So I could blame my busy life on it taking me ages to write a new blog post. But instead I am going to attribute the fact that I had the notion of writing a post on the exhibition “Unfold, ” an art/climate change show, but was ultimately left feeling surprisingly apathetic to it all. My scientific background and day job involve environmental science and my own practice has leanings in those directions, so I had high expectations that were not quite met…
So to begin. Unfold was an exhibition of art produced on/inspired by participation of expeditions up to the Arctic, down to the Antarctic and into the Andes, facilitated by the Cape Farewell Foundation. The Cape Farewell Foundation is a remarkable organisation that brings artists, writers, scientists, educators and media together as a cultural response to climate change. The “scientists” are doing a poor job communicating issues surrounding climate change; climate change involves us all; why not fight with art? The outputs of their expeditions are substantial– a number of exhibitions, pieces of music and writings including Ian McEwan’s novel “Solar.”
So, a number of artists are asking whether they can connect where the scientists have failed; how can a looming catastrophe be expressed? How can the fragility of our polar landscapes be communicated? How can scientific data and reasoning be turned into something that connects to the not-so-logical parts of our brains? In one year, London saw two major exhibitions that tackled (in different ways) this theme: Radical Nature(Barbican) and Earth: Art of a Changing World (Royal Academy). Of the two, I thought Radical Nature was the more successful, perhaps as it was really more about artists responding to Nature. Highlights included Robert Smithon’s Spiral Jetty film, Joseph Beuys’ Honey Pump, and a heap of earth Grass Grows, courtesy of Hans Haacke. These are classics, which have stood the test of time and inspire us to consider our relationship to the environment and the society of which we are a part. However, I also found the Alaska Pipeline film by the Center for Land Use Interpretation and a project by Lara Almarcegui on the areas of East London destroyed by the Olympic construction to be poetic and provoking. Tomas Sarecano’s etherial spheres hovered above the main gallery space.
In contrast, Earth: Art of a Changing World addressed climate change head on, with a very clear agenda. It opened with a big sizzling globe. Thankfully, it wasn’t all that bad. A diamond made out of the bone of a polar bear by Heath Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, some lovely fragile clay flowers by Clare Twomey certainly made their point and were also featured in Unfold. Sophie Calle took her mother’s jewelry to the North Pole. Old works, such as Cornelia Parker’s brilliant Heart of Darkness and Anthony Gormley’s Amazonia Field were repackaged with a new message.
I don’t mean to be flippant, as some of this was actually very good. I was particularly touched by Ackroyd and Harveys’ trees grown from acorns sourced from Joseph Beuys’ trees; on the opposite end of the spectrum a joyful video, Doomed, by Tracey Moffat made much ado about explosions! and destruction! and Marielle Neudecker’s vitrine was just lovely….. But something was missing. Maybe the show didn’t hold together in the right way; perhaps too many viewpoints were represented. Many of the works in themselves were excellent, but when presented together as a whole were lessened.
So, coming back to the Unfold exhibition…. I found that it had some of the same problems as Earth: Art of a Changing World (and indeed featured some of the same artists). I think that part of the problem is that we are looking at this theme a little too early. It isn’t mature. It isn’t an integral part of these artists’ practice. With the exception of Harvey and Ackroyd, who have an acclaimed history of making environmental art, much of what was presented in these two shows was artists dipping their tow into this area. Is Tracey Emin really a climate artist? Not really, but like all the rest of us, she can respond…. But the sound of it all together is a bit of a cacaphony. We’re talking over each other and nobody can hear a coherent message. Radical Nature, for all the variation in media, and the mixture of classic land art with contemporary environmental art had a tighter focus and less of an agenda, aside from perhaps evoking a feeling of longing for what we are losing. The artists in “Radical Nature” made nature, one way or another, an integral part of their practices and were able to engage with it in a highly sophisticated way.
To come back to my initial feeling of ennui and apapthy about climate art…. I do feel more optimistic than I did, initially walking out of the Unfold exhibition. Perhaps I am looking for more artists who use the climate as a medium in their art and engage with this in a serious way. And there are so many ways to do this. In future posts, I hope to cover the Harvey and Ackroyd practice in greater detail, but also get into some really innovative uses of climate data in art.