Action Summit (The Standing March, 2018), Red Regatta is one of the largest public installations of climate art to date and an example of how more and more artists are using climate change as a muse.

“Obviously we’re in this moment with all the changes on the planet that I feel it’s very important to use my voice as an artist to talk about some of these things,” says McGill, who says that in the 30 years she has been coming to Venice as her second home, she has watched the waters rise and deteriorate in health, with pollution from litter and motorboats. “As a public artwork, the regatta is about raising awareness of a maritime culture that speaks of these issues just by its nature – a tradition that is already so connected to the lagoon and its history.”

Artist Melissa McGill rides in one a vela al terzo during a regatta. Courtesy of Melissa McGill
Artist Melissa McGill rides in one a vela al terzo during a regatta. Courtesy of Melissa McGill

A precursor to the city’s famous gondolas, the vela al terzo developed as a form of transportation uniquely designed for Venice’s waterways, with masts that can be quickly dismantled and laid down in their boats, so they can sail freely in the lagoon and deftly navigate under the canals’ bridges. With the advent of the motorboat, the sailboats slowly began to phase out, until in 1986, sailors organized into the Associazione Vela al Terzo Venizia (AVT) – which has partnered with McGill on the regattas – to keep the techniques of building and steering these boats alive.

“The mission of the AVT is to promote the tradition of our boats that we sail in the lagoon, and as a way to resist the overwhelming wakes and the impact of the motorboats,” says Giorgio Righetti, president of the AVT. “In the past 30 years of our activity, we have grown from a dozen boats to 350… I am convinced that the future of Venice cannot be broken from this tradition.”

To create the sails of the regatta, 25 art students from Università Iuav di Venezia and volunteer AVT sailors gathered in the city’s Arsenal, the site of the city’s ancient shipyards and armories, and spent eight days together painting 104 sails (two for each boat) and the vela al terzo’s place in Venetian culture. Boats are often passed down through families and used as a mode for sustainable travel beyond the city’s waters.

Painted sails hang in the Venetian Arsenal. Courtesy of Melissa McGill
Painted sails hang in the Venetian Arsenal. Courtesy of Melissa McGill

“I first went with my father in his boat when I was 5 years old in a beautiful, traditional Venetian boat called a topo veneziano with a vela al terzo sail in which, like pioneers, we would take small trips along the Adriatic coast,” recalls Giorgio. “To me, my boat represents total freedom with respect to the environment.”

In collaboration with Ocean Space, Red Regatta is organizing workshops to raise awareness about the city’s blue spaces, and its registration as a Clean Regatta with Sailors for the Sea requires its sailors adhere to best practices such as collecting trash and steering clear of any single-use materials.

“There is always an aspect in my work about connecting to elements of nature, and I am so drawn to and inspired by waterways – it’s an intuitive connection,” says McGill. “Red Regatta is not a thing. It’s moving, breathing. It’s alive.”

To inspire people to take action, could climate art be any other way?



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