Remnant Ecologies: marrying climate crisis alarm with a love of living things

In an art installation at the Botanic Gardens, a magical world comes under threat

Deep in the grounds of the National Botanic Gardens, past the grandeur of the Victorian glasshouses, and somewhere along the winding footpaths, stands a group of trees that are more than 200 years old. One of these sequoias extends high towards the sky, in columns of rust-red bark.

“The sequoia in Dublin is one of my favourite trees in the world,” says Jony Easterby, from his home in the Welsh town Machynlleth. If you know his work, as an artist bringing large-scale installations to botanical gardens in Sydney, Hong Kong and other cities, this is no small consideration.

It has long been observed – whether by the Romantic poets, or by environmental psychologists – that nature does something to people’s brains. Much of Easterby’s career, spanning nearly 40 years, has been drawn to outdoor settings. “I grew up in deep, industrialised Birmingham in the 1970s, the centre of the British car industry. What I used to do was gravitate to wasteland spaces, and I’d find craters with newts and wild plants. It was places where you could feel really free,” he says.

After discovering the wonderlands of British land art in the 1980s, Easterby honed an approach that combined materials of the natural world with technology. He burrowed loudspeakers into boulders, and programmed audio recordings of streams to be triggered by sunlight. Recently, his artistry has been trying to reconcile that awe of the natural world with the anxieties of the age. His installation Remnant Ecologies, lighting up the Botanic Gardens at night as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival, is elegantly wary of the catastrophes of climate change.


“It seemed for a while that what I was doing with these whimsical sculptures was part of the problem. I was becoming part of a consumer, capitalist culture without addressing the things that were keeping me awake at night. I knew I had to start doing the things that keep me up at night,” he says.

Some people suspect that the climate era has given us complex new emotions. Easterby uses the word “solastalgia,” a term coined by Australia-based philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003 to describe emotional distress caused by climate change. The word has had a resurgence in recent years, as a popular subject in newspaper and magazine articles.

The climate concerns appearing in his installations could be seen as a response to his own feelings of solastalgia. He remarks on a story from years ago, a disaster that had been inhabiting his mind since the beginning of his career. After spending time travelling abroad, he returned home in the wake of the great storm of 1987, which caused substantial damage over much of England, felling 15 million trees. He remembers feeling a sense of loss, but that didn’t shape his vision back then.

“At that point in time, I wasn’t addressing the concern with ecology and climate change. These were just beautiful places to work – doing shows in parks and botanic gardens, while simultaneously doing installations under cliffs and in forests. This was just a way to marry these two loves of working in the outdoors and working with technology and the arts,” he says.

An urgent warning sign appeared to him in the more recent past. There was a period when he was experimenting with cuckoo clocks – an object he enjoys dismantling. It suddenly dawned on him, while examining the clock mechanisms, that the sounds of real cuckoos that migrated close to his home every spring had stopped. “They were gone, and I was left with just these cuckoo clocks,” he says.

To fold that irony into his installations – the fast disappearance of a natural world into artefacts that take inspiration from it – seemed to require a shift: he needed to change how he works as an artist. Instead of responding to brief after brief, to invitations to create “spectacles,” he sought out creatives he wanted to work with, such as the environmental scientists at the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth.

Ideas such as the research lab he set up at the river Dyfi allowed him to use the tide as a metaphor for sea-level rise. (Easterby even repurposed a piece of the production’s set as insulation for his ecohouse).

The turning point, he feels, was his installation For the Birds, a work of meticulous detail that explores species endangerment through the symbology of birds as sign-bearers: the hopefulness of a phoenix rising from the ashes, or the warning of a canary dying in a coal mine. “You turn people off with doom and gloom, so I had to be stealthy. I tried to create these very beautiful things with saturated colours and beautiful shadows, and hidden behind the veil of beauty is a subtext of sorrow,” he says.

That mix of admiration and unease extends to Remnant Ecologies, a night-time installation similarly preoccupied with traces of wildlife nearly vanished or gone completely. Key to the production was Easterby’s chance encounter with Fernand Deroussen, an acoustic ecologist from France who has been recording nature sounds for nearly 40 years, and who gave the artist access to his extensive sound library. The installation will occupy one kilometre of the National Botanic Gardens, and reimagine its surroundings.

It arrives in Dublin as a multiheaded partnership between Dublin Fringe, the Office of Public Works, and Axis: Ballymun. “How Jony manages to marry this state of alarm we’re in with a love of living things really spoke to me,” says Niamh Ní Chonchubhair, interim director of Axis.

That arts centre stands out in its commitment to adapting to climate change, having participated in a number of initiatives. For instance, its engagement in a European Union-funded project, that paired the venue with an energy agency, led to the development of a new green arts department to explore ways to engage the crisis.

“Everyone has their own version of a starting line,” says Ní Chonchubhair, thinking about how venues can become more environmentally friendly. She imagines how Axis’s building could be retrofitted: “Can we plant a living wall where there is an air filtration pathway? Can we harvest rainwater on our roof? Can we install levers that open and close more windows, rather than invest in air conditioning?”

The arts centre is currently in a transitional stage. One month before the Covid-19 pandemic there was an announcement that the venue’s cafe would be phasing out plastic bottles, polystyrene packaging and single-use cups. Since lockdown ended, Ní Chonchubhair has been working to get the public on board. “We did research into places that eliminated single-use cups altogether. There was pushback at first, but ultimately, when people weighed up the benefits, it was embraced,” she says.

That announcement also included plans to make a significant reduction to the number of printed brochures – something that could risk lowering the arts centre’s profile. Ní Chonchubhair is currently researching printing companies that use plant-based ink and recycled paper.

Those are all infrastructural changes, but the ambition is to also make Axis a catalyst for creative, artistic responses to the climate crisis. A recent commission, to create an art installation made of rainwater, was made available to designers and architects. In addition to Remnant Ecologies, the arts centre also helped present another event at the Dublin Fringe Festival: an exhibition called Rising Tide, by young artists from high flood-risk counties. “We wanted to recognise that a younger generation is left to carry a huge burden,” says Ní Chonchubhair.

How does art make a difference in the climate era? Easterby has attended countless seminars on the topic, and they easily leave artists bewildered. “It’s so massive. What are you going to do? Build a f***ing glacier or something”?

He is still searching. If the poetic, cowing details of Remnant Ecologies are designed to delight and ache in equal measure, a more recent production, a folk opera about trees, left audiences uplifted with its paean to nature’s resilience.

Part of the inspiration seems to come from the landscape design work he does with the Centre for Alternative Technology. There is a two-hectare site that had previously been an industrially poisoned coalfield, but Easterby used land restoration to reclaim it as a place for wildlife. “To go back to that place and count half a dozen species of dragonfly hawking over the top of water – that’s a real eye-opener about how to make a difference. We have a capacity to destroy so much, but we have a capacity to heal as well”.

Remnant Ecologies runs at the National Botanic Gardens as part of Dublin Fringe Festival from September 21st-25th.

Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture