‘Brave’ contemporary art or climate change agit-prop — which is more tiresome?
Such is the quandary with which, at least in theory, Earth: Art of a changing world presents visitors to the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens site, in the second of three annual GSK Contemporary seasons. If, in the event, Earth turns out to be something rather different from what either climate change sceptics or enthusiasts might reasonably have expected, the result is, nonetheless, revealing.
Don’t get me wrong. Earth isn’t without the odd pleasant surprise. For one thing, low expectations do pay good dividends. It’s still simply not that easy to gather together work by 34 artists without stumbling over something that merits at least brief consideration, perhaps even a degree of visual interest.
And then, even when faced with the reliable disappointment that is our contemporary art scene, there’s a point at which basic human sympathy starts to assert its own modest if stubborn demands.
Consider, just for a moment, the plight of the exhibition’s organisers. Faced with the need to bundle together a disparate job-lot of contemporary art in a manner unlikely to repel the out-of-town Christmas-shopping crowd who constitute so lucrative a slice of the RA’s winter audience, the Earth theme was, all things considered, a perfectly rational choice — capacious enough to include pretty much anything, of course, but also right-on enough to cast a flattering glow of moral rectitude across faces long since hardened by the rigours of several hours’ of full-throttle seasonal consumerism, while at the same time not excluding at least the possibility of ‘edginess’, that sparkling decorative flourish without which no contemporary art exhibition could ever be complete. Comprendre, c’est pardoner, this being the season of goodwill and everything.
In summary, then, if Earth includes quite a lot of absolute rubbish — and if, upon noticing Antony Gormley’s ‘Field’ theme getting yet another airing here, one really has to struggle in order to avoid the obvious ‘recycling’ jokes — then there are also a handful of works which, while they don’t in any real sense ‘consider […] our transition to a new world’ as advertised in the press release, do work as art, at least of a sort, even if they fail as propaganda.
These are all points to which we may return in due course. Let’s start, however, with a quick bit of rubbish-clearing.
We can start outside the venue with one small act of environmental pollution, entirely preventable. The thing stuck onto the front of Burlington Gardens — a place I pass twice every weekday — which I had hitherto taken to be a failed Christmas decoration, is in fact Marcos Lutyens and Alessandro Marianantoni’s CO2morrow (2009), a work executed in ‘carbon fibre, LED, aluminium and data stream’, and commissioned — apparently — by the National Trust. At least when I pass it in the future, I shall be able to entertain myself by composing fictive James Lees-Milne diary entries on the subject. I doubt he’d have liked it much.
Inside the building, suspended above the great stairs, hangs an enormous scrunched-up ball of coloured cellophane, the sort in which downmarket florists wrap bouquets for mourners to leave at the sites of fatal accidents. This work, by Spencer Finch, is called Sunlight in an Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004) (2004). ‘By attempting to capture the ephemeral and formless’, this item ‘investigates the imprecise nature of perception in relation to memory’. And indeed, its relationship to Dickinson does seem to be characterised by imprecision of perception, as this mess — Chihuly on the cheap — has precisely nothing to do with Dickinson’s weird, hermetic, dangerously sharp-edged genius.
Equally pointless, if marginally harder work for all concerned, is Antii Laitinen’s It’s My Island (2007). For reasons that remain wholly unclear to me — the curators’ notes cite ‘an interest in citizenship and identity’ — the Finnish artist spent three months trying to construct an artificial island in the Baltic Sea, documenting the process in film and photographs. The film, shown on three screens, is resolutely, assertively uninteresting. Admittedly, this is often the case with video installations, too many of which work off the premise that the straight-faced repetition of something meaningless will somehow infuse the end product with transcendent meaning. The photos are glossy, probably quite expensive to produce, and entirely predictable. In the end, surprisingly enough, my understanding of ‘citizenship and identity’ was not much altered by this encounter with Laitinen’s work.
But then perhaps I was too busy fuming at the sheer wastefulness of this whole project. During the months in which this much-subsidised artist attempted to build and document his island — his ‘struggle’ punctuated, presumably, with hot showers, nourishing meals and encouraging messages from his gallerist received via a functional internet connection — how many individuals risked or indeed lost their lives trying to escape poverty, repressive regimes, grim inheritances of persecution and abuse? How many work much harder than Laitinen ever did, not to win some prize or make some point, but just to escape unendurable circumstances? There are ways in which art can speak of all these things, however imperfectly. Instead of doing so, though, Laitinen pushes himself into the foreground, trying to substitute an artist’s flimsy metaphor for a wealth of all-too-real human problems.
Obviously someone out there regards this sort of thing as both moving and persuasive. Otherwise, why fund it? Why bore us all with it? For my part, though, I found the whole project contemptible — and not just as ‘art’, either. The only more distasteful work in the exhibition was Kris Martin’s 100 Years (2004), a smallish gold sphere which, we are told, is actually an explosive device programmed to detonate a century after its creation. Apparently, this ‘makes us think about our attitude to the world’. Well, personally, having thought about the world quite a lot with no prompting at all from Martin, I have concluded that far too many bombs have been placed in public spaces already, in Britain and further afield. I am also pretty sure that Martin should be ashamed of himself.
Alongside the signs of artistic and moral bankruptcy, there’s also quite a lot of laziness on show. I’ve already mentioned the re-use of Gormley’s ‘Field’ idea. We’ve seen all sorts of ‘Fields’ before, huge assemblages of small shapeless figures, huddled together, fashioned out of mud. In this case, we’re presented with Amazonian Field, made out of mud from the — but then you’ve probably guessed the answer already, haven’t you? In any event, though, it turns out that Amazonian mud looks pretty much like all the other mud from which Gormley’s various ‘Fields’ have been confected, while the impact of the installation diminishes with each repetition, critical patience being no more infinite a resource than any other. Those little clay figures no longer look surprised at the odd places in which they periodically discovered them, more weary and a little jaded, like passengers awaiting a delayed connecting flight, more than ready to be home for good this time.
Laziness is also a central theme in the work of Cornelia Parker. As far as I can see, Parker has had precisely one good idea in the course of her professional life — or two, possibly, if one includes that business of stuffing Tilda Swinton into a vitrine. The relevant idea in this case, anyway, involves taking fragments of something and hanging them in an aesthetically attractive ‘cloud’ formation. Here, in Heart of Darkness (2004), Parker takes fragments left over from a Florida forest-fire, and hangs them in an aesthetically attractive ‘cloud’ formation. At least she’s had a lot of practice by now.
Heart of Darkness wasn’t, at least originally, ‘about’ climate change. At first, it was ‘about’ Florida, Al Gore and the US voting system. It hardly matters, though, because Parker now says that the work is ‘about’ the ‘disastrous consequences of political tinkering, from the hanging chads in the US presidential election to the cutting down of rainforests to the growing of biofuels to power Hummers’ — although the admirable, up-for-anything flexibility of the piece presumably doesn’t stretch to denouncing ‘political tinkering’ of the sort that will presumably issue forth from Copenhagen.
After absorbing all that, however, some viewers may find that a degree of numbness sets in. Having seen several of Parker’s ‘explosion’ type pieces, it’s now all too easy to do a quick name-check — ‘that’s a Parker “explosion” type piece’ — and move on, leaving any notional ‘meaning’ attached to each actual installation hanging there, disregarded, amongst the little shards of carbonised material, rotating aimlessly in empty space.
But that’s probably enough scattergun condemnation for the moment. As mentioned, Earth also included a few works which were more than worthy of a second glance.
Take, for instance, Clare Twomey‘s Specimen (2009). Leaving the first major space of the exhibition, passing into a smaller room and swiftly executing a right-hand turn, one suddenly notices quite a lot of small, delicate flowers, worked in unfired china clay — some of them safely stored in a large Victorian display cabinet, but others scattered across the floor, flanking the door through which one must pass in order to exit this little space. The room also includes a marble mantle, richly worked, so at first the clay flowers look like run-aways from its surface, at least until one starts to contrast the hardness of stone with the flowers’ terrible fragility.
For, all too obviously, Twomey’s flowers are indeed fragile — some are broken already, smashed back into the dust from which they were formed, destroyed by our haste and lack of attention. The metaphor here, for all its obviousness, does indeed work well enough to engage the viewer briefly, pondering its logic whilst attempting to step around the little delicate shapes, which are, in themselves, rather beautiful, albeit in a ghostly, sad sort of way. Their vulnerability reflects back at us a general truth: we all blunder through life too fast, not thinking properly about the harm we do along the way. This is, in other words, art ‘about’ considerably more than just climate change. For a moment, it made me stop and look more closely, Elegantly installed in its small room under a high ceiling, the cold winter light pouring in on it from outside, its relative gravitas was at least as impressive as the craftsmanship underpinning it.
I’ve also got a quite a lot of time for Edward Burtynsky‘s chromogenic photographs. Admittedly, there are enormous and intractable problems bound up with the whole idea of allowing documentary photography to overlap with the specialised stuff of ‘art’ — problems that I tried to explore here, back in 2003 — which might well be contemplated, standing before Burtynsky’s luscious, luxuriously complicated images.
Although I’ve attempted to reproduce one of Burtynsky’s photographs at the top of the post, the result is almost laughable unlike the real thing. Burtynsky, a Canadian with a Ukrainian family background, is one of those photographers who pushes his medium to the frontiers of its technical limits. His large-scale, complex images are unfailingly generous in their accounts of detail, texture, chromatic and tonal variation. The gimmick, I suppose, is that while he mostly photographs scenes that we are supposed to find ugly — factories, industrial sites, the legacies of strip-mining and oil-extraction — the result is explicitly beautiful. So the moral stance is slightly odd. Are these exposed wounds supposed to elicit our pity or, conversely, a sort of adoration? Perhaps they simply exist to remind us how infinitely marvellous our world is, even those parts of it we tend to avoid or dislike — to remind us how little we see, most of the time, even when we imagine that we’re looking. All of which is perhaps a better commentary on climate change concerns than much of what was included in Earth, as failing to appreciate our surroundings is, in itself, a kind of culpable, regrettable waste.
Now, readers who know me will, at this point, doubtless require a moment or so to regain their composure, having fallen out of their various chairs in utter disbelief that I could ever, under any circumstances, have anything nice to say about a video installation. Admittedly, this doesn’t happen every day. Black Rain, though, is really, truly beautiful, albeit also strange, bleak and rebarbative. Projected into a darkened two-storey space which can be viewed either from floor-level, or from a ramp ascending at first-floor level, Black Rain is a monochrome film made up from raw visual data recorded by NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO), ‘a pair of satellites that track interplanetary solar winds and coronal mass ejections heading towards earth’. The grainy footage is, of course, impossible to read, yet mildly threatening in the way that (relatively) objective information always is. Out of the darkness above, little blazes of light spill down like a waterfall, dropping through the blackness around them, as the soundtrack crackles and spits ad infinitum. The effect of this is at once coldly rational and mysteriously romantic — impassive yet also somehow sad, in a pleasantly impersonal sort of way.
For all these reasons, Black Rain’s relationship to the meta-themes of Earth is, surely, an oblique one — a reminder of how much there is beyond this planet, beyond what we can easily understand or predict — a reflection that’s potentially as awe-inspiring as it is alarming. So, on reflection, what I really admired about Black Rain was, quite possibly, its contemplative arrogance, its obliviousness to earthly fuss, its aristocratic unconcern for ‘the planet’ and its parochial short-term travails — put bluntly, the work’s anti-Earth implications. Never let it be said that I don’t ‘get’ transgressive art.
Black Rain is explicitly inhuman — one can imagine, all too easily, this data still arriving, still streaming down in freezing torrents, long after no human being is left alive to register its contents. But then, Earth is largely a human-free zone. True, Edward Burtynsky does include Chinese factory workers — faces averted, their individuality hidden under lurid pink sterile garments and Fordist working practices — in one of his images. There’s also a strange little work by Sophie Calle, who in North Pole (2009) attempts to fulfill her late mother’s wish to visit the North Pole by burying her mother’s diamond ring and pearl necklace, together with a photo of her, in a glacier. Although a bit silly — not least, a glacier hundreds of miles from the North Pole is not, in fact, the North Pole at all — the exercise probably does say something about the rather primitive and debased religious impulses that underpin so much environmentalist sentiment.
And while Bill Woodrow‘s Small Stuenes Oscillator series (2009) doesn’t depict humans in any literal way, still, the experience he recounts — encountering the aurora borealis whilst fishing at midnight in an icy river in Norway — is not only a very human one, but reflected in very human terms, marked in rather batik-like oils on a printed cloth map. By overpainting the map, Woodrow seems to be postulating the persistence of direct, unmediated wonder in the face of the natural world, despite all that we’ve been told about it, despite the fact it’s all been mapped out for us already. This approach struck me as at once more modest, and also more genuine, than much of what’s on view in Earth. The paintings also, for what it’s worth, looked pretty good. This may not be particularly brilliant work, but at the margins, it’s still worth having.
All of which brings us, with a sort of grim apocalyptic inevitability, to Tracey Emin. It’s not really the done thing to say anything good about her work, at least in right-of-centre circles. Heaven knows, I’ve been mildly bad-tempered about her often enough myself. But all the same, I confess to rather liking her contribution to the Earth festivities. True, I loved you like the sky (2009) is entirely predictable: it’s one of those embroidery things, a sentimental little scrawl of urgent neediness festooned with a few casually-delineated depictions of birds, presumably copied from somewhere else, with a bit of neon thrown in. It isn’t great art, probably not even passable art. I loved you like the rain is in every sense the polar opposite of Black Rain — pure subjectivity, unable to rise above its own all-too-human preoccupations. One senses that to the extent that Our Trace wishes to save the earth, her argument is simply that to do otherwise would, perforce, make Our Trace very sad indeed. And we couldn’t have that, could we?
Yet however inadvertently, I loved you like the sky did seem to cast a revealing light upon the theme of the exhibition, documenting with ineluctable directness the self-indulgent romanticism and emotional incontinence so often in evidence wherever the future of the planet is discussed, or at least subjected to ritual lamentation. How much of our cultural preoccupation with climate change and related issues simply comes down to a series of strong emotional needs, currently unmet elsewhere? If global warming didn’t really exist, would someone at UEA have needed to invent it for us?
There are other works that might be mentioned — Mona Hatoum’s lavishly inconsequential Hot Spot (2006), whose account of ‘conflict and unrest’ undoubtedly says less about these topics, for all its ample fabrication budget, than even a relatively lacklustre edition of From Our Own Correspondent, for instance, or Yael Bartana’s Kings of the Hill (2003), a denunciation of male (hiss!) middle-class (hiss!!) Israelis (hissing optional here, yet more likely than not amongst our gallery-going subculture) struggling to drive big American-made 4 x 4 vehicles (we’re back to compulsory hissing here — get with the programme!) across some sand-dunes, an exercise that, for all the participatory opportunities it offers, lacks a certain counter-intuitive pungency — but that’s probably enough about Earth for now.
It’s easy to mock this sort of thing — perhaps just a little too easy. Let me hasten to add, then, for the sake of fairness, that the installation of the works has been executed with skill and verve, making probably the best visual case for all of them that could be made, that the lighting is every bit as dramatic and revealing as we have come to expect from recent RA shows, and that the little handbook that comes free with admission is in general a good-looking, useful production, that preachy little homily by Science Museum grandee Chris Rapley obviously excepted.
Indeed, for all the inevitable complaints about who’s included and who isn’t — why the total lack of even a single vaguely naturalistic drawing or painting, for instance, in a country with such an inexhaustibly rich heritage of landscape art? — these tour d’horizon shows are by no means the worst use for the Burlington Galleries. As one of the curators correctly noted at the press view (and here I’m paraphrasing, since I was too distracted by the amazing knitted dress she was wearing to take proper notes at the time) the Royal Academy is more than just a display space — it’s a network of living artists, engaged in different forms of practice, taking different stances in ongoing artistic and cultural debates. An exhibition like Earth does, for better or worse, focus one’s mind on what art ought to do, what it ought to be — where it stands in relation to objective truth on one hand, popular sentiment on the other — what it can, and cannot, be expected to achieve.
Earth is unlikely, however, to make much difference one way or the other to this planet’s climatic fortunes. The issue here is less whether art should ever be ‘about’ something — unlike plenty of critics, especially vaguely right-of-centre ones, the idea that art might function in support of some higher purpose bothers me not at all — but rather, whether any of what’s included in Earth will do more than simply play on viewers’ existing prejudices, so that those who harbour sentimental attachments to polar bears will go home from the RA basking in self-congratulation regarding the rightness of their attachment to polar bears, while those who would rather be blogging about Climategate anyway might be better off staying at home. Not least, so many of the works were either not ‘about’ climate change originally (Gormley, Parker), only very indirectly ‘about’ climate change even now (Calle, Hatoum, Emin), or indeed mostly ‘about’ art itself (Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey’s Beuys’s Acorns project, Keith Tyson’s Nature Painting (Water), etc), that the hard work of detecting climate change-related meaning from them is thrown back to an almost irksome degree on the viewer — unless, of course, the viewer comes prepared to project a lot of climate change-related meaning across the disparate set of artifacts on show here.
Quite possibly, however, this last point is as much an indictment of the present state of the climate change ‘debate’, as it is a critical pronouncement on Earth itself. Why is it, one wonders, that so many policy ‘debates’ seem to have degenerated into queasy exercises in gross simplification, name-calling, conspiracy theories, tribalism and appeals to raw emotion? Yet when it comes to health care, or the war in Afghanistan, or global warming, it is here, in this improbably black-and-white world of binary oppositions, that we seem to be mired. All too often, too, it is not enough that one should be ‘for’ or ‘against’ these things, either — not enough that one should choose sides as a climate change ‘believer’ or a ‘denier’ — one must also regard as incredibly stupid, if not downright evil, everyone who chooses differently. And no, that’s not a very satisfactory state of affairs.
Earth does, I suppose, at least serve to remind us how varied are the factors that go into determining which side we choose. Personality, upbringing, early inoculation with other apocalyptic scenarios, religious belief, Romanticism, emotional needs, nostalgia, pessimism, cravings for the adrenalin-rush of a crisis, a fondness for nature documentaries or disaster films, a dislike of the human race, puritanism, herd mentality, aesthetic preferences of obscure yet profound origins, faith in the efficacy of government action — all of these feed into how we respond to the notion of global warming — whether we believe that it exists, how we imagine that it might have come about, what we think should be done about it, whether we think anything should be done about it. And in that sense, the overwhelming impression of myopia, self-indulgence and moral laziness that pervades Earth turns out to be anything but meaningless.
I might as well put my cards on the table here. As an observer uncomfortably wedged at some unpopular midpoint in the climate change belief / denial continuum, I suspect that global warming probably is happening — but at the same time, I’m far from convinced that it’s man-made or, as far as that goes, that it’s something which the innate adaptability and resourcefulness of the human race can’t easily surmount, especially if unencumbered with all the usual collectivist, coercive state ‘solutions’.
So if I hate wasting food, love switching off lights and much prefer walking to motorised travel, these personal tics all predate our current environmental preoccupations, having much more to do with being brought up by Great Depression-era parents than with the rhetorical efforts of Jonathon Porritt & Co. If I spent quite a lot of my first decade fairly certain that all our more short-term problems, public and private alike, would soon be rendered irrelevant by Soviet nuclear strikes, the experience has, at least, rendered me quite relaxed about subsequent millenarian doctrines. And if I’m extremely keen on organic food, rare breeds, labour-intensive farming practices, Agas, the sort of houses which can’t be insulated, the Prince of Wales, unspoilt rural landscapes and the idea of happy polar bears, I do recognise that some of these preferences, at least, are relatively expensive luxuries to be sustained by those who can afford to do so, rather than moral imperatives to be enforced on all those other members of the human race who remain indifferent or indeed hostile to them.
For all these reasons — the halting attempts at self-knowledge very much included — I may not have been the natural constituency for Earth‘s presumed higher truths. All the same, I’ve got to admit that this exhibition did, in the end, shock me just a little.
Consider the evidence. Most of the artists whose work is displayed here are, we are told, ‘actively engaged’ with environmental issues. In theory, all of them are, at least in some sense, committed to exploring ‘the cultural impacts of climate change’. They all benefit from freedom of speech, bounteous leisure time, ample funding, a big public platform. Is this rather underwhelming effort, then, the best that real believers can do when it comes to creating an art of climate change?
Expecting, I suppose — no matter how resolutely I had braced myself to disagree with most of its central premises — an energising cocktail of urgency, emotional engagement and real commitment, what I found instead was, for the most part, that same old table d’hôte offering of ‘brave’ contemporary art, as blandly unpalatable this time around as on countless previous occasions, reheated yet again, garnished to serve the needs of the moment.
For all its pre-Copenhagan topicality and its good intentions, then, Earth turned out to be flat after all. And no, I don’t think that’s quite the message the organisers had in mind.