Raising awareness of rising sea levels and urgent environmental changes, Flood Barrier, a new moving image commission by British artist Catherine Yass's launch will coincide with the 70th anniversary of The Great Flood of 1953.


Flood Barrier will be installed as part of The Princess Alice Disaster exhibition at Valence House Museum from 26th September – 21st October 2023, before touring to Eastbury Manor House, Barking in October 2023.

The film will be centred around Barking Creek Flood Barrier, which straddles the River Roding where its estuary meets the River Thames. Engineered in 1983, the barrier was originally built to prevent devastating flooding expected to take place every thousand years. However, in the wake of rising sea levels and urgent environmental changes affecting East London, the barrier has taken on a new critical role. The huge guillotine-like structure poised above the water is likely to come down and cut off flooding routinely in coming years, as predicted in a recent environmental study by Climate Central (2021). The barrier stands in place of Creekmouth village, which suffered severe flood damage 70 years ago, erasing 55 Victorian houses, a school and a church built for chemical plant workers.

Nominated for the Turner Prize in 2002, London-based artist Yass is widely recognized for her distinctive photographic and film-based work. Her practice disrupts notions of power through the disorientation of the camera and the distortion of colour. With Flood Barrier Yass will use this visual language to allow viewers to see the structure and its surroundings from a new perspective, showing the urgency of the environmental and political issues it embodies. The artist’s films are frequently turned upside down or filmed from unusual perspectives, often from a camera mounted on the moving objects they depict. As the image begins to unravel so too do our assumptions about how we perceive the world, and new orientations and possibilities open.

Where Yass’ past work has been concerned with how environments are constructed and experienced by their inhabitants, this new moving image work will extend her practice by zooming in on the relationship between architecture and the natural world. Observing the bird paths around the barrier, Yass will document the interaction and relationship between the architecture and the birds. This will involve close-up filming of birds in flight, as well as filming from a drone to imitate their perspective, tracking their flight paths in lyrical movements which contrast with the steady vertical motion of the flood barrier.

The footage of the birds will be coloured to reflect the fact that birds have one more colour-sensing cone than humans that recognises ultraviolet light. This will contrast with the monochrome severity of the concrete flood barrier going down, to reveal the limitations of vision, and that what humans see is only one possible vision amongst many others. The work seeks to challenge normative and anthropomorphic viewpoints, acknowledging that animals and humans all perceive colour in a wide range of ways. The colours will be achieved by letting light leak into the camera, making a further analogy with flooding. The film will be co-produced with Barking & Dagenham students with special educational needs, ensuring that those living close to the barrier are given a voice by the project.

The premiere at a free outdoor screening at Valence House Museum in Valence Park, Dagenham on Friday 22 September will be followed by special screening events at the ICA on Tuesday 14 November and at Turner Contemporary on Saturday 18 November 2023.

2023 marks 70 years since the Great Flood of 1953, which led to widespread flooding in the East of England and is often considered the worst natural disaster Britain experienced during the 20th century. Flood Barrier by Catherine Yass forms part of a broader season of programming, entitled Breaking Waves, exploring and raising awareness of the link between our contemporary climate crisis and industrial heritage. Supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and curated and delivered by Create London, the programme will include commissioning opportunities for local filmmakers, after-school workshops and masterclasses, open air painting classes, bird watching and mudlarking sessions with the local community and more. In addition, disappearing histories of life in Thames Ward will be documented with oral histories experts, residents and creative practitioners, giving a voice to those traditionally excluded from historical records. Full details of the programme and how to get involved will be announced in the coming months.

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