The crux of the “36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea” project is simple. For anywhere from 12 to 13 hours, Sunde stands in the ocean for a full tidal cycle, as the water rises up to her chin and then retreats to her feet.
These site-specific works are created around the globe (and will culminate with the final performance in New York City) and captured on video. At the Georgia Museum of Art, a three-channel video projection will feature Sunde’s “36.5” projects in the Netherlands, Bangladesh, Brazil and Kenya from a different moment in time as each unfolds.
An installation view of Sarah Cameron Sunde's three-channel video work "36.5 / North Sea," Katwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands, 2015, screening through October 18 at the Georgia Museum of Art.
Courtesy of Georgia Museum of Art
The work is about contemplation of the sea, and its physical presence, and also about how it connects diverse people around the globe. “This amazing planet we live on breathes with the tides,” says Sunde, who describes her performances as “hard, it’s really hard.” Standing that long under the sun, feeling and resisting the pull of the ocean requires stamina, as well as someone to bring Sunde the occasional drink of water and spritz of sunscreen. It is an endurance test as much as a kind of meditation and connection. “It always blows me away that I can do it,” admits Sunde.
But there’s more to “36.5” than just a metaphysical, meditative connection with the ocean. The piece has fairly disturbing origins and is ultimately rooted in the pressing issue of climate change. The oceans we often think of as benevolent resources for human business, travel and recreation, also have a mighty, destructive potential when combined with human-made global warming.
In fact, the idea for the piece came out of Sunde’s experience living in New York City when Hurricane Sandy struck, devastating Manhattan and surrounding communities and reminding a wide swath of Americans of the damaging potential of the oceans that surround us. “For me, that was a visceral event, that our cities are just as vulnerable as our individual bodies.”
Relatively new to the realm of performative, durational art-making, Sunde actually began her creative life in the theater, where she is known for her translation and direction of plays by the celebrated Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse.
Sarah Cameron Sunde, “36.5 / Bodo Inlet,” Kwale, Kenya, 2019
Courtesy of Swabir Bazaar
Credit: Swabir Bazaar
Credit: Swabir Bazaar
Though the shift from the theater to performance-based art may seem surprising, Sunde’s roots in the theater are clear in the work. In creating “36.5,” she was deeply invested in the theatrical awareness of how to engage her audience and make them a vital part of the work. She also realized, when she was conceptualizing “36.5” that she couldn’t simply “direct” and ask a performer to contend with these 12-hour endurance tests. She had to do the performance herself.
During the making of her “36.5” series, Sunde invites anyone to stand with her in the water to experience the piece during formation. Sunde has been joined in her site-specific performances around the world by many, from Bengali fishermen to Dutch government officials and a Brazilian teenager who told Sunde the experience of standing in the water in silent contemplation with her made him feel “like a tree rooting down to connect; rooting down in the planet.”
“They tell me they see the water with new eyes after standing with me,” Sunde says.
Sunde also works with local filmmakers who become collaborators in her videos. She sees that community involvement as critical because climate change is a communal problem. “Philosophically, ethically, it has to involve the people who are the stewards of that water,” says Sunde.
Sarah Cameron Sunde, “36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea”
Through January 17, 2021. Free, with a timed ticket. Open 10 am-9 pm, Thursdays; 10 am-5 pm Fridays and Saturdays; 1-5 p.m. Sundays, Georgia Museum of Art, 90 Carlton St., Athens. 706-542-4662, georgiamuseum.org