Sink or Swim: Performing the Iniquities of the Climate Crisis

Lara Stevens*


In 2015, Tongan-Australian performance artist Latai Taumoepeau staged Repatriate, in which she dances in a Perspex tank, her body slowly submerged in water. In a remarkably similar work, Rising (2018), renowned Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović created an avatar of herself drowning in a tank with rising water levels with which spectators/players could interact via Virtual Reality technologies. These performances explore the impact of climate catastrophes on communities vulnerable to rising sea levels, highlighting the difficulties in representing the scale of global warming and complexity of its social effects. As the climate emergency escalates, Repatriate and Rising draw attention to its uneven impact on particular bodies, cultures and nations and prompt the question: what is the role of performance as a catalyst for climate action?

Keywords: climate crisis, Taumoepeau, Abramović, performance, Pacific Islands

On 9 November 2021, a 3.5-meter puppet named “Little Amal,” representing a 10-year-old Syrian refugee girl, arrived in Glasgow for the International Climate summit, COP26. Little Amal “walked” 8,000 miles across Europe from Turkey, meeting new people and playing with children in the villages, towns and cities through which she travelled (Runciman). Little Amal (whose name means “hope” in Arabic) was the centre of a performance event called The Walk that aimed to remind Europeans about the plight of refugees. Although she did not speak, she came with a narrative as she travelled—she was searching for her mother, she wanted to get back to school, she was making the journey that so many refugees are forced to make—to begin a new life in a foreign land.

Little Amal was created by dozens of craftspeople from the puppeteering team who made War Horse, the Handspring Puppet Company (Zuabi).[1] Partly animatronic, she was operated by four puppeteers at a time—one internal on stilts, the others external controlling her back and arms. She had to be both light and durable to survive the journey and did not speak because she moved through so many territories with a wide range of different languages. Her designers and makers were, therefore, very strategic in ensuring that she could communicate clearly using her body language and her operators had to be highly skilled in their collaborative embodiment (Kohler and Jones).

Little Amal arrived at COP26 on “Gender Day” where she performed a gift exchange with Samoan activist Brianna Fruean (Filks). Her performance emphasised the uneven gendered impact of the climate crisis upon women and children and the uncertain future for growing numbers of climate refugees. Little Amal’s oversized stature and durational performance was attention-grabbing and interactive with a wide range of communities. Appearing at events in eight different European countries, her silence gave people the opportunity to tell their stories of migration & refuge in spaces where they could be heard (Zuabi). Furthermore, The Walk linked her to “The Amal Fund,” a fundraiser for young refugees, acknowledging this growing problem in a climate emergency (Zuabi). Her appearance at COP26 and interaction with Fruean made vivid the intersection of the political and the performative, the symbolic and the real. Little Amal and The Walk drew attention to the intersectional injustices at the heart of climate catastrophes which are the focus of this article. It is significant that she finished her journey by interacting with a Pacific Islander—a reminder that the first climate refugees were those from islands in the Pacific Ocean and that these enforced relocations are set to worsen as the crisis intensifies.

Given the urgency of the problem of rising sea levels for Pacific Islanders, in this article I consider a performance by Tongan-Australian performance artist, Latai Taumoepeau. In particular, I examine Taumoepeau’s performance Repatriate and compare it to a similar work titled Rising, which was created by renowned Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović. In analysing these two performances, I consider the role and capacities of art to respond to the climate emergency, the uneven impact on particular bodies and nations, the deployment of traditional cultural artforms, new technologies and the role of participatory art as a catalyst for climate action. I am particularly interested in how performance art stages the impact of climate catastrophes on communities vulnerable to rising sea-levels. I make this analysis against the background of decades of ecofeminist scholarship which demonstrates that social disadvantage stemming from gender, race, class, age and ability compounds the impact of climate-related crises and detrimentally effects a person’s capacity to adapt to new environmental and social conditions (see, for example, Mies and Shiva; Moreton-Robinson; Plumwood; Salleh; Stevens et al.; Watson).

Taumoepeau was born and raised in Australia but has always maintained a strong connection to her ancestorial home of Tonga, an archipelago of 169 islands in the southern Pacific Ocean. Taumoepeau’s work is unique as she is one of only a handful of performance-makers in Australia who, since 2012, has developed a significant body of work that responds to the climate crisis and its social impact. One of her best-known performances is Repatriate which, in 2015, was displayed as a videowork filmed by Elias Nohra as part of the exhibition 24 Frames Per Second at Carriageworks in Sydney. Two months later she performed Repatriate live at Liveworks. In November 2017, the video version was shown again for “in extremis” at Arts House in Melbourne under the title Repatriate 1 and, in 2018, Repatriate as videowork was exhibited in the Perth Festival.

Latai Taumoepeau performs Repatriate at the Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, Carriageworks, Sydney, 22-24 October 2015. She stands in a Perspex tank half filled with water in an outdoor performance space. She wears yellow floatation devices and holds up one hand to touch the wall of the tank. Photo: Alex Davies

In these live and mediated performances, Taumoepeau appears to spectators in a large Perspex tank with bright yellow children’s floatation devices strapped to her arms, legs and chest. Beginning in a seated position with her legs crossed, Taumoepeau performs a pastiche of Pacific Island choreography inspired, in part, by the me‘etu‘upaki, a Tongan liturgical dance performed before sea voyages (Taumoepeau in Ayers). She performs this choreography within the narrow confines of the tank, while water from two fire hydrants slowly fills the space over 90 minutes. In the beginning, water pools around her ankles and legs, then her waist, eventually submerging her whole body as she attempts to continue dancing underwater. The performance drew attention to rising sea levels caused by climate change. It signalled the urgency of the crisis for low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean and the threat that such changes pose to the vibrant cultures of those nations.

In 2018, Abramović released an alarmingly similar performance, Rising.[2] Rising premiered at the Stockholm Brilliant Minds conference 2018 and was presented in the 58th Venice Biennale at Palazzo Ca’ Rezzonico in the same year. In this work, Abramović performs in a glass tank that is slowly filling with water. Different to Taumoepeau’s work, however, Abramović appears to spectators as an avatar (modelled on Abramović’s real-life familiar face and figure), visible only when the spectator wears a headset that utilises the technologies of virtual reality (VR) gaming. During the performance, the spectator-as-gamer is invited to actively engage with Abramović’s avatar and participate in the work in the form of pledging to protect the environment. If the spectator makes the pledge, it triggers the water level to drop around Abramović’s submerged avatar, thereby “saving” the artist (and the planet).


At 24 Frames Per Second, Repatriate is presented on four[3] small iPad screens in black and white, without sound. The first screen shows Taumoepeau seated, performing arm and hand actions. On the second screen, she is standing doing the same as water appears around her lower legs. On the third screen, the water has risen above her waist, making her arm actions difficult to maintain. On the fourth screen, she is no longer able to touch the ground and is swimming while attempting to maintain the choreography. The work was deliberately displayed in a narrow corridor at a scale that was much smaller than the other pieces in the exhibition. Talei Luscia Mangioni’s incisive analysis of Repatriate argues that the claustrophobia of the tank is compounded by the framing of the screen and the curatorial choices around where the work was hung in the gallery (41). Taumoepeau notes that these choices were “a comment on the scale that we consider climate change, which is a small, insignificant thing in comparison to everything else, which I knew was going to be huge” (qtd. in Mangioni 40). According to the wall text, the size of the screens recall “souvenir postcards depicting Indigenous people as primitive stereotypes inhabiting island paradises” and replace that with an apocalyptic vision (Mangioni 41).

Taumoepeau says that she does not create performances for people like her. Instead, she states, “my audience is white people, and I make work about white people around brown people,” going on to specify that she targets spectators who are in positions of power or who can influence those in power (qtd. in Mangioni 36). As a settler Australian who is not part of the Pacific Islander community, I thus approach the work as a performance that was, broadly speaking, targeting me as its audience for what Taumoepeau might describe as my “‘complicity, complacency and privilege’” within Western regimes of power (36). I explore the idea that this is a performance by a solo brown-skinned performer about white people, one that reveals to the polluting classes of Australians that which is ordinarily ignored, feared, kept hidden or minimised. In the case of Repatriate, the performance exposes the struggles of Pacific Islanders at the hands of anthropogenic climate change, a phenomenon for which many Australians are disproportionately responsible due to the nation’s extraction-based economy and decades of high-consumption lifestyles.

Latai Taumoepeau performs Repatriate at the Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, Carriageworks, Sydney, 22-24 October 2015.
Photo: Alex Davies

Taumoepeau describes herself in Repatriate as a “woman who represents an island” (qtd. in Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Such a statement suggests that what happens to her body in the performance, namely that it is slowly submerged in water, mirrors the fate of many Pacific Islands due to rising sea levels caused by climate change. It is, therefore, significant that the body is a brown body, with the racial markers of Pacific Islander bodies legible to non-Islander spectators, to help them make the connection that, in this performance, Taumoepeau “represents an island.” To adopt dominant scientific characterisations of islands as spiritless land, rock or resource would be to read Taumoepeau’s body as a performing “resource,” on display for colonial consumption. Such a view not only limits what can be understood about particular places but is doubly problematic given the colonial history of objectifying non-white bodies for the exoticised pleasures, curiosities or sympathies of white audiences in museums, circuses and freak shows. It does, however, reinforce Taumoepeau’s claim that this is a performance about white people—a potential representation of a colonial nightmare-fantasy that enacts the complex mixture of settler desire to eradicate the colonised subject and guilt over the violences inflicted on First Nations lands and peoples. However, Repatriate is not only a performance about racialised violence; it is also an eco-performance that demands consideration of the performing body’s exchange or interaction with its nonhuman actors—that is to say, the water and the tank as more than mere scenography.

Water, and the oceans in particular, are critical to Pacific Island lives and cultures, and are, therefore, significant performing actors in the Latourian sense[4] in Repatriate. Tongan and Fijian anthropologist Epeli Hao’ofa explains that voyaging across the Pacific Ocean is key to Islander identity and lived experience. He writes: “The world of our ancestors was a large sea full of places to explore, to make their homes in, to breed generations of seafarers like themselves. People raised in this environment were at home with the sea” (Hao’ofa 32).

It becomes even more distressing to witness the water engulfing Taumoepeau’s body in Repatriate when we understand that the seas for Pacific Islanders have deep cultural significance. Oceans have, for millennia, been intrinsically allied to Islander peoples—a provider of food, pleasure, purification and a conduit to other places that broadens kinship and commercial relations between diverse Pacific Islander communities and cultures—now a threat to those who have contributed the least to its warming and rising. The interaction between Taumoepeau as a person of Islander heritage thus demands we view the relation with the water with cultural sensitivity and specificity.

In her book Bodies of Water (2017), Astrida Neimanis notes that all human bodies are made of wet matter—“from watery womb to watery world”—and that climate crises involving water including flooding, contamination, drought, make human bodily survival inseparable from these ecological concerns (1). Neimanis’s exploration of the flows between water and human bodies challenges the anthropocentrism of Western humanism to argue that we have always been more-than-human, a hybrid assemblage in which water plays a significant role. Neimanis uses the term “hydrocommons,” evoking ecologist Garret Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968), to describe shared natural resources and their potential for depletion when used in a self-interested rather than collective manner.

Latai Taumoepeau performs Repatriate at the Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, Carriageworks, Sydney, 22-24 October 2015.
Photo: Alex Davies

Neimanis’s emphasis on shared water resources points to the imbrication of the water in our cells with drought, wild weather, floods and chronic contamination (1). She cautions, however, that her book “does not seek a romantic vision of watery repair, nor does it imagine ecojustice through a naïve invocation that ‘we are all the same water’—even if our joint implication within a hydrocommons is one of its key themes” (15). To focus on the rising waters without noting the specificity of Taumoepeau’s Tongan-Australian body, thus, threatens to flatten the political critique of the work—yes, rising sea levels impact most human (and nonhuman) bodies in various adverse ways, but not every body is at immediate threat of losing their homeland, their ancestorial burial grounds, their food-growing areas and culture.

Thus, to pay too much attention to the water as actor in Repatriate is to misrepresent where the power lies in the work. As humans we are drawn to and fascinated by the body and its vulnerabilities. Bodily risk and endurance has, since the rise of Western live art in the 1960s, been central to the political and social critiques of the avant-garde. Nowhere is this more evident than in the work of Abramović, whose early durational performances subjected her body to extreme physical and psychological harm even risking death. Abramović’s experimentation with her body’s fallibility was used to critique a range of ideological, political and social practices including the Yugoslavian Communist regime in which she grew up, its militaristic culture, Christian rituals of sacrifice and penance[5] and gendered double standards (see, for example, Richards; Stiles et al.).

Following in the tradition of Abramović and other pioneering performance artists, Taumoepeau uses the vulnerabilities of her living body in the context of the climate crisis to create tension and intrigue in Repatriate. Moreover, she gestures towards durational aesthetics by playing the performance on repeated video-loops, giving the sense of the inescapability of this threat. This durational aesthetic, was, however, abbreviated (as were many of Abramović’s retrospective re-performances) by having each of the videos start at different points in the choreography—catering to the fleeting attention spans of spectators who can get a sense of the work quickly and move on to the next exhibit, rather than sit through the complete 90-minute performance. Taumoepeau remarks that she deliberately designed the work to be accessible to such viewing habits, mirroring the Australian public’s tendency towards a cursory engagement with climate issues and their social effects (in Ayers).

Taumoepeau’s body takes on greater significance still in its gendered cultural identity. As Marion Struck-Garbe notes, women in the Pacific are “at the heart of climate change vulnerability,” and inundated land adds to their workload by forcing them to find other land for productive food growing as well as causing deep spiritual trauma (112).[6] As Pacific Islander poet and scholar Teresia K. Teaiwa notes, by the twentieth century, Pacific Islander women’s bodies began to experience particular forms of cultural exploitation, principally in the tourist industry where these bodies were made into beautified, decorative objects for the pleasure of largely Western holiday-makers (93). Adorned with colourful leys made of tropical flowers and performing “traditional” dances in hotels and resorts, millennia-old cultural traditions were turned into kitsch pleasures for white audiences as part of colonial displacement and its economic alienation. Referencing such exploitation, Taumoepeau writes ironically that “she is committed to making minority communities visible in the frangipanni[7]-less foreground” (“Dream Sequence”). In Repatriate, Taumoepeau performs a blend of “traditional” choreographies within a shocking and unsettling framework. Her body is not beautified for the gaze and pleasure of white audiences; instead, it performs increasingly desperate and futile acts of survival.

Yet, the integration of Taumoepeau’s body as site-specific work is further displaced by the mediation of the performance in its first iteration as a videowork. Such mediation further emphasises the uprooting of the Islander body from its ancestorial home. It might also be read as pointing to the urgent need to document a culture under threat of extinction. As Peta Tait notes, the work raises an urgent question: “How do climate change refugees preserve culture?” and invokes a challenge for site-specific performance: “What happens when the environmental site is no longer viable for human performance, because its habitable spaces have disappeared?” (“Site-Specific Ecological Loss” 192). Put another way, and drawing from the title of the performance: How do you repatriate a climate refugee whose home is destroyed? At the time of the performance, the technological mediation might be read as a commentary on the many Australians of the privileged classes watching natural disasters unfold on news broadcasts from a safe distance. That said, a lack of lived experience of climate catastrophes for Australian audiences was arguably far more common in 2015 than it is in 2022.[8]

Latai Taumoepeau performs Repatriate at the Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, Carriageworks, Sydney, 22-24 October 2015.
Photo: Alex Davies

Rising (2018) is a performance that not only shares environmental themes and its aesthetic with Repatriate but is deeply interested in the question of mediation in a climate-changing world. When spectators put on the VR headset in Rising, they enter a virtual urban performance space. In this space, they come “in contact” with an avatar version of Abramović wearing a blue gown that appears to be constructed from a wetsuit-style material. Abramović beckons to spectators from inside a “glass” tank that is slowly filling with water. When the player touches Abramović’s hand with their own virtual hands, they are transported into the middle of a snowscape where they witness sheets of ice crumbling from the sides of glaciers, crashing into the water. The scenes are both beautiful and terrifying, enhanced by sound effects and music. Players must choose whether to save Abramović from drowning by pledging to support the environment. If they choose to pledge their aid, the water in the tank is lowered—an immediate cause and effect for individual actions that is almost impossible to replicate in real life climate scenarios due to the time scales of global warming and its reliance on collective, industrial-scale change rather than individual actions. If the spectator-actor chooses to take no action, the water in the tank rises, and the players see Abramović attempting to jump above the water’s surface, trying to breathe.

Abramović’s avatar was created by Acute Art, using the latest technologies of the time to capture her features and movements in a realist mode. To develop the avatar, Abramović spent hours immersed in a swimming pool surrounded by cameras, performing what she describes as acts of “safely ‘drowning.’” Such an oxymoron already begins to signal key differences between this performance and Repatriate, where the imminent and actual losses for Islander bodies and culture can never be performed “safely.” The white, aging (she was 71 years old in 2018) body of Abramović’s avatar, a celebrity figure who is highly recognisable to the public and whose recent performances have traded heavily on such public recognition, changes the parameters of the game—are you saving an iconic artist or are you saving the world?—making the work arguably less politically relevant than Repatriate. Although Abramović will not live long enough to experience the more devastating effects of the environmental crisis if global warming is not slowed or stopped, her call to act suggests her concern for future generations and for anthropogenic damage to the natural world.

As with previous Abramović performances, including her most famous durational work, The Artist is Present (2010), Rising is interested in the relation of presence between bodies in ritual space. As her body ages, and she is forced to face her mortality, pushing her body to extremes has become less advisable. VR technologies enable Abramović to find a different way not only to challenge the limits of her body but to surpass them, to enter into a form of shared space without fleshy, mortal human fallibility. For Rising, Abramović states:

I hope to explore whether immersive play will increase empathy for current and future victims of climate change, and how this will affect a player’s conscience and energy. . . . In real life, when someone rescues another person or offers aid, there is a transfer of energy; both are affected by the experience. Will the same happen in virtual reality?

qtd. in Acute Art

Similar to Taumoepeau, Abramović seems to be creating the performance for privileged Western audiences, a way to expand their ecological consciousness and build empathy for others who are subjected to greater and more immediate threats. The players are supposed to feel satisfaction or other emotions from their experience in the game, a concept that is familiar in gaming scholarship. As Katherine Isbister argues, “games can actually play a powerful role in creating empathy and other strong, positive emotional experiences” (xvii) and elicit empathy, emotion and social connection in the gamer (xvi). She notes of VR games in particular that “avatars act as our prosthetic bodies in gameplay, providing us a vehicle for enacting fantasy roles alone and with others” (102).

Other recent experiments with VR have game designers working with psychologists treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in returned soldiers. Here, gamers are designing virtual worlds according to the descriptions given by soldiers who can then inhabit their traumatic memories in a gaming world with their psychologists. This immersive role play is used as a method for pinpointing trauma and working through it to treat PTSD (Bednarz 166). The complex relationship between psychology, emotion, virtual experience and social behaviour, as well as the scholarship around this, are still in their infancy, but they suggest novel approaches to tackling complex emotional and social problems, even at this early stage.

The use of VR technology does, however, invite interrogation over Abramović’s dramaturgical choice to use technology as a means of eliciting empathy for a crisis brought about by man-made technologies particularly those of the industrial revolution. Lurking in the shadows of Rising and its imperative to save the planet is the myth of a quick-fix technological saviour to climate change, usually extolled by those who want to retain business-as-usual. That said, environmental damage and catastrophe have historically been poorly represented in the performing arts, particularly in theatre, compared to other creative arts. Una Chaudhuri notes that one reason for this lag is that “[c]limate change poses formidable obstacles to representation” as humans come to reckon with the notion of their species as a geophysical force (20). Chaudhuri gives the example of the challenge of putting a phenomenon such as global warming on a stage (13). From the point of a lone human, such ecological realities demand new ways of thinking, talking about and representing our species and its relationship to the planet (13).

The use of VR technologies might allow for more malleable and innovative representational play with different scales, potentially even geological ones, because time and space are more flexible in a virtual world as compared to physical environments. From this perspective, Rising pushes the boundaries of the traditional theatre space, its passive viewer and limited scale, accommodating those “formidable” signs of a changing climate into its imaginative scenario.

Abramović does attempt to reconcile this tension between the technological/mediated and lived experience by creating a companion piece to Rising. Later in 2018, she launched the App “Rising,” also created by Acute Art, commissioned by Nobel Media, and released to pre-empt her participation in “Nobel Week.” The app allows users to view Abramović in Augmented Reality and veers away from Rising’s more creative, immersive mode and towards didacticism. It invites users to pledge 35 actions per day to conserve water. This includes simple acts such as to: “be kind,” “educate,” “reduce.” When users make a pledge, they receive an immediate message thanking them for “saving the planet.” It further invites users to “track your impact” and “invite friends,” giving percentage scores for the users’ positive impact on the environment through daily actions. The ways it generates motivational data and sharing platforms to expand its networks seem to mimic the neoliberal virtue-signalling and self-promotion that accompanies many apps.

In the public lecture that Abramović delivered as part of Nobel Week, entitled “Water Matters,” she implored the audience to change the world by “first changing yourself” and offered seven practical steps to help save the planet (“Marina Abramović at the 2018 Nobel Week Dialogue.”). Such a didactic lecture indicated that she felt that the Rising performance alone was not doing enough to mitigate the climate emergency.

What then, in light of performances like Rising and Repatriate, can we say performance does or should do in a climate crisis?

Acting on Climate

The science of climate change has been known, proven and documented since at least the 1960s, but, in 2022, humans are not still acting with sufficient speed. The U.S.-based Centre for Research on Environmental Decisions, which conducts sociological research on why humans have been so slow to act on the scientific facts, reports that climate change data has failed as a communication tool because it has not inspired a sense of urgency in its audiences (CRED 15). Their studies show that for climate-related information to appeal to the public and drive action it must focus more heavily on the experiential processing system of the brain, which controls survival behaviour such as the fight and flight instinct (CRED 15).

A CRED study from 2007 notes that people “are more motivated by concrete (affective and experiential) information than statistical information when they decide which risks to pay attention to and when to take protective action” (Marx et al. 52). They stress the importance of striking a balance between experiential communications and analytical data but argue that if climate science information is to be made vivid, absorbed and responded to by audiences, it requires the discerning use of metaphor, narrative storytelling which employs visual imagery and experiential scenarios (CRED 2). Moreover, they state that it is best communicated by “trusted messengers” in group settings (CRED 2).

These studies are aimed at public policy-making around the climate crisis, but they provide potentially interesting responses to the now well-rehearsed question of what art can or should “do” to mobilise spectators, or its political “efficacy” (see, for example, Rancière 60; Bishop). Ecoartist and performance scholar Jen Rae,[9] whose artistic practice has long investigated these questions, argues that the climate communication effort is undermined by an oversaturation of information for the public from the scientific community (in Rutledge). This means that key messages are not getting through to the public and that artists are changing the way we think about and experience the crisis (Rae in Rutledge).

Abramović’s VR scenario with its experiential dimension, vivid imagery and use of metaphor and metonymy might arguably, then, provide an important affective complement to the scientific data around rising sea levels and contamination of water systems. Moreover, she is a “trusted messenger” for many in the arts community with a substantial global following. Repatriate tells a powerful story with a simplicity that makes it highly accessible to a range of spectators and that, like Little Amal, does not require language to leave a strong affective imprint of discomfort on the spectator (see examples in Tait Forms of Emotion 195; Boyce). The CRED studies show, however, that people’s willingness to take action after an appeal to the experiential processing system alone can be short-lived and that the effects of worry on spectators can cause “emotional numbing” (21).

This is not to put the burden of responsibility for driving human action on the climate crisis at the feet of artists and, thereby, deemphasise the necessity of science or strong governmental leadership on climate. Rather, it is to suggest that the emotional and affective register at which art operates and the centrality of the human body in performance, its capacity to elicit emotions such as empathy, fear, anger and grief, means that it has a potentially powerful role to play in climate communications.

Repatriate and Rising are both performances that aim to communicate urgent climate challenges to their audiences. Their comparison illustrates the different nuances and politics around crises relating to changing ocean environments. If we take seriously Taumoepeau’s idea that Repatriate is about white audiences around brown people, the work exposes the raw vulnerability of Pacific Islander bodies, inviting white spectators to question why this is the case and who is to blame. By contrast, Rising promises spectators an opportunity to do something about the climate crisis without leaving their comfort zones and while receiving instant gratification for their “actions,” even before they are attempted.

What Repatriate and Rising share is an interest in mediation which, in different ways, highlights the difficulties of the scale and complexity of the climate crisis and its social effects. Like Little Amal, who, despite not having a fleshy body, connected powerfully with her publics throughout The Walk, Abramović’s avatar suggests a puppet for the twenty-first century, which, though mediated, offers the potential for people to connect with climate issues from which they may be physically, emotionally or geographically isolated. While Abramović is pessimistic about human willingness to slow or stop climate change (qtd. in Kane), she invites audiences to embody what most of us cannot experience, the possibility of acting corporeally to respond to the crisis, the opposite of a grief-stricken or emotionally numb malaise. As climate-related catastrophes become more frequent, works like Repatriate remind us which cultural and social groups suffer first and most acutely and to whom we must turn if we are to learn the skills of resilience, survival and the philosophies of respect and interdependency that might sustain our species’ time on this planet a little longer.


[1] The Handspring Puppet Company was co-founded by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler who delayed their retirement to help build Little Amal due to their concern for refugees and climate change.

[2] The 24 Frames Per Second exhibition at Carriageworks in Sydney ran from 18 June to 2 August 2015, which coincided with Marina Abramović: In Residence, a two-week durational performance at Pier 2/3 Shed near Circular Quay in Sydney which ran from 24 June to 5 July of the same year, a mere five kilometres from Carriageworks. While Abramović does not mention Taumoepeau or Repatriate anywhere I can find, in the past Abramović has not been shy about “borrowing” performance practices and rituals from other cultures. For example, she has described learning tree-hugging exercises from Amazonian tribes who would dance with the sequoia tree: “This dance with the tree was so incredibly moving and emotional, so I said: ‘Wowo, why don’t I create exercise that really works for me? [sic]’” (qtd. in Morris 53). Such a re-enactment might today be more commonly described as an Orientalist appropriation. It is possible that Abramović saw Repatriate around the time of or during her 2015 residency in Sydney and decided to remake it in her own image.

[3] There were 5 screens in the Perth Festival version and a muffled rhythmic soundtrack accompanied the performance.

[4] Bruno Latour’s definition of actor-network-theory differentiates between social actors and associations between nonhuman entities which operate through entangled interactions and have particular forms of agency that take them beyond natural causality (Latour 10, 65).

[5] Abramović was raised by her religious grandmother who engaged in Orthodox Christian rituals. In her art, Abramović has explored rituals of penance in forms of self-inflicted physical abuse aimed at spiritual transformation, causing major public controversies and condemnation from some conservative Catholics who have labelled her a “satanist” (see for example Saner; Cafolla).

[6] Or, as the United Nations Pacific Strategy 2018–2022 Report notes with specific reference to the 14 countries of the Pacific Islands: “Evidence shows that due to pre-existing inequalities, women and marginalised and vulnerable groups are disproportionately impacted by the impacts of climate change and disasters and are also less capable of responding and adapting to, preparing for, and recovering from disasters” (United Nations in the Pacific 23).

[7] Islander women are often depicted in tourist advertisements as beautiful objects, commonly adorned with tropical flowers, frequently frangipanis which grow in abundance in tropical climates. Taumoepeau’s rejection of the frangipani here is to insist upon an anti-aestheticised and exploitative image of Islander culture (and Islander women in particular) and to foreground instead the harsh realities that Island cultures face at the hands of Western industrialisation and colonialisation.

[8] As I write this, there are severe floods down the eastern coast of Australia and “rain bombs” attributed to the La Niña effect and a changing climate. The frequency of such natural disasters in this country, especially following the Black Summer bushfires of 2019–2020, are changing the lived experience of climate-related catastrophes for many Australians.

[9] Jen Rae is a First Nations artist of Canadian Métis descent who currently lives and works in Australia and who specialises in arts-based environmental communication and disaster resilience. Some of her best-known work as part of the Refuge (2016–22) project (in which Taumoepeau was also a leader and collaborator) included artistic collaborations with emergency services, in which they rehearsed climate-related emergencies such as flood, heatwave and pandemic. Rae is the co-founder of the “Centre for Reworlding,” a collection of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists working intersectionally at the nexus of arts and climate futures (Rae).


Abramović, Marina. The Artist is Present. Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010.

—. “Marina Abramović at the 2018 Nobel Week Dialogue.” Marina Abramovic Institute, 13 Dec. 2018. Accessed 5 May 2022.

—. Rising. Stockholm, Sweden, 2018.

Acute Art. “Behind the Scenes of Marina Abramović’s Rising.” Acute Art, 15 Oct. 2018. Accessed 5 May 2022.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Latai Taumoepeau ABCTV Feature. Vimeo, produced by Rachel Story and Nicola Harvey, 2016. Accessed 5 May 2022.

Ayres, Eddie. “Australian Artists Respond to the 2016 Nauru Files, Latai Taumoepeau’s Repatriate and Eddie Takes a Drawing Lesson.” The Art Show with Eddie Ayres, Radio National Australian Broadcasting Company, 7 Feb. 2018. Accessed 3 May 2022.

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*Lara Stevens is the author of Anti-War Theatre After Brecht: Dialectical Aesthetics in the Twenty-first Century (2016), editor and translator (Fre-Eng) of essays by Hélène Cixous: Politics, Ethics and Performance: Hélène Cixous and the Théâtre du Soleil (2016) and coeditor of Feminist Ecologies: Changing Environments in the Anthropocene (2018) with Peta Tait and Denise Varney. She is a currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Melbourne on the Australian Research Council Project “Towards an Australian Ecological Theatre” (2021–24).

Copyright © 2022 Lara Stevens
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