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The artist who brought the great outdoors inside—for her cats

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In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, London-based artist Abi Palmer found that, immunosuppressed and sequestered to her apartment, she “needed to touch and feel safe touching”. She could touch things around the flat, of course, but she says she missed “incidental interactions with the natural world that surprised me—like when a leaf falls”. So she adopted a couple of young cats, naming them Lola Lola and Cha-U-Kau. Quarantined indoors together, Palmer decided to teach her cats about the weather over the course of a year. Abi Palmer Invents the Weather, the resulting series of four short films (one for each season), began premiering on Artangel’s website on 7 March.

While Lola Lola and Cha-U-Kau have been great company for Palmer, she feels badly that, as strictly indoor cats living on the third floor of an apartment building, they would never experience nature and the outside world. Unlike in the US, where indoor cats are seen as perfectly ordinary, “it’s political in the UK”, Palmer says. “People think it’s cruel to keep cats inside, so I immediately began questioning the ethics of having indoor cats (and pets in general).”

Still from Abi Palmer, Abi Palmer Invents the Weather (Fog), 2023 Commissioned and produced by Artangel

She decided to try to bring nature indoors, gathering branches on her walks to take back to her cats, who would sniff them with great interest. Palmer started making diorama-like boxes—Lola Lola and Cha-U-Kau love cardboard boxes, as all cats do—which she called “curated wildness”, and pitching a project involving an indoor forest for indoor cats. As a recipient of one of Artangel’s Covid-era “Thinking Time” grants, Palmer found a natural fit in the organisation’s tendency to support unusual projects.

Each of Palmer’s videos has a seasonal theme: Rain for autumn, Fog for winter, Light for spring and Heat for summer. She narrates the films, explaining weather to her cats while they are shown interacting with one of the four specially designed cardboard environments, complete with perfectly sized holes for peering (or stepping) inside.

Still from Abi Palmer, Abi Palmer Invents the Weather (Rain), 2023 Commissioned and produced by Artangel

“I’m not sure you’re going to understand this, my friends,” Palmer begins her first film, Rain, “because there is so much of the sky you haven’t seen”. She is then shown creating the box for autumn: gathering twigs, leaves, and feathers from the forest, soaking them in collected rainwater, and putting them in cheesecloth (“swampy bundles”) hanging above a metal bowl in the cardboard box—an attempt to re-create both the sound and smell of rain for Lola Lola and Cha-U-Kau. In Fog, Palmer uses sage, sticks, and candles to create a wintry haze. In Light, she soaks moss in water and sews it to the inside of the box, hanging a small disco ball from the top to symbolise the refraction of spring sunshine. And in Heat, she uses rocks and cacti, then makes a rotating urban landscape. In the end, she stacks the four seasons of boxes two by two and lets the cats roam through them.

In creating her boxes, Palmer says she “tailored them to the cats’ curiosity and which elements of weather they might miss”. She designed them like performance spaces, with specific days for filming her videos but leaving them out for the cats to play with throughout the seasons they represented. She also installed a hidden camera in the boxes, “like in a David Attenborough doc”. In the summer—one of the hottest in British history—she made a garden for Lola Lola and Cha-U-Kau on her balcony, so they could at least get a bit of a breeze.

Although climate change only comes up directly in Palmer’s summer video, the larger topic of humans seeking to control nature is the main theme of the project, right down to the very notion of indoor cats. “They’re so domesticated that they can’t go back to nature,” says Palmer, “and we’re all operating as part of these systems. When cats destroy bird ecosystems, we burden the cat with that guilt.”

She says the guilt should really fall on us humans, who altered the natural world to the point that the birds became endangered in the first place. “It’s like King Lear shouting at the clouds and trying to blow the storm away,” she adds. “It’s both the cleverness of man and the folly of humankind.”

Videos in the Abi Palmer Invents the Weather series will continue to be released on Artangel’s website and video channels through 28 March

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