LONDON — Over the course of its 250-year history, the Royal Academy has often been a byword for traditionalism. The historic London institution does not have a reputation for being radical. It’s thus surprising to see it tackling the contentious subject of the climate crisis in its current exhibition, Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a Planet in a State of Emergency, which is sponsored by Octopus Energy, a renewable energy company. After a recent controversy around big oil sponsorship at other London cultural institutions, it’s refreshing that money for the arts could come from more ethical quarters.
The exhibition starts boldly. The gallery texts make it clear that climate breakdown is forcing the world to a crisis point: “We are facing an ecological emergency,” the curatorial statement declares. There is talk of global warming, extreme weather, and mass extinction. It suggests, rightly, that although interest in “sustainability” has increased recently, “these measures have not proved to be enough and in order to avoid further damage to nature, we need a renewed creative thinking.”
On entering the exhibition, visitors are faced with “Domestic catastrophe No3: La Planete Laboratoire” (2019) by artist collective HeHe, in which a revolving globe in a tank of water is gradually wrapped in a murky green dye. It evokes both the smothering of the planet by greenhouse gases and humanity’s disproportionately slow response.
Virgil Abloh’s “Alaska Chair” (2018) conveys a similar message. Originally designed (ironically) for IKEA, the chair tilts, as if it is sinking in flood waters, highlighting the effect of mass consumption on global warming and sea-level rise. A doorstop is wedged under one of the legs, which the artwork label argues is a metaphor for stop-gap solutions to climate breakdown. The label states:
This work is inspired by the concept of acqua alta, an Italian term used to describe regular floods in Venice caused by high tides and warm winds. The chair is partially submerged by the rising flood waters, with a doorstop wedge symbolically representing the short-term, makeshift solutions we have for tackling climate change.
Also a fashion designer for his own label, Off-White, and Louis Vuitton menswear, Abloh has previously taken on social issues in his artwork. However, it’s unclear here if the curators have considered the conflict between the chair’s message and the carbon footprint created by Abloh’s fashion companies and the additional social and environmental byproducts of mass consumption.
Utopian and dystopian futures collide in works such as Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s “The Substitute” (2019), which brings viewers face-to-face with a life-sized digital reproduction of the functionally extinct northern white rhinoceros. Stomping around a white-cube CGI room, this AI-assisted “substitute” animal fluctuates between stylized pixels and photorealism, pointing to the imaginative power of AI technology — and its total failure to meaningfully stand in for nonhuman life.
In the same section, Basim Magdy’s “Our Prehistoric Fate” (2011) presents Duraclear prints of a prehistoric creature and of a text that reads “the future belongs to us,” clamped onto Yugoslavian military lightboxes. The work effectively links anxiety about nuclear war with anxiety about climate breakdown, while two works from Pinar Yoldas’s series An Ecosystem of Excess (2013-17) reimagine a biological future in which organisms are able to live on humanity’s plastic waste. In these sculptural pieces, strange invented specimens are suspended in liquid and illuminated from below; it is a sci-fi dream for a weirdly consumption-focused utopia.
The exhibition abounds in speculative science-fiction-like approaches to a post-carbon or newly eco-conscious future, from designs for floating cities and machines for regenerating deserts to biogas power plants and tools to develop the human digestive system. These works address important issues regarding environmental consciousness and the future. But Eco-Visionaries presents a very specific image of environmental art and design. The overall aesthetic is overwhelmingly technological — as are many of the proposed “solutions” to the problems facing our world. The selection of works in the exhibition suggest that technology is our main hope for a better future, generally ignoring the current discourse around natural climate solutions.
I felt Eco-Visionaries was missing embodied, hands-on explorations of ecology and open-ended inquiries into cross-species experiences — for instance, collaborative experiments such as “Golden Snail Opera: The More-than-Human Performance of Friendly Farming on Taiwan’s Lanyang Plain” (2017) by Yen-Ling Tsai, Isabelle Carbonell, Joelle Chevrier, and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing; Anais Tondeur’s work with philosopher Michael Marder exploring plant consciousness; or Marcus Coates’s respectful inhabiting of nonhuman viewpoints in his performance pieces. Perhaps such artworks might be considered outside the remit of an exhibition about “confronting a planet in a state of emergency,” as the show’s subtitle puts it; but, directly or indirectly, such ecological art inevitably deals with climate breakdown and extinction, because such interconnections are integral to contemporary ecology.
A sense of confrontation between humans and the earth, of an Anthropocene where humanity is conceived of as an unstoppable, worldwide force, is central to Eco-Visionaries, which fails to address the many ways in which human lives are entangled with nonhuman creatures and systems because it privileges technology. The exhibition does briefly recognize that that technology comes with its own environmental problems: for example, “The Breast Milk of the Volcano” (2016-18), by research studio Unknown Fields, questions the sustainability of the lithium-based batteries that power most modern electronic devices.
I was confused, too, by the decision to block natural light from the exhibition space. This created a bunker-like atmosphere, as if the predicted climate apocalypse had already arrived. Furthermore, these controlled, dramatically lit spaces make it hard to imagine how the speculative ideas expressed inside are relevant to the wider world.
While some of the artworks in this exhibition are exciting and valuable, they don’t necessarily offer a full sense of the “renewed creative thinking” the curators argue we need to get us out of our current (self-)destructive trajectory. Eco-Visionaries makes an interesting contribution to the discussion, but it barely scratches the surface of a global problem that will only become more urgent.
Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a Planet in a State of Emergency continues at Royal Academy (London, UK) through February 23, 2020. The exhibition is curated by Pedro Gadanho, Gonzalo Herrero Delicado and Mariana Pestana with Rose Thompson.