Unravelled – the story of birds, buildings and climate change told through art

Despite having around 200,000 visitors in a normal year, the London Wetlands is one of the capital’s tourism secrets.

“It’s just celebrated 20 years so it’s not a massively old conservation site, but it’s one of the lungs of London, a glorious natural place” says Polly Harknett. It used to be a Thames water reservoir, she explains, but when Thames Water sold their sites to Berkeley Homes the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) negotiated some of the land to become a nature reserve site.

The London Wetland Centre is 100 acres of waterfields at Barnes in south-west London, run by the WWT, a charity, and home to many wild birds that can’t be seen anywhere else in the region. In 2012 BBC TV’s Countryfile declared it Britain’s Favourite Nature Reserve.

“It’s a ten-minute walk from one side to the other, a piece of managed landscape where bird life has been encouraged to thrive, surrounded by the urban landscape of London’s high-rise blocks.”

Harknett (above)  is not a wildlife conservationist; she’s an art curator, co-curator with the artist Caitlin Heffernan of Wetlands Unravelled for which ten artists, including Heffernan, have been commissioned to create site specific works of art devised to draw attention to the climate crisis.

Together the two run Unravelled, an artistic consultancy that works on historic sites using art to bring their remoter stories to the fore. One of their most successful projects has been at Uppark, the National Trust house on the South Downs where Emma Hamilton was first launched into society, aged 15, who later became Lord Nelson’s mistress and died destitute, discarded by the society that had once adored her. It’s the story Unravelled told through art installations.

For Wetland Unravelled they have brought together ten artists to work on the site, having consulted with naturalists and scientists there, with five unveiled in October and then next five being added on May 22. They will all stay on view until November.

Already in place are Anne Deeming’s  sculptural clusters, floating on ponds which change colours and patina with the weather and seasons; Tania Kovats’s Wetlands, a newspaper with trickling streams of images and text; field recordings and interviews interwoven with  texts and sounds by Gavin Osborn; a gold-leafed floating sculpture by Jonathan Wright echoing Barns Elms House which once stood on the site; and Alec Stevens’s installations emerging for the water at varying heights alluding to the water level rises threatening to engulf the UK (pictured).

The five new works are A Very Sound Stitch by Claire Barber in which random  noises are recorded items of cloth and thread; silk embroidery by Lizzie Cannon shows the tensions between managing a landscape and the nature within; using waterproof fabric thread, polyfibre filling and child mannequins Caitlin Heffernan’s hybrid bird-human forms referring to how animals borrow from humans; indoors in the Trappers Lodge Sharon McElroy’s video installation features fictional bird characters; Eloise Moody’s installation of shirts and wooden poles traces the parallels between human and bird migrations.

“The WWT (who commissioned and funded the project) wanted to show the Wetlands in a different light. We wanted to show how the ten different artists work developed through the seasons, but everything got messed around by Covid, so in October we launched with just five artists with second season coming now” Harknett says. “It’s a desire to create the positive change about the climate crisis among visitors, another way of thinking about it from their perspective, and from ours it's a way to provide opportunities for artists to explore the subject in a site specific way.”


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