design environment

Art review: Eco-Visionaries at the Royal Academy

The long ecological emergency of this century will creep into every area of our lives. It will change the natural world of wildlife and weather, and it will change our human culture too. It will re-write our geography and our maps, and stimulate new approaches to architecture and planning. It will change language, food and living habits. And you’ll be able to see it our art and culture.

In the same way that we might discuss how industrialisation changed art and literature two hundred years ago, future students will be able to study the influence of the climate emergency on the culture of our own era. Our changing relationship with nature is there in novels by Amitav Ghosh or Barbara Kingsolver. Themes of guilt and responsibility surface in Hollywood movies such as Downsizing, Insterstellar, or the enigmatic Annihilation.

The Royal Academy is currently hosting an exhibition that brings together artists whose work explores a state of ecological emergency. Called Eco-Visionaries, it includes film, sculpture, painting and installations.

Visitors enter the exhibition to the sound of a theremin, the haunting soundtrack that accompanies the first artwork – a model of the earth rotating in a tank of murky liquid. The tank gets more murky as the exhibition goes on. Visiting several weeks in, the earth is reduced to a dark and almost featureless ball, the continents just about discernible if you squint.

There’s a wide variety in the work displayed. Some are gaudy and elaborate, such as the imagined internal organs of a theoretical ‘plastivore’. Others are strikingly simple, such as the tilted chair by Virgil Abloh. Its legs are uneven lengths so that it looks like it is sinking, while a wedge under one leg hints at the short term solutions we call on to keep up the pretence of normality.

There’s a fascinating film about lithium by the collective Unknown Fields. Filmed on the Bolivian salt flats, it combines the science of lithium and its cosmic origins with traditional folk tales about the mountains that overlook the white desert where it is found. The lithium is concentrated in these almost surreally colourful evaporation ponds, and there are photos and details of the expedition to film them over at the New Scientist.

I was also struck by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s large projection in the central room. Called The Substitute, it “explores a paradox: our preoccupation with creating new life forms, while neglecting existing ones.” In this case, the substitute is a life-size projection of ‘Sudan’, the last male northern white rhino, who died in 2018 and ended hopes of saving the sub-species. The animal was scanned and digitised in the last few months of its life, and then rebuilt with artificial intelligence. Recently extinct and yet so lifelike, the rhino shuffles weightlessly about in the stark white room of a virtual gallery space as if it doesn’t know how it got there.

There’s a bit of a surprise in the final space, where visitors entered a darkened room on a carefully timed schedule. Behind the doors is a ingeniously choreographed ‘conversation’ between species about who might be best suited to thrive in a changing world. It uses live moon jellyfish as a work of art, some lights and mirrors trickery, and I found it funny, moving and beautiful.

Eco-Visionaries runs until the 23rd of February at the Royal Academy, London.

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