by Rahul KumarJun 17, 2022
Contemporary artists have taken up the role of confronting the precarious present as the environmental catastrophe worsens. And so, environmentally concerned art is gaining popularity. Several art institutions and associations throughout the globe are offering scholarships and awards to visual artists whose work confronts the climate catastrophe directly. Whether in American art, Korean art, or art from any other culture, the concept of environment has nearly always been present. Its representation can be exact or even abstract at times, limiting it to only natural colours. When we talk about nature and the environment, especially the climate crisis, we can see how artists have shaped their work in the past around the story of the planet and its ecology. Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, completed in 1970, is without a doubt the most famous work of earth art. Smithson had to rearrange rock, dirt, and algae to create a long (1500 feet) spiral-shaped jetty extending out into the Great Salt Lake in Utah for his earth sculpture. From 1980-83, Christo Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude encircled 11 Florida islands in pink polypropylene fabric, and in 1997-98, they wrapped 180 trees in woven polyester fabric at the Fondation Beyeler and Berower Park in Basel, Switzerland. Another notable work was James Turrell's initiative to re-sculpt the ground surrounding the Roden Crater volcano in Arizona - arguably the largest ever undertaken.
A significant multi-site exhibition reacting to the climate catastrophe this year is Back to Earth at Serpentine Galleries. It's their long-term, multidisciplinary creative response to the world's urgent catastrophic climate change. Back to Earth will reflect how we may learn from varied experiences to generate change by evoking answers to the climate emergency and highlighting a variety of durational viewpoints from around the world. Serpentine has produced ground-breaking shows from a wide variety of young practitioners to the most widely recognised artists of our time since 1970, championing new ideas in contemporary art.
Back to Earth is a multi-year initiative in which over 60 of the world's most prominent artists, architects, poets, filmmakers, scientists, philosophers, and designers are invited to respond to the environmental catastrophe. These collaborators are developing artistic campaigns, protocols, and projects with the help of partner organisations and networks. The interdisciplinary initiative runs through all of Serpentine's onsite, offsite, and online programmes, pooling resources to magnify existing climate-related projects and campaigns, as well as to generate new ones. Back to Earth recognises ecology as a part of everyday activities and institutions.
An installation by artist Tabita Rezaire and architect Yussef Agbo-Ola of Olaniyi Studio will explore humans’ relationship with medicinal plants. They created a temple as a multisensory environment for people to remember the therapeutic properties of plants. The temple is made up of recycled materials from past Serpentine shows and has specifically woven panels that will be rebuilt into a structure at Amakaba, Rezaire's agroecology centre in French Guiana. The Palais de Tokyo in Paris has collaborated on this exhibit. A series of earth and clay figures by Dineo Seshee Bopape will be among the other attractions. In a partnership that investigates techniques of reengaging with our bodies, lands, and ancestors, animist Catitu Tayassu transforms the artist's motions and breath into sound compositions.
Along with many other artist-designed posters, Formafantasma, a research-based design company, will propose a manifesto for exhibition-making that reduces carbon emissions. The art installation by artist Giles Round will include mirrored surfaces and forms inspired by satellites that monitor environmental changes in order to maximise natural light and limit the need of artificial lighting. Carolina Caycedo’s new wallpaper will wrap the exhibition area, combining satellite photos of streams influenced by human activity across the Americas. The Family and The Zombie, new film commission from Karrabing Film Collective, will debut in the UK, exploring the importance of connection to land and Indigenous cultures. Artist and researcher Sissel Tolaas has created a one-of-a-kind scent score that will grow throughout the space and during the exhibition, utilising the emotive power of our sense of smell to highlight the need for change in response to the climate crisis.
Bettina Korek and Hans Ulrich Obrist stated that the Back to Earth programme, in its third year, has proven to be a vibrant platform for multidisciplinary ideas and practises at Serpentine. They assert that the immersive exhibition is an opportunity to present a selection of Back to Earth initiatives to audiences under the umbrella of a show, to analyse the interaction between artists, intellectuals, performers, and curators, and to consider the relevance of forging new links between art and society. According to them, the earth and the climatic disaster that people are confronting as natural creatures could not be a more universal subject matter. The cries for change and innovative solutions that have emerged as a result of Back to Earth have inspired them, and they hope that the same will inspire others.
Back to Earth at Serpentine North will continue to utilise existing structures and materials from deconstructed portions of the prior installation, Radio Ballads, to reduce waste and reinvent exhibition production. Almost all of the work was created in-house, and the inks and papers used in printed products were chosen with recycling processes in mind.
An exhibition about transformation that also serves as a catalyst for change, Back to Earth is a complex network of interrelated studies, actions, and activities that echoes the worldwide reaction to the climate problem. The project asks the following questions: What new ecosystems can create agency inside organisations? To offer complicated remedies to complex issues, what kind of research sharing, resource sharing, and collaborative working processes are required? How can arts organisations raise awareness of climate measures that benefit people, locations, and imaginations all over the world?
The Back to Earth marathon, co-curated with Brian Eno, will bring together participants from all disciplines to address today's environmental urgencies on Earth Day 2023, reflecting Serpentine's long-term commitment to working with visual artists in the face of climate change and building on the organisation's long-standing experience in the production of ambitious, multidisciplinary, live art events at the forefront of contemporary thought. The programme will feature an exhibition staged at Serpentine North from June 22 to September 18, 2022, with further works situated in Serpentine’s restaurant The Magazine and further afield in Kensington Gardens. Back to Earth will also feature an extensive live programme with activations during the exhibition and for the next two years.
(Text by Vatsala Sethi, Asst. Editorial Coordinator (Arts))