Michel Comte and Wavelength Foundation set sail to Spitsbergen to focus in on climate change

“IF you ask my advice, let’s take them to hell and back. Only then they’ll see.” The energy, the anger but above all the good humoured hands-on attitude and experience shaped by half a life of activism underly Michel Comte’s opening statement as he settles on the bench of one of his favourite hometown haunts. The artist has just returned to Zürich from a long L.A. residency. “I never thought I’d like it here”, he beams brightly, “but now I actually do”. It’s a sure sign of the shifting geopolitical attitudes and preferences that shape our times and not much of an explanation is needed as of who or what made a restlessly forward thinking liberal artist leave the United States.

Michel Comte Glacier Lake 2017. Basin filled with water and spotlight, space blankets. 7 x 32m

Then again it doesn’t take much either to figure that the man’s never long in one place anyway. “You are lucky I had to go to hospital, so I had to stay on the ground and we’ve got time to sit down”. He’ll be off climbing in the Engadin shortly though. But today I am here together with the other founding members of Wavelength Foundation, an elusive organisation that quite possibly spends more time at sea than at land and even then rarely appears on the public perception’s radar screen. Which is about to change with the Zürich summit, as well shall call it.

An intimate experience with nature and an opportunity to reconnect are important ingredients of each Wavelength summit

Kronenhalle with it meticulously preserved turn of the century features is an excellent choice for a conspiring getting together. Michel Comte doesn’t need much of an introduction. He is one those very few none extinct dinosaurs. Very much alive and driven by a youthful spirit of urgency and mischief, yet one can’t help but letting nostalgia creep in that there are just not many left of those. He energetically leans over the table hovering on the same bench where Andy Warhol, who he worked with, used to sit, far down the wood panelled room and looking on to the window where Albert Einstein liked to follow the world coming in and out of this most cosmopolitan small town, next to the Chagall which the painter left on his way through, and adjacent the table where Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Max Frisch went through manuscripts. A place that has attracted thinkers and adventurers in equal measure. 

On an expedition to Greenland through floating ice

As the preeminent fashion photographer of his generation Comte has launched the world of beauty and finesse onto countless front pages throughout the past decades. Yet as if the constant presence of wildlife, nature and the vastness of planet Earth’s open spaces in the photographer’s most famous fashion shots had been an unconscious, or even purposeful foreshadowing of the other life of Michel Comte to come, it is the following decades of high octane art production paired with environmental activism that has the art world brought to admire his work.

Floating icebergs off Greenland

In his introduction to his latest publication Light I, II, III by steidl he notes that it “illustrates the global decline of our massive glaciers and icecaps. It is my personal journey and interpretation using elements collected while visiting these vanishing giants. Global warming is a fact and we still have the possibility to make change.” His large scale works, exhibited first at MAXXI in Rome and Triennale museum in Milan consist of stones, glass, carbon, coal, salt, natural pigment and resin.

There is no mountain top in the upper thousands the avid climber has not been to, destinations that join the group of remote glaciers whose falling apart have been captured and witness through his lens. Intimate portraits of a nature under attack and his large scale works alike have headlined the global art biennales of the recent past. And Comte is right there, as a walking conscience reminding the self indulgent art world that the greatest achievements of human culture are but a grain of sand in the desert of nature’s creative richness. A richness in peril. As we speak a new study is breaking the news, estimating that barely 13% of the world’s oceans remain unaffected from human pollution. 13% and counting down to nothing. Comte knows that better than most. For he has been one of the first to appear before the Club of Rome in 1975, made his way to Davos for a warning shout to the powerful and mainly unconcerned, he’s been on to governments and companies, to the influential, the good, the bad and the ones who just don’t care. “Nobody wanted to listen”, he recalls “and now it’s just very late.” An analysis that Wavelength can subscribe to, observing that “everybody is talking about plastic waste in the oceans, but only now that they are drowning in it, and just when the last hiding places for the world wide recycling shambles have been filled to the brim and countries start to refuse to sell off their landscapes to Western garbage any longer.” 

Michel Comte Glacier Revenant 2017. Onyx stone sculpture. 145 x 110 cm

Comte tells the bitter sweet anecdote of a Chinese leader climbing down into a polluted industrial red river, followed by his presumably horrified gang of apparatchiks, who he shouted out to from the murky waters “See, nobody’s dead yet.” At least the stunt allegedly led to a tentative clean up of an industrial wastewater emergency. Yet it goes to show a profound disconnection and dangerous procrastination in decision makers’s habits where environmentalism is concerned. “People have lost touch with nature to a point where they don’t even consider themselves a part of it anymore”, observes Wavelength co-founder Elsa Rodríguez. It’s a concern that the foundation has on its collective mind in each of its actions and decisions. To advance environmental thinking and climate change awareness in contemporary culture, reads the group’s mission statement. It’s a compelling line of thought that shapes the organisation’s modus operandi. The group identifies contemporary culture as one of the foremost drivers in people’s ability to change habits and attitudes, and at the same time observes a dangerously low representation of environmental concerns amongst today’s cultural output. Wavelength’s purpose in the end is to reshape the cultural sector’s perception of importance and urgency alike with regards to environmental engagement. Agenda toppers such as human rights, racism, capitalism, wars and violence are all well reflected and engrained in the cultural production around the globe and find resonance from hip hop to opera, the visual arts to poetry. In contrast, the state of the ailing planet is just not anymore at the forefront of the common conscience. There is a host of reasons for this shift of critical awareness, in constant decline since a peak of global alertness in the late 80s, when an angst-ridden post-Tchernobyl generation roamed the streets to request their government’s attention. Since then a steady penetration of political issues amidst a decaying old world order and power struggles amongst major players on the world stage are certain to have contributed to the negligence of individual focus and sense of priority. 

Michel Comte Aialik Glacier 2017

“How can you hope that somebody aims to protect something that they don’t even feel part of anymore?”, is a question that resonates with the group and that ultimately created the organisation’s two tier structure. At the beginning of each engagement process the foundation initiates a summit, bringing together an inspirational group of cultural leaders for an out of the ordinary journey and encounter with nature’s raw and overpowering beauty. Past summits have taken place from the Amazon to the Mediterranean, focussing in on topics that range from indigenous land rights and deforestation to ocean pollution through plastic waste. As a founding member I can attest that Wavelength’s approach is quite radical and of immersive nature. You don’t go on a summit journey and come back unchanged. “You’ve got to be a bit hardcore in this day and age, to cut through the noise”, a colleague says to sum up our collective attitude. After all we are dealing with generations that have been under attack by a media sphere that delivers and suggest an utterly perverted relationship with natural life. You can’t shake that up with a bit of social media campaigning. In the end, only the real thing will do and if that means a demanding journey to the edge of this world under sails and stars and in short supply of modern commodity, so be it. 

On an expedition to Greenland through floating ice

Tellingly Wavelength Foundation was born on a sailing boat far off-shore and is the brain child of a group of like-minded journalists, scientists, artists and cultural thinkers. Sailing has stayed the vehicle of choice and has created an experimental yet pragmatically focussed organisation.

What follows onto the summits is the project cycle, which conceives, initiates, nurtures and steers projects that may range from exhibitions to recordings, from articles to documentaries, from artworks to photographs. Eligible projects that enter into the foundation’s remit can be as far apart as a theatre production from the coding of an app. “We need to read culture with a very wide scope here, to include the arts as well as business, sports, literature and music, really all activities that define and shape the values of our societies.” 

It is an approach to Michel Comte’s taste and the artist is quick to sign himself up as the principal passenger to Wavelength’s sailing trip to climate hell in the far north. The resulting multimedia art installation Black Light will be a powerful witness statement by Comte to the aggressive self-mutilation humans have inflicted over the past century onto our most precious possession, an endlessly fascinating planet and a deeply inspirational nature. 

by Oliver Krug

From Glass Issue 35

Pledge your support to Black Light, Wavelength Foundation’s arctic summit, here: www.wavelength.foundation/donate

About The Author

Oliver Krug is environmental editor at The Glass Magazine. His other topics include contemporary art, literature and photography, music, film and politics. As a travel writer he is interested in sustainability and ecology, and as a keen sailor aims to spend as much time on the water as on land. He is co-founder of Wavelength Foundation, an international circle of journalists, scientists, academics and cultural leaders who aim to advance the environmentalist agenda through the channels of arts and culture.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply