his latest project from the visionary art commissioners Artangel is in a characteristically atmospheric place: Senate House Library, near the British Museum. It’s less of a hidden gem than some Artangel locations, because it’s part of the University of London — indeed, anyone can access the library collections.
Still, Senate House is one of those imposing London buildings that many of us regularly pass but never go inside. And the interiors of this 1930s Art Deco masterpiece — built by the genius tube-station architect Charles Holden — are alone worth the trip. A Thousand Words for Weather — part of the World Weather Network, a response by artists in 28 countries to the climate emergency — is a collaboration between the writer Jessica J Lee and the sound artist Claudia Molitor.
Lee has worked with seven London poets with different mother-tongues, who have each defined 10 words for the weather in languages including Arabic, Bengali, Mandarin and Urdu. They then translated one another’s chosen words or phrases, adding up to a bespoke dictionary of meteorological terms. For context, there’s a display of weather-related books from the library, everything from an 18th-century book of knowledge to a sketchbook with a watercolour by the writer Harriet Grote.
We experience Lee and the poets’ dictionary through a sound piece in the Senate House stairwell and hosted on headphones or directional speakers on three floors of the library — at listening posts in the periodicals room, for instance, or at a carrel desk tucked away in a reading room, with a selection of weather-themed books to browse. They’re accompanied by Molitor’s elemental sound piece — compositions allied to a playback system informed by data from the Met Office. Effectively, the weather outside dictates what you hear.
In about an hour of listening, I caught much more of Molitor’s piece than the weather words. Indeed, only a couple of meteorological terms, one clearly in German, punctuated a largely ambient soundscape, all ominous thundery piano notes and percussive drips. The sound helps concentrate your attention on environmental conditions, creating connections and slippages between sound and vision.
On a mezzanine in the periodicals room, you look out across the city; the Shard was silhouetted in the haze of a hot London day, as sporadic, breathy accordion pulses filled my ears, which I couldn’t help but link to passing clouds. In a nook on the fifth floor of the library, I sat at the height of the tree canopy, hearing a woman humming amid falling rain, while outside the window, the sun reflected off the plane tree leaves. In the marvellous Art Deco stairwell, meanwhile, I spent a blissful few minutes listening to a recording of a blackbird’s joyous song.
Despite its pleasures, though, I’m not sure Lee and Molitor’s project hits home. Perhaps the generative nature of the work means another visit would be full of the language at the heart of the concept, which was strangely absent on this evidence. I can imagine seeing it in autumn or winter would be an entirely different experience. There’s so much to like about the idea, but as a singular encounter, it was underwhelming.
Senate House Library, to March 25, 2023; artangel.org.uk