Just talking about the weather

Lionheart Magazine, February 2017.

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Just talking about the weather

“It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.” (Samuel Johnson)

White sunshine is pouring down from a cold blue sky today, creating a rare moment of picture perfect autumn, the kind you see in postcards. The light hits the trees, covered in yellow and orange leaves – it’s so bright they’re glowing. I’m a summer child and the prospect of winter scares me, but right now the autumn is putting on a show, and it’s spectacular.

I feel bright today too, because the weather affects me far more than is reasonable. In the summer I’m happy, basking in the heat and the sun, grateful every day for the sweetness of it. In the winter it’s the opposite, although it’s not the cold that bothers me – it’s the absence of light. The grey January sun becomes a metaphor for my mood: not quite enough, stretched too thin. It’s always been like that for me, but in 2003 it was the worst: I’d just moved to London after finishing university and the city was too big, the rent was too high, the world was coming in too fast, and it was too damn dark outside. In winter, hibernation instinct takes over, and all you can do is wait.

eliasson2I don’t remember much from that winter, but there’s one thing that stands out. At the Tate Modern, in the central cavern that is the Turbine Hall, was an installation by the artist Olafur Eliasson. It was very simple: a sun-shape mounted on the wall, filling the gigantic space with yellow light and a fine mist. The mono-frequency lights, similar to those used in old-fashioned streetlights, meant you could see only three colours: yellow, black and white. The ceiling was covered in mirrors, which meant that when people walked into the space and looked around, very often they would lie down.

All through that winter I would go down to the Tate several times a week on my lunchbreak, just to sit in the sun. It might be gloomy as hell outside, but for half an hour it felt like the world was a place with light in it, and that I would find a way to make London agree with me. Now it’s 13 years later and my life is no longer something I feel the need to get away from, but I still think about that magical sunscape every single winter.

Apparently I’m not the only one. Olafur Eliasson’s Tate installation has been hailed as one of the most successful uses of the Turbine Hall to date. Eliasson called it ‘The Weather Project’, in recognition of how weather becomes our most immediate experience of nature in an urban landscape. “The weather has been so fundamental to shaping our society that one can argue that every aspect of life – economical, political, technical, cultural, emotional – is linked to or derived from it,” Eliasson wrote in the project catalogue. “Over the centuries, defending ourselves from the weather has proved even more important than protecting ourselves from each other in the form of war and violence. If you cannot withstand the weather, you cannot survive.”

Ahead of the exhibition, Eliasson asked people questions about the weather, including whether they thought the idea of the weather in society is based on nature or culture? 53% said nature – 47% said culture. As they teach you in meditation: there may be clouds in the sky, but the trick is to remember that above them is always a blue sky.

The light always comes back after the dead of winter and we survive it, every time. It can be difficult to remember in the depths of it, but in 2003 it was easy because there was summer on tap at the Tate. How amazing was that sun! How warm and reassuring. How it felt like a promise that things would change.

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