Definition: The presence of a premonition, and/or a sense of foreboding, threat and dread from every day, human initiated incidents which ultimately threaten the ecology of the environment, and are caused by environmental hazards, such as: traffic jams, the deformed feet of pigeons, the debris of litter from fast food outlets, the crush of urban life, the invisible smog of pollution, the demise of garden birds, the abundance of cleaning products which end up in waterways, images of drought riven lands, images of flooding… images of huge industrial complexes churning out smoke…
A ‘Gelm’ is a powerful and continuous emotional response to the threat of environmental and ecological destruction from human intervention.


The gleaming yellow Audi is parked across the road.

The blackened window is lowered to a slim gap.

The engine is kept running but is inaudible.

She is eating from a disposable fast food container.

The container is full to bursting.

After every mouthful she grabs a paper napkin and wipes her hands and mouth vigorously.

I watch her

The bright day darkens with her sense of foreboding.

The gelm smothers with its unrelenting shadow of unease:

The monumental powers of tiny human actions are foreplay to catastrophe.


Origin: Phyllida Barlow, London, England, 2016

Derived from ‘overwhelm’ taking the powerful sounding ‘whelm’ to be the root – a ‘whelm’ (Old English) is an arch or gulf. Replacing the ‘wh’ with a ‘g’ shortens the sound of the word and toughens it.


Inspiration: “The potential for pleasure of what we can experience on a daily basis is undermined by the ‘gelm’ of foreboding: the complications around the simplest activities we engage with, whether that is our private daily activities of washing or our more public activities of travel, all have profound implications …it has become impossible for me to experience the world around me, particularly the every day world – the world of our daily lives – without a constant sense that everything we humans do is a threat to the environment.”

-Phyllida Barlow, 2016

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