Climate Artists: Franziska Furter & Julian Charriere

Published April 16, 2024
Franziska Furter, 'Liquid Skies/Gyrwynt'

“My interest in the weather started twenty years ago in Edinburgh,” says Swiss artist, Franziska Furter. “It was my first overseas residency, and I was so surprised. You wake up and it’s raining. You have a shower, the sun is shining. You have breakfast, it’s snowing. Then you go out and it’s raining again. I was super happy because it’s not just one thing for the whole day.”

No wonder Furter likes Melbourne, where she is exhibiting a work called Liquid Skies/Gyrwynt in the NGV Triennial. A massive, multi-coloured carpet, it reproduces infra-red satellite photographs of hurricanes, all beauty and danger. Over the carpet she has suspended another work, Haku, in which thousands of tiny glass beads hover in the air like droplets of water. The title comes from the Japanese word for “white”or “pure”, and a Hawaiian word meaning “to braid”.

Franziska Futter @ NGV

The sheer scale of the carpet required assistance, but Furter prefers to do everything herself. If she lacks the know-how, she’ll take a course or watch YouTube tutorials. Her growing skill set ranges from carpet tufting to Zen archery. Her apartment in the suburbs of Basel is also her studio, a simple concrete box, where she lives a spartan but cheerful existence when she isn’t travelling or undertaking a residency.

If Furter wants to talk about the weather, Switzerland is not the ideal place. “Here, it’s considered to be small talk or nonsense,” she says, “but I’ve always found that when people say something specific about the weather, you learn a lot about them. You know who they are.”

Now in her early fifties, Furter has spent much of her career making drawings, but not conventional ones. She likes the idea of drawing in space, of flirting with lines and marks that are almost invisible. She likes artists and writers that are true obsessives, living in their own heads. This includes the Swedish entomologist, Fredrik Sjöberg, who wrote a brilliant little book called The Fly Trap; and Melbourne novelist, Gerald Murnane. She even named one of her exhibitions Landscape with Landscape, after Murnane’s short story collection of 1985.

As for artists, she admires the freeform, linear sculptures of Gego (1912-94), an artist becoming posthumously famous; but is bored by the highly successful Gerhard Richter, and horrified by billionaire, Damien Hirst. “Money corrupts artists!” she concludes.

Getting back to the weather, Furter says she sometimes uses it for titles or as a source of metaphor, but the main attraction is: “it’s something that is always present. It doesn’t go away. You can’t ignore it. Or rather, you can ignore it, but it’s still there.”

The NGV carpet, however, threatens to take the artist onto another plane. It’s not just the weather anymore, it’s the big topic of ‘climate’.

“And that worries me,” she says. The worry is that until recently, ‘climate’ was a relatively neutral term, but it now suggests a lurking, apocalyptic menace.

“Mention climate and everybody feels guilty right away,” she continues. “It’s become an unnatural thing, a manmade thing. It’s a big deal, while the weather is small and local. But when it comes to specific storms or hurricanes, are they weather or climate? Do they exist only because the climate has changed?”

Furter doesn’t have answers and has no desire to make ‘statements’ with her work. She prefers to look at the climate issue through a more ambiguous lens. A carpet, for instance, with its weaving techniques, its folk traditions and symbolism, is a symbol of civilisation. But when it reproduces hurricane patterns this highly structured artefact becomes a celebration of chaos. Is it a naturally occurring chaos, or one we have brought upon ourselves?

Before she started on the carpets, Furter had another idea for the hurricane patterns, which as a metaphor for what we’ve done with the climate, could hardly be bettered. “At first I thought it would be great to make a scarf with a hurricane on it, because it strangles you but on the other hand, keeps you warm.”


Julian Charrière, whose NGV Triennial work, And Beneath it All Flows Liquid Fire, is displayed near the gallery entrance, is another Swiss artist for whom climate is a major preoccupation. Born in the French-speaking town of Morges in 1987, Charrière has rapidly established himself as a rising star in the world of contemporary art.

Julian Charrière, ‘And Beneath it All Flows Liquid Fire’

Two days after visiting Franziska Furter in her small, concrete booth in Basel, I found myself at a factory complex in Berlin, where Charrière has his headquarters. It’s not a studio per se, but a diverse series of working spaces. In one room, the artist’s assistants sit researching projects on their computers; in another, large-scale fabrications are undertaken. There are meeting rooms; studios for various industrial processes, for esoteric forms of print making and photography; and even an allotment where fresh vegetables are grown.

Welcome to the high end of the contemporary art circuit, where a successful artist works on multiple projects simultaneously, for museums, commercial galleries, and large-scale commissions. It’s impossible to do it all by oneself, so the artist becomes both a brand and the CEO of his or her own company.

Charrière is a hands-on, heroic leader, who travels the world to explore suitable locations and materials for his ambitious, multi-media works, which may take the form of films, photographs, sculptures, or complete environments. He recognises no boundaries, having worked with rocks and minerals, living plants, robotics and pyrotechnics. Everything might be grouped under the heading, “landscape”, but it’s an utterly contemporary form of landscape, often identified with a tendency called New Materialism.

When I arrived, Charrière wasn’t present. He was in Boston, working on a project, having just travelled from Greenland. It might just as easily have been from Mexico or Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Iceland, Bikini Atoll – or even Tasmania, where he is preparing a permanent installation for David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art. Whether he is trekking across icy wastelands, pushing through tropical jungles, clambering up abandoned oil rigs, or deep-sea diving, Charrière is an adventurer in the spirit of Alexander von Humboldt (1780-1869), the great German polymath, who predicted the effects of climate change as early as 1831.

My guide through the studio was Patricia Bondassen Kavanagh, who handles research and communication for Charrière Inc. In an accent with Swedish and Irish undertones she tells me straight away that of all the countries with which they work, Australia is her favourite.

Our conversation inevitably focuses on the installation in the NGV Triennial, a large-scale video projection of a Baroque fountain overflowing with flames and molten fluid. Like Furter’s carpet, it is a paradoxical piece which turns an ornamental civic monument into a makeshift volcano, spewing lava.

“We think we can control these elements,” says Kavanagh, “But can we? Probably not. The Baroque element is full of symbolism, but deep down in the earth there are these fires burning, and this lava that exists autonomously from all human interpretation.”

It’s a piece that exists – literally – at the opposite extreme to the early work that helped put Charrière on the map, the Blue Fossil Entropic Stories (2013), in which he stood on an iceberg for eight hours, melting the ice beneath his feet with a blowtorch. No sooner had it melted than it froze again, mocking the human effort to subjugate nature.

Julian Charrière in some remote place

Kavanagh says it’s a work that would get them “cancelled” today. “I don’t think people would see the nuance, or the abstractness, let alone the reference to Caspar David Friedrich,” she says. “Or this futile, complicated fight between geology, geological time and human time… it’d just be a white guy attacking an iceberg with a blowtorch.”

She argues that Charrière’s works “aim to engage with material reality in a different way and try to give people a physical sense of these very abstract, large-scale cycles that go on in our planet. It’s an attempt to dislodge our anthropocentric perspective, although the works are never explicitly, didactically environmental.”

“Climate change is so abstract, so strange, so big and alienating, that people feel they don’t want to engage with it. Some of Julian’s works are trying to allow an emotional entry point, through the encounter with real physical substances, such as oil, tar and coal.”

And, I’d add, through spectacle. Charrière brings us extraordinary images of fire and ice. He re-presents nature in ways that bring it alive before our eyes. Instead of simply “saying the right thing”, he wants us to have a vivid, sensory experience.

It might be viewed as a testament to the power of Charrière’s imagery that the French fashion label, Zadig & Voltaire used a promotional image for their 2023 Fall-Winter show for Paris Fashion week so similar to the flaming fountain that the artist began to receive inquiries about his “collaboration”. The truth, as Kavanagh relates, is that there was no communication with the company whatsoever. She thought their image “was very ugly and poorly done, but worst of all, Julian’s work was obviously about climate change and a world that was heating up. Zadig & Voltaire just wanted to say: ‘We’re gonna set everything on fire! It’s gonna be hot!’”

When Charrière contacted the fashion house they flatly denied any connection and erased his name from emails they received. Kavanagh recalls: “We suggested to Zadig & Voltaire that instead of this going to court or becoming anything stressful, maybe they could just make a donation to a charity we support. They weren’t interested at all. They denied everything and acted in quite an intimidating manner. But Julian’s well known enough that there’s been a big conversation on social media.”

In this cautionary tale, fashion aspiring to the condition of art, reveals once again that’s it’s mainly about profit. It shows there are big labels, or at least wannabee labels, that are not seduced by ideas of sustainability and social responsibility gaining traction elsewhere in the industry. In fact, the on-line sustainability index, Good on You, gives Zadig & Voltaire their bottom rating: “We avoid”. Contemporary artists may not succeed in saving the planet, but at least they still have a conscience.



Franziska Furter & Julian Charrière’s work was shown in the NGV Triennial 3, at the National Gallery of Victoria,  3 December 2023 – 7 April 2024


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 1 April, 2024