Installed in an area known as the Green Zone at COP27, the artwork features two unlabeled rooms — described as “scenarios of eternity” — that have different temperatures, sights, sounds and smells meant to represent two possible outcomes for humanity. Inspired by a 2011 study that suggests people who are in warm surroundings are more likely to say climate change is a problem, the piece, made in collaboration with the arts and social justice organization Fine Acts, underscores the physical and personal stakes of a global issue that, for many, can seem abstract and unmanageable.
“We are trying to address climate anxiety by gamifying and simplifying scientific data, by making it relatable to everyday people and helping them feel like they have the power to make decisions,” Shehab, 45, told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “We just see floods and we see the news and we’re scared. [The installation] is powerful because I can tell you something that’s really complex in a very simple way.”
COP27 comes at the end of a year that has seen disastrous flooding in Pakistan, mudslides in South Africa, drought in China and heat waves in Europe and the United States. Through this sensory installation, Shehab hopes to give visitors a sense of agency and challenge those who say there is nothing we can do. She wants to make the threat feel immediate and tangible — but not insurmountable.
“There’s something instinctive. It doesn’t have to do with our brains. It has to do with our biology,” Shehab says of the psychology behind the artwork. The installation also taps into deeply ingrained spiritual beliefs, she said. “The religious discourse that we’ve been fed for, like, millennia says, if you’re bad, you’ll burn in hell. Heat is bad.”
Before entering the installation viewers respond to a questionnaire: One question asks participants if they would agree to limit showering to four minutes, wash only with a bar of soap and reuse a day-old towel to conserve water and limit plastic usage. At the end, participants receive a score, which sends them to a room.
Some will find themselves in a light, domed interior set at a comfortable temperature in the low to mid-70s, surrounded by nature sounds and scents of “freshness, orange blossoms,” Shehab said. Others will find a dark, claustrophobic space set around 95 degrees and reeking of decomposing fruit and hospital rooms. So far, Shehab said she has sent 537 people to “hell” and 969 to “heaven” in what she calls a “very interesting social experiment.” Later, she encourages them to visit the other room.
The piece is based on the concept of “visceral fit”: the theory that “people will judge states of the world associated with their current visceral experiences as more likely,” according to researchers Jane Risen and Clayton Critcher. Thirst, for example, can increase expectations of drought and desertification. Warmth can increase concern about climate global warming. We think with our bodies.
This is in direct conflict with the way climate change has been historically discussed — with graphs and numbers and jargon. Shehab wants to counter that.
“I wanted a concept that everybody could understand,” she said. “I’ve had site workers and doctors and professors and climate activists and professionals and everybody walk through, and they all get it.”
While she recognizes that questions of personal responsibility — whether you recycle, for example — are only one small piece of the puzzle, she doesn’t discount them. Her work is aimed at places where conversations about climate change are more limited.
“Yes, we need to talk to the high polluters. We need to talk to those flying their private jets to COP,” she said. “But we also need to talk to developing nations with simpler discourses. And we really need education.”
Ever since she was a child, Shehab has admired climate activists, and in 2020 she got into the fray herself, building a pyramid of garbage in Cairo that stood nearly 20 feet high. It was meant to contrast the majestic pyramids of Giza with our current “overproducing, over-consuming” existence, she wrote in an artist’s statement.
Shehab, who is also a street artist and an art and design professor at the American University in Cairo, has long used art as a political and educational tool. During the Arab Spring, she created calligraphy-inspired graffiti with messages such as “No to a new pharaoh” and “No to violence,” written around Cairo. And while Britain was preparing to vote on Brexit, she wrote “No to Borders” and “No to Brexit” on walls in London.
In “Heaven and Hell in the Anthropocene,” which will be replicable, under an open license, after COP closes, Shehab wants people to say yes: Yes to wearing secondhand clothes; yes to conserving water; yes to anything they can do to curb climate change.
In both rooms of the installation, viewers will find mirrors — broken ones in hell and curved ones in heaven. The artist hopes they prompt reflection: “For us to really face our future, we really need to look at ourselves.”