Putting a big-worded title on an art show—calling it, say, "Atmospherics/Weather Works" and telling everyone it's a series of works reimagining weather events around the world—makes it sound all high-toned, like you planned it for years. Sprinkle liberally with quotes from Mary Shelley and John F. Kennedy; display in a high-ceilinged room with black walls and a waxed concrete floor (UCI's Beall Center) and you've arrived.
Except the artist, Andrea Polli, says this is nowhere she was going when she started doing weather art in the early 2000s—turning to scientists for her raw data. She knew she wanted to tell the story of the snow, the rain, the hurricanes with, among other things, sound: taking hurricanes explained as data—by meteorologists—and retelling them as a series of noises, with x-minus-y-cubed equalling, maybe, the E over middle-C on your Casio. But it wasn't a show; it was just one work, then another, until then it was a show, Polli says.
It is also something of a huge problem; the pieces in "Atmospherics" work together, but they're the type of art that works better as . . . art. As a vehicle for re-explaining the weather, it comes off like standing in the wrong spot at a Kraftwerk show. A hurricane explains itself better than you ever could when it parks your car on top your house. There are moments of intrigue in "Atmospherics"—provided you ignore the soundtrack's drone—but nothing like the sheer wonder of Niagara Falls or General Sherman (the tree).
The most approachable work here is probably Airlight Socal, or it would be if you knew what airlight was. What you see is a night scene from a freeway somewhere; you hear traffic noise converted into high-pitched beeping that fades and rises in your headphones. "Airlight is the name given to a visible white smog caused by the illumination of fine dust particles," the text says—giving no real reason why we're seeing this at night and sans the namesake smog. But we all know something about traffic, and so we want to like it.
Nearly as familiar is N, a slideshow of pretty, vacant arctic scenes set to the strains of lightning converted to sound. Most of the works here come with headphones for their accompanying "sound environments," as Polli calls the random tootlings. But Nis one of two works broadcast through speakers, serenading you with a mash-up of something close to whale music, but not as spooky.
Watching Nor looking at Airlight, you quickly reach Polli's conclusion, which was that we're befouling our own nest—bringing you to T2 and the Kennedy quote, a generation before the over-fishing problem: "Knowledge of the oceans is more than a matter of curiosity. Our very survival depends on it," he said. Ich bin ein yellowtail.
T2 reimagines ocean numbers; the text on the wall points out that the waves lapping against that discarded couch in Long Beach could be starring in a Laird Hamilton spot for American Express the next month. Water gets around. But it's a little hard to concentrate with the miscellaneous data scrolling across the screen. "Huge loss of fresh water in Australia . . . Rising temperatures threaten Chinese food output . . . Uganda—the water hyacinth is back," it reads in part. (Thanks for nothing, E! Network.) This is not the solution, it's the difficulty.
Polli says she became increasingly conservation-minded as she continued making these pieces—but it's only apparent in the most basic way. She tries to outdo the weather by reinventing it; and it can't (New Orleans) be done. "Atmospherics" is competent and very nicely executed, but not stellar; not truly evocative of the environmental morass or the weather—in an era when our concern with the environment is at an all-time high. And that's sad. It makes polar bears cry.