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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Artist Bill Fontana's installation in Abu Dhabi explores the power of the earth to create its own energy

Acoustic Visions of Renewable Energy is Fontana's installation that consists of a four-channel video showing the sounds and images of four types of renewable energy production: solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower

Bill Fontana. Courtesy Stuart Davidson
Bill Fontana. Courtesy Stuart Davidson

“There’s lots of scientific data, and lots of discussion, by lots of serious people,” says the artist Bill Fontana about climate change. “But how do you really reach people and make them realise its importance?”

Fontana has produced a major installation for Visions of Sustainability, a week-long exhibition hosted at Manarat al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi by the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena). “The general public doesn’t think about it so much,” says Fontana. “You have to affect them emotionally – hit their heart – and art has the power to do that.”

The intergovernmental organisation that promotes the adoption of clean energy commissioned Fontana to respond to the idea and methods of renewable energy for its exhibition, which coincides with Sustainability Week in Abu Dhabi. The resulting work, Acoustic Visions of Renewable Energy (2018), is a four-channel video installation showing the sounds and images of four types of renewable energy production: solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower.

The US-based artist travelled to Austria, Iceland, Italy, Portugal, the UAE, UK and US to record how these varied sources are harnessed.

Rather than treating renewable energy as an environmental or even political matter, Acoustic Visions of Renewable Energy mines it as a metaphor: the sheer splendour of a planet that has systems to create its own energy.

To capture the feeling of these sites, Fontana says he had to turn to almost psychedelic visuals.

“I didn’t want to do another National Geographic documentary. I was trying to convey my experience of the sites once I understood what they were doing. There had to be something of the fantasy about it.”

A wind turbine in Portugal. Courtesy Bill Fontana
A wind turbine in Portugal. Courtesy Bill Fontana

Throughout the making of the work, 70 year-old artist emerges as part-impassioned artist, stirred by the beauty of nature, and part-intrepid explorer.

To explore wind power, he climbed an enormous wind turbine near Newcastle, in northern England. “I stood on a tiny observation deck, with massive glades whirring over my head ­– and looked down at the massive windswept landscape of northern England. It was majestic.”

In Tuscany, where he visited a geothermal energy plant: “The landscape was magical. You see the steam coming as if from the core of the earth – ancient energy as old as the earth.” He notes also that Tuscany was home to the world’s first geothermal energy plant, 160 kilometres west of Florence.

His recordings of solar energy production were taken at the Shams Solar Power Station, near Madinat Zayed in Abu Dhabi. The plant extends across 600,000 square metres, with rows of enormous mirrored solar panels that move to stay aligned with the sun, capturing sunlight in their parabolic troughs. The site, says Fontana, is “visually spectacular” and Acoustic Visions of Renewable Energy concentrates on the striking image of this vast, human-made apparatus in the midst of the desert, as well as on its sound. Attaching vibration sensors to the supports of the panels, Fontana records what he calls the plant’s “inner voice”. Fontana recorded sound from all the sites. They accompany the video’s abstract and colourful images of the energy sources.

This is what he is best known for. Since 1976, the US artist has created “sound sculptures” – recording and ­amplifying the internal vibrations and associated sounds of sites and rendering them, as his titles often imply, in visual and aural dimensions.

In 2006, for example, he was commissioned by Tate Modern to map the sounds of Millennium Bridge, the Norman Foster-designed bridge that connects the museum in London to the surrounds of St Paul’s Cathedral. He installed receptors on the underside of the bridge and broadcast the noises – pedestrians walking overhead, the water below, the wind cutting through – for an installation in nearby Southwark Tube station.

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In another project, in 2014, he turned to a starkly different landscape: the desert. Commissioned by Abu Dhabi Festival, the installation Acoustical Visions and Desert Recordings explores, Fontana says, “the energy of the sand”. He burrowed sensors into the sand of the Abu Dhabi desert to discover its sounds. He found it to be similar to the ocean.

Which is fitting, he says. “You think about the history of the place and the fact that millions of years ago it was buried under water. It seemed to me that the ghost of that ancient sea is still there.”

And, a few years later he returned to capture the energy of this site – both for his work and for consumption.

Visions of Sustainability is being shown at Manarat Al Saadiyat until January 20. The show includes work by local artists and art students about sustainability and the UAE