“Sun & Sea” makes opera audiences feel the contradictions of climate change – ARTnews.com

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The thing most reviews and features haven’t conveyed Sun & Sea (Marina), the acclaimed opera on climate change that won Lithuania the Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, is the strange pleasure of experiencing it live. The work recently made its US debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where, as in other venues, the audience stood on a platform, surrounded by a medium-sized room, which made it look like the human performers below to animals on display in a zoo pit. . The artists bask on an artificial beach and chat and frolic as if they were actually at the seaside; from these tilted body positions, one by one or occasionally in chorus, they sang songs that recorded poetic hunches about humans’ irresponsibility towards their environment (“the holidays are what killed the mammoth”). The accompanying music, melodious and repetitive, permeated the space with languid sound washes.

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What is difficult to convey, but essential to the experience, is how this incredibly enjoyable spectacle has been in turn detached and immersive. The set contains neither sun nor sea, only sand and plastic and artificial light; the opera is foreign to the elements of its title. The elevated vantage point – with spectators crowding around the platform’s railing, observing both performers and each other – makes the audience feel literally and figuratively above the dramatic action , almost divine. Yet the music, soothing like a hot tub, is holistic – physically absorbing – and the booklet emphasizes the importance of the sensory experience for both climate awareness and climate forgetfulness. The character of Wealthy Mommy (one of the many “types” in the cast), for example, gushes jarringly about how a sick section of the Great Barrier Reef is “an amazing sight”: must see, words cannot describe it. Sun & Sea encourages the public to feel, bodily, how out of touch they are with the abstract knowledge of climate change they already have.

From above, a photograph shows artists lying on an artificial beach;  at the edges of the image, the audience is visible crowded around a raised platform, looking down on the sand.

Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, Sun & Sea (Marina), 2019.
Photo Andrej Vasilenko / Courtesy of the artists

Perhaps the strangest part of this feeling is its familiarity, the way in which long before acquiring knowledge of anthropogenic climate change, humans did their best not to overthink the extent to which pleasures seemingly harmless (like tobacco or clothing) can be consistently linked to the pain of others (as in the case of slavery or sweatshop work). “The banana is born, ripens somewhere in South America / And then it ends up on the other side of the planet”, sings the character of Philosopher sunbathing. “It only existed to satisfy our hunger in a bite / To make us feel happy.” Sun & Sea is a bit like this banana, mysteriously coming from elsewhere to provide temporary hedonic pleasure, while also wondering, unlike bananas, about the hidden or repressed costs of this pleasure.

The astute use of the opera form by director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, librettist Vaiva Grainytė and composer Lina Lapelytė highlights these ethical and experiential links. For artistic audiences, Sun & SeaThe animator’s paradox – that our species remains complacent and egocentric in the face of climatic catastrophes – will be a familiar message. Neither this premise nor the avoidance of the didactic content and the apocalyptic dramaturgy of the work account for the ecstasy Sun & Sea inspired. More than anything, the audience reacts to the way the opera delivers such messages with a self-reflective blend of artifice and authenticity: unconventional staging, casting and truth play, vibrational music.

Performance can be understood as artistic awareness, which has been one of the two main historical justifications for eco-oriented art (the other being more direct environmental remediation). Yet it is a rather particular kind of awareness, which offers sensory immersion rather than abstract information. This approach fits the trend of immersive art installations, transparent cash grabbers such as the Museum of Ice Cream and Van Gogh’s digitized experiences in Instagram traps with a veneer of activism or art, like the recent climate installation. Bushwick pop-up – cum -lounge, “Undercurrent”, or the haunted house of great art from artist collective DRIFT at The Shed, “Fragile Future”. Whatever its effectiveness in raising awareness of the climate, Sun & Sea is distinguished by its self-outreach, for its recognition that art can bring audiences into contact with the conflicting realities of their own behaviors in the gallery and beyond.


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