Art review: Our Time on Earth, the Barbican

Our Time on Earth is a new exhibition opening today at The Barbican Centre in London, and presenting a creative response to the climate emergency. 18 different artists have contributed, from 12 different countries, each offering a different perspective on living well in the anthropocene.

Visitors enter The Curve gallery in darkness, and are invited to take a breath. It’s a reflective way into an exhibition that is full of questions and tensions. Then, rounding the corner, we get a magnificent video projection of a tree, cut away to reveal the flow of nutrients through its trunk and roots. Here is the source of the breath we take, and the tree in turn relies on the soil, the microbes, the water cycle. It’s by the art collective Marshmallow Laser Feast and it’s a lovely way to introduce the theme of inter-connectivity that runs through the event, and locate the visitor within it.

Over the series of spaces that follow, different artists offer often radically different propositions. Superflux present a table set for an inter-species dinner party. How would you lay the table if you were expecting a fox, a wasp, or a pigeon among your guests? This theme is picked up elsewhere in an interactive game from the digital studio DVTK, who invite you to play as a mountain, a fungus or a glacier. It forces you to think about what a fungus or a glacier want, pushing visitors out of a human-centred view of the world. Designed in collaboration with the Institute for Global Prosperity, it raises questions about a relational economy, and solidarity across species.

Lots of the works here are partnerships, often unexpected ones. The indigenous constructors of living root bridges, as used by the Khasi of North India, share their techniques with architects to explore how it might work in an urban setting. George Monbiot works with the Holition studio on an immersive installation on soil science. A dozen activists from around the world contribute their stories to a section on how we respond to the challenges presented here.

There are some practical and tactile elements to the exhibition alongside the glossy digital art. I loved a section on biofabrication, featuring a series of different materials made from seaweed, microbes or mycoproteins. I’ve written about some of these before, such as MycoWorks’ leather or the engineered spider silk from North Face, and biofabrication is an exciting field to keep an eye on. I was also pleased to find a ‘materials bank’ contributed by the Kenyan architecture and engineering firm BuildX, and videos showing how innovative natural materials are used in their projects.

Some contributions are less practical and more like thought experiments, such as Liam Young’s Planet City. He imagines “a future in which humans step back and let the planet heal” by retreating into a single enormous 165-storey city of 10 billion people. Such a city would have 23.3 million birthday parties a day, he notes, though it made me think of the dystopian mega-city in Courttia Newland’s novel A River Called Time.

The contrast in ideas sets up an interesting dialogue between them – retreat from nature, or find ways to live better within it? Return to traditional ways or life, invent new futuristic ones, or hybridise? The exhibition is a conversation between technology, science, art, indigenous wisdom, activism and more besides, with lots of space for visitors to draw their own conclusions.

Like the breath at the beginning, the show is book-ended with another moment of reflection. Visitors exit through a ‘sonic waterfall’, a tumbling rush of sound recorded by an Icelandic stream. I found myself naturally lingering to listen in the dark. It struck me that this was a peaceful and relaxing sound, but given its location this might also be glacial meltwater. That seems like an apt coda for an exhibition that balances the beauty of the earth and the urgency of the environmental crisis.

  • Our Time on Earth runs until the end of August 2022, and then it will tour internationally. There are a variety of concessions, but fair warning – at £18 for adults, admission isn’t cheap.
  • If you’re in the area, there are several free access exhibits throughout the lobbies of the Barbican, including the rather neat The Ideal City 2040. I happened to arrive wearing the exact shade of yellow used in the installation, to the delight of the press photographer.

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