Image of Waterlicht by Daan Roosegaarde

The sublime in rising sea levels and related art

12 minutes to read
Marel van Andel

The Dutch are the champions of water. We live under sea level but to survive we build dikes, we make Delta works, and we make land where water was. But with the melting ice and snow because of global warming, the sea levels are rising and if nothing is done sooner or later, The Netherlands will be part of the seabed. And this is not just the case for The Netherlands, many other countries will have the same problem (“What the World Would Look Like if All the Ice Melted,” 2021). This threat of rising sea levels is a source of inspiration for artists. They use the beauty and dangers of the sea in their work, to make people think about how we treat the earth.

In this paper, I will dive into the question of whether the topic of rising sea levels in art can be seen as sublime. First I will look into the theory behind the sublime and what is sublime. I then will relate this to the topic of rising sea levels. Lastly, I will conduct a case study on an artwork inspired by rising levels: Daan Roosegaarde’s Waterlicht (Waterlight). This research is relevant because it will show how sublime art can be used to make people reflect on themselves, how contemporary problems can be a topic in art, and how the sublime relates to modern problems and topics.

What is the sublime?

There is not just one clear definition of the sublime. Multiple philosophers, aesthetic theorists, and artists have written down their thoughts about what the sublime means and how it can be experienced. Philip Shaw describes the sublime in his book The Sublime (2006/2017) as “whenever experiences slip out of conventional understanding, whenever the power of an object or event is such that words fail and points of comparison disappear” (p. 2).

The feeling of the sublime is often connected to romanticism. In Romanticism, the power of nature is an often used topic, like in the work of Caspar David Friedrich and William Turner. These works show how small people are, in contrast to how big and powerful nature is. This is where the paradoxical nature of the sublime comes in. As Shaw (2006/2017) describes, when you are overwhelmed by the power of nature, you feel small and inferior. But at the same time, you feel superior, because you as a human are overpowered since you are so small. By that, “you feel so little but also so big”, as Shaw (2006/2017, p.257) quotes Gabrielsson (2011).

In his A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) Edmund Burke relates the sublime to terror, pain, and fear. He states that experiences out of conventional understandings, like in the sublime, happen when you feel terror or pain. He explains that terror is the strongest emotion someone can feel. However, it can be delightful when you have enough distance, so you do not just feel terrible. Here comes the sublime back to a paradoxical feeling, of pain and delight. He puts this in contrast to beauty, which is about love and passion.

Sublime and climate change

When I take the sublime more toward climate change, it is interesting to look at Friedrich Schiller’s pathetic sublime. In his essay Of the Sublime (1793), Schiller describes the pathetic sublime as: “The conception of another’s suffering, combined with an emotional state and with consciousness of our inner moral freedom” (Schiller, 1793, p. 98-99). Professor of media ecology Birgit Schneider (2021) describes this type of sublime as “the human freedom with which one could overcome suffering by means of art” (Schneider, 2021). Schiller calls it “the embarrassing feeling of our limits” (Schiller, 1793, p. 269). Schneider relates this to how art about climate change also overcomes an experience of suffering. She hereby refers to the limits of our abilities to understand the possibility of death at any time. She also mentions how, from a Kantian and Burke perspective, there needs to be a distance to feel the sublime of horror and delight. This is not the case when talking about climate change, because it is about severe threats to the viewer to whom is no distance.

The same conclusion is made by Niklas Salmose (2018) in his theory of the apocalyptic sublime. In his research, Salmose analyses the movies The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 about the severe threats of climate change. In these movies, reality and fiction are combined, which causes the viewer to have an overall effect of fantasy. However, with the realness of the movies, Salmose concludes that the apocalyptic sublime in these movies goes behind the sublime of horror and delight because in climate change humans are not only viewers but actual victims of the situation. The distance to feel the delight is lost in this case. To involve this Anthropocene condition, where the human is part of the terror instead of distanced from it, in the sublime he uses the term apocalyptic sublime.

Salmose divides the apocalyptic sublime into two different forms: action apocalyptic sublime and poetic apocalyptic sublime. Action apocalyptic sublime is focused on the real part of the story, on picking the right camera angles, music, and special effect to “create the sensation of embodiment” (Salmose, 2018, p. 1421). In this, Salmose sees possibilities for makers to affect viewers to reflect. However, he mentions: “This potentially positive outcome is severely diminished by limitations of the narrative structure of the Hollywood mainstream adventure film” (Salmose, 2018, p. 1422).

The poetic apocalyptic sublime, on the other hand, is focused on images that relate to recognizable stories. As an example, he uses the image of rising water, which reminds people of floods in India after the earthquake in 2004, and many mythical and religious stories, like Plato’s story about Atlantis, the island that would have disappeared by tidal waves. When narratives like this are used in movies, according to Salmose, this leads to “more introspection and reflection than the action apocalyptic sublime” (Salmose, 2018, p. 1423).

Sublime and the rising ocean

Burke (1757) sees the ocean itself also as sublime. He describes it as an object of “no small terror” (Burke, 1757, p. 75), and this terror for him is the source of the sublime. Especially the power of the water and the risk of drowning by this is a source of this terror. Situations like this are also depicted by for example William Turner, who in his painting shows the power of the stormy sea, for example in his Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842). On the other hand, the ocean can also be peaceful and harmonious and by that, be seen more as beautiful than sublime. As is visible in Gustave Courbet’s painting The Calm Sea (1869).

Rising sea levels are a step further because the threat of terror and being overpowered by the sea is growing and coming closer. Every year, the sea rises by 0.32 mm (Nasa Global Climate, n.d.) and this rise is accelerating towards the year 2050 (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2022). This happens because, with increased greenhouse gas emissions, the sea water gets warmer and expands. Besides that, land-based ice is melting, which adds more water to the sea (Jiménez, 2022).

When the sea rises this much, this causes problems. The biggest and most obvious one is the risk of floods. Besides that, with the rise, beach erosion is already happening, because the waves of seawater start hitting new surfaces of the landscape. With the salty water being higher, there will be fewer freshwater sources and the salt will also affect the ground, which will then have less bearing capacity (Mimura, 2013). 

Art about rising sea levels

While rising sea levels are seen as a big problem for the future, it could be hard to feel the impact when reading the facts about it. Like the apocalyptic sublime shows, making things visual like action apocalyptic sublime and using recognizable stories like poetic apocalyptic sublime can lead to more introspection and reflection. Art is a way to do this. Multiple artists see the rising sea levels as a good subject for their art. With the beauty of the sea, and at the same time the dangers and fears for the future it seems like this would fit the theories of the sublime.

The artwork inspired by rising sea levels I would like to focus on in this paper is Daan Roosegaarde’s Waterlicht. In this work, Daan Roosegaarde takes over famous locations for a temporary event of a couple of evenings. He for example showed it at the Museumplein in Amsterdam, Jameel Arts Centre Dubai, and Colombia University New York. Most recently he showed his work at Loevestein Castle (Waterlicht | Studio Roosegaarde, 2022).

Figure 1 A picture of Waterlicht at Loevestein Castle

With special software, blue lights, and humidity, he makes the chosen location look like it has flooded. For viewers, it then is possible to walk around and have an experience as if they are underwater and when they look up they see the blue light, with patterns of humidity which are affected by the wind. It is not allowed for viewers to go above the lights, so the viewers are stuck in the experience of water. Roosegaarde himself describes Waterlicht as “an activator to create a better future.” By choosing specific locations, he shows the vulnerability of the place, combined with the power of water as a result of rising sea levels caused by climate change (Waterlicht | Studio Roosegaarde, 2022). To give people an idea of which space they are in, he highlights important surroundings, like a castle, in red light.

How is Waterlicht sublime?

Waterlicht immediately connects to the romantic sublime in the way that it is about the power of nature in contrast to humans. With the projections of the water being above the viewers, Roosegaarde creates knowledge about how high the water will be and how this would affect human life as it is now. With the water raising way higher than the tallest people, this shows how small humans are compared to the scale of nature in the future.

By actually visualizing a flood, he creates an image of the threat of water that the rising sea levels bring to humanity. This relates to Burke’s terror. Roosegaarde’s work is not just pretty to look at, it shows us that nothing is left of places we now love when the water will rise. However, where Burke explains the pleasance in the sublime terror is caused by the distance we feel, this is not the case here. Roosegaarde’s special skill in this work is exactly that he takes the distance away because people are literally in the problem and threat. On the other hand, Roosegaarde still makes sure the paradoxical traits of the sublime are in his work. Because besides the dangerous idea of the water, the water is still depicted in a pretty manner. That way it is also nice for photographers and Instagram pictures. A visitor who is interviewed in a video clip about Waterlicht describes "like drowning but in a nice way”. This shows exactly the way Waterlicht feels overwhelming because of the mixed feelings that are evoked. It is hard to fully understand what is happening.

This paradox of pretty water and dangerous water, not right now but in the future shows the apocalyptic sublime Salmose wrote about. On one hand, Roosegaarde creates action apocalyptic sublime. He uses new technologies, projections, and scenes to create the sensation of embodiment, with the artwork being all around you. People feel the amount of water. This way he creates a hyperreality, which blends fiction and reality. With this blend, Roosegaarde sets steps towards what Schneider described as part of the pathetically sublime, empathy with the world and the dangers of water and the suffering of humans related to this. With the embodiment of a drowning place, Roosegaarde makes viewers aware of the death and dangers at any time.

On the other hand, he creates a poetic apocalyptic sublime. Roosegaarde himself already describes Waterlicht as: “A dream landscape about the power and poetry of water” (Waterlicht | Studio Roosegaarde, 2022). For this type of sublime, especially the poetry of water, and especially rising water is interesting. With the lack of a storyline in the work, it becomes difficult to relate the work to older known stories. At the same time, by that, the focus lies on the actual situation and not, as Salmose describes the movies, on happy endings and love stories. Besides that, the visualization of the risen water immediately reminds of floods that happened earlier, because it visually looks more or less the same. When Roosegaarde describes his work as poetic, I do not think he sees it as poetic through a deeper meaning or story, but more through the rhythm and calmness water can give as a contrast to the danger.

Sublime as activism

Overall, the biggest sublime characteristic Roosegaarde’s work has, is the paradox between the danger, power, and terror of water and rising sea levels, and at the same time the prettiness and calmness in the projections of the water. He uses this sublime to call people to action. In an interview with Numéro (2022), Roosegaarde explains:

"I talk to my students they say; “The challenges are so big that they freeze us. As a result, we are afraid, and we would rather watch Netflix and not think about it.” This is what motivates me, I hope that my installations make people curious about the future instead of being scared. I want to show people the issue and let them experience it for themselves. The lights in Waterlicht signify both the future and hope" (para. 5).

This means, for his art, he uses something that relates to Burke’s terror. As Roosegaarde describes, his students feel this terror, but since there is no distance they only feel the terror and not the delight. Which causes the students to “freeze.” By adding something nice to the terror, Roosegaarde manages to again create a distance, which triggers the viewers to think about the future and their role in it. However, Salmose (2018) speaks about adding positive things to negative situations related to apocalyptic movies. He states that Hollywood movies often have to have a positive ending to balance the negativity and that making the climate problem entertainment is a way of diminishing the impact.

Maybe the same could be said for Roosegaarde, since he is also making the experience aesthetically pleasing, instead of how horrible it really would be when the water would get that high. However, in this case, Roosegaarde is still not using a storyline, only visualizations that attract people’s attention. The overwhelming feeling of not understanding if you should like or not like Waterlicht could be a step to also help people to think about if they should like the real situation or not and what their possible role in that can be. That way, the sublime in art can be a way to change people’s thinking.

Using the sublime to reflect

This analysis of the meaning of the sublime related to rising sea levels and art about that shows that rising sea levels can be seen as sublime. With the contrast between the beauty of the water and the threat of flooding, it can be seen as overwhelming and as hard to understand and express what you feel about it. Further than that, this topic can be used in art, to create sublime artworks. For this analysis, I dived into Daan Roosegaarde’s Waterlicht. This work shows that terror and beauty can be combined in an artwork, causing people to be overwhelmed by what they experienced. By this, his work can be seen as sublime. It also showed how this sublime feeling can be used in activism. Where there are difficulties within the boundaries of making something too pleasurable or storylined like Hollywood movies, it is possible to break open people’s fear and let them start to reflect on themselves and their role in the future. Therefore art about rising sea levels can not only be seen as sublime, this sublimity is also a way of activating self-reflection.


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