DULUTH, Minn. — It was a magnificent sight when it first launched. Floating 20 feet from shore, Sean Connaughty’s “Ark of the Anthropocene” seemed to glow on the dark waves of Lake Superior, drawing on real science, Biblical narrative, and science fiction all at once. Bobbing up and down, the concrete biosphere was painted white with three solar panels reaching into the air, an object that looked like a spacecraft set to sea. Dropped from a crane onto Lake Superior on September 2 in advance of the Ark of the Anthropocene exhibition at the Duluth Art Institute (DAI), the sculpture was supposed to float throughout the run of the show, which ends November 2. Unfortunately that won’t happen, because a tiny hole made it sink a day after it was released. The Earth’s life-saving ark, it turns out, has a kink to be fixed.
Inside the ark was an assortment of growing plants. They would get sunlight through a piece of glass at the top of the structure as well as LED lights powered by the solar panels. There were also plans for a live video feed, to be streamed at the institute, that would show the ark’s interior, which included the plants, soil, organic matter, and a time capsule filled with seeds and other artifacts of life on Earth.
Weighing nearly two tons and measuring about 7 feet in diameter, the concrete orb garnered quite a reaction from passersby. One man seemed baffled by the spectacle. “What is it?” he asked, adding, “It looks like a big golf ball. Couldn’t he have painted it or something?” Another woman, who’d read a newspaper article about the project, took a day off from work to see it. She brought two cameras with her to document the happening.
Connaughty sees his project both as a metaphorical and a real answer to our climate catastrophe. “I’ve always been immersed in science fiction,” he says. “I’m very keen on thinking about the future.” Eventually, he’d like to see a version of the ark go out into space, speaking to the preservation or expansion of our planet. “I’m trying to say that the Earth is not safe,” he adds.
“Anthropocene” is a disputed geological term referring to the epoch of the Earth since humans arrived and began significantly altering its ecosystem. Popularized by Nobel Prize–winning chemist Paul Crutzen, the word isn’t accepted by all scientists, some of whom contend that we are still in the Holocene, which started after the last major ice age.
A report released this year by the United Nations seems to support the Anthropocene camp, stating unequivocally, “Human interference with the climate system is occurring.” Sea levels have risen eight inches since 1880 and are projected to rise up to four feet in the next 100 years, according to the US National Climate Assessment. Given these circumstances, an ark could provide safe harbor as rising sea levels threaten human habitats. “It’s a real thing that’s happening,” Connaughty says. “We’re losing land mass.” Eventually, he’d like to see humans inhabiting the ark, but it’s not at that stage yet.
In his previous work Connaughty has explored similar themes of preserving elements of our world. His 2006 piece “A History of the Earth” consists of 13 handmade boxes brimming with original photographs, prints, audio, and video that document the world’s geological makeup as well as political, cultural, and personal experiences . More recently, Connaughty began making sculptural objects out of branches. That led him to make living pods out of growing plants, which got him thinking about making an autonomous isolated ecosystem.
Earlier prototypes of these biosphere experiments were shown at places such as Soo Visual Art Center in Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, and Silverwood Park in St. Anthony, Minnesota. During the latter installation, Connaughty struggled with technical issues. Air escaped out of a hollow tube of electrical cabling in one model, interfering with the video display. “I call it the Silverwood effect,” he says. “There’s always a chance for failure. That’s the scary thing about it. I’ve thought of everything I could.”
All day leading up to the ark’s launch on September 2, Connaughty’s anxiety was palpable. He had spent years preparing for this day, and while he had imagined every possible scenario, this would be the first time the full-sized ark would be tested in the water.
There were a few last minute glitches, like figuring out the right-sized shackles to attach the orb to the crane and having to collect extra rocks to give weight to an intermediary anchor, but for the most part the launch went off without a hitch. George Brown, the uncle of one of Connaughty’s collaborators who came to help with his fishing boat, flawlessly navigated the choppy waters as the ark was lowered into the water. Connaughty released the shackles and then dove into the lake to retrieve the harness.
Afterwards, Connaughty, who had been wearing a diving suit, donned a T-shirt with the words, “An Art Emergency has been declared.” Lots of photos were taken, and the consensus was that the experiment was a grand success.
But something was wrong. Forty-five minutes after the ark had been launched, you could tell it was floating a little bit lower than it had been earlier. I watched a growing panic hover over the artist as friends and family looked nervously up at him, as if to say, “You’ve got a plan for this, right?”
He didn’t. The ark was losing air through a small threaded hole the size of a penny, where the ring for the crane had been attached to the orb. Connaughty went home to Minneapolis and got an air pump, which he brought back to Duluth, but too much air was escaping. In the choppy water, he tied a rope to the ark just in case it went down. After several trips to and from the shore, he walked once more towards his car. When he turned around, the ark was gone.
“I had plugged it the best I could,” he says of the hole, “but with the shackles attaching to that spot, the plug had gotten twisted and a hole broke through.”
Now the ark stands at the shore, renamed “The Wreck of the Ark of the Anthropocene.” It weighed 13,000 pounds when the crane lifted it out of the lake, much more weight than Connaughty thought the structure could support. Though one of the solar panels is busted, the piece remains largely intact. “I was deeply discouraged at first, especially when it was underwater,” he says. “But I’m still committed to it.”
I tell Connaughty over the phone that the ark sinking reminds me of Leonardo da Vinci’s plans for a flying machine: the designs are things of beauty, even if the physics don’t quite work out. But Connaughty takes issue with the analogy, saying the idea for the ark is sound. “It will float again,” he vows.
Illana Percher, a physicist Connaughty consulted with while developing the project, says his methods are similar to the way scientists actually work, where “you have a big idea and you usually fail a million times along the way.” Connaughty’s method of making prototypes, adjusting and perfecting the design with each new project, can be compared to how scientists use trial and error.
As for the DAI exhibit, it had always been planned to focus on Connaughty’s process, according to curator Anne Dugan, who was sold on the project because of how it shows the intersection of art and science. “The bases for both intertwine,” she says. “It’s all about curiosity. That’s how the world works.”
Besides showing prototypes and previous work that led up to the ark, the DAI will feature copies of some of the items that Connaughty had placed in the time capsule. Hanging over the plants growing inside the ark, the capsule contained what Connaughty calls “data” documenting life on Earth, among them audio files and physical elements. Ryan Seibold, who did his master’s thesis on seed preservation, collaborated with Connaughty on just what seeds and objects would be preserved. There final selections included bison hair, a meteorite, heirloom seeds, and other items collected through an intuitive, somewhat random process.
Sure, it ventures away from the order of science. But there’s also a truth to the work’s embrace of poetry. In a talk given at a May 8 conference called “Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet,” the novelist and poet Ursula Le Guin spoke about the power of poets and artists to solve the problems of our planet. “Science explicates, poetry implicates,” she said. “Both celebrate what they describe. We need the language of both science and poetry to save us from ignorant irresponsibility.”
In its grand failure, the “Ark of the Anthropocene” succeeds as a metaphor beyond its intentions. As a microcosm for our species’ hopes for survival on Earth, it bears a message of warning: unless we drastically alter how we interact with the planet, there will be no ark that allows us to survive.
Sean Connaughty: Ark of the Anthropocene opens today at the Duluth Art Institute (506 West Michigan Street, Duluth, Minnesota), with a reception from 5 to 7pm, and continues through November 2.