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Earth: Art of a Changing World


Yao Lu

Spring in the City 2009

C-type print

Courtesy the artist and Red Mansion Foundation



Royal Academy of Arts

6 Burlington Gardens


3 December 2009 – 31 January 2010






A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


It’s not every day one views an art exhibition focusing on as urgent an issue as Climate Change, and it’s equally rare for a contemporary art exhibition to inspire afterthoughts about the issue it’s addressed, if any. This exhibition is, however, as important as it is intriguing, as, for the most part, it approaches the subject of Climate Change as though it were something very real and pressing, which of course, it is, while at the same time, allowing its artists room to speculate and even play with their subject matter. The differing artistic approaches, often leading to a myriad of responses, can give pause to wonder whether this issue may have been lurking in the wings of our collective consciousness for much longer than its public life suggests.  Featuring works by thirty-four artists from around the globe, the exhibition speaks of its’ topic on many levels, though text, sound, video, paintings, sculptures and in one instance, NASA film footage recorded by a space satellite, employed in the work, Black Rain - Semiconductor (2009) (HD video) by artists Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, meant to offer a broader perspective, which is, ultimately, as compelling as it is humbling to watch.

Viewing this timely, necessarily disturbing exhibition on a day when headlines announced this year’s November as the wettest since records began in 1951, only stressed the urgency of its intent. In recent years, increasingly varying weather patterns, including a ‘Fifth Season’ scientists refer to as ‘Mid-winter spring’, and acknowledgement of the loss of both autumn and spring in, among other areas of the world, the Mont Blanc region of France, as confirmed in the ecological film, The Age of Stupid, are just a few of the many facts reminding us that urgent steps must be taken in the lead up to and aftermath of the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen this month. Positive actions on a mass scale are needed if we are to reverse our wasteful habits in the hope of sustaining our ravaged habitat.  While it may be true that, as a planet earth would continue to survive, come what may, it is not necessarily a given that human beings could continue to exist in their ever dwindling environment should the exhausted components necessary to our lives on earth diminish to the point of vanishing altogether.

On entering this exhibition, my thoughts flashed back to my Angela Palmer’s recently exhibited work Ghost Forest in Trafalgar Square, an unexpectedly moving installation comprised of several dead stumps of what were once, great trees in the Ghana rainforest, felled for profit with no thought of future generations. Ms. Palmer’s epic work was moved to Copenhagen to synch with the impending UN Climate Change Summit there on December 7 – 18.  During this crucial period, visiting Earth – Art of a Changing World, right here, in London, during the year’s consumerist high-time, will hopefully, help re-establish priorities.

The exhibition itself is divided into four separate but related sections: ‘Perceived Reality’, ‘The Artist as Explorer’, ‘Destruction’, and ‘Re-reality’. There is also a very mixed selection of works comprised of art in various mediums – sculpture, film, installation which collectively functions as an Introduction to the exhibition, offering an overview to what is to come.

The oldest piece in this exhibition, comprised of many newer works, is Antony Gormley’s Amazonian Field (1992) consisting of a countless multitude of small, staring terracotta figures fashioned from the mud of the Amazon by local people. It has stood the test of time in that, as a conceptual piece, it is still one of Gormley’s most successful works, and one that fits well in the Intro portion of this exhibit as it suggests collaborative effort, something essential to the achievement of our very necessary, planetary goals. Although the exhibition’s curators did not wish to be ‘literal’ in that they did not want the exhibition to tell its viewers what to do about Climate Change, this piece suggests a viable starting point.


Antony Gormley RA

Amazonia Field 1992 (detail)


Courtesy of the artist and White Cube, London


Yael Bartara’s DVD, King of the Hill, depicting, in the artist’s words, ‘a particular sector of the upper-middle-class male population of a Western culture’ jockeying for position on sand hills in their four wheel drives, reflects on the notion of the artist as anthropologist, highlighting the pointlessness of such futile pastimes on the one hand, while reflecting on man’s inability to dominate nature on the other. In terms of ‘Perceived Realities’ Clare Twomey’s Specimen (2009) is particularly effective as it demonstrates the fragility of nature via a number of unfired white clay flowers, some of which are protectively displayed in glass cabinets, while others are strewn across the mantelpiece and floor, thus subject to the carelessness or respect of man in the everyday scheme of things. The installation is especially poignant as it highlights man’s tendency to take his environment for granted as well as the sense of loss we would invariably feel should such natural objects of beauty be lost to us. The sense of legacy inherent to Ackroyd and Harvey’s work, Beuys’ Acorns is also apt as it was not only inspired by the late Joseph Beuys’ 1982 project ‘to plant 7,000 oak trees in Kassel’, but it is a true act of torch passing, as the young saplings hardening outside of 6 Burlington Gardens as part of this exhibition were planted, germinated and nurtured from acorns taken from Beuys original oak trees.

When you consider that the inspiration Chris Jordon’s imaginative, ultra chrome, pigmented inkjet work, Paper Bags, (2007) in Room One was originally statics, it seems as though it should be much more banal than it is. But when you ponder the fact that those statics chart the 1.4 million brown paper bags being used in American supermarkets every hour, Jordon’s work, which seemingly, depicts a rather lovely, peaceful looking birch forest at close range, begins to take on a more ominous meaning. There is something touching about Finnish artist Antti Laitinen’s mounted prints detailing the various stages of the three month, intensive process involved with It’s My Island 1 (2007), even when taking into account the fact that the camera is only capable of focusing on whatever it is being pointed at, which, is actually, another transitory, nature-like aspect of the work that could be taken into account. After labouring in the cold waters of the Baltic Sea to construct his own little piece of paradise, at the conclusion of his temporal experiment, Laitenen allowed his mind to drift as he was photographed contemplating the impermanent fruits of his efforts.


Antitti Laitinen

It's My Island, 1 2007

Diasec mounted C-type print

Courtesy NETTIE HORN, London

Supported by the Embassy of Finland, London


As they similarly involve journeys of sorts, the works exhibited under the heading, ‘The Artist as Explorer’ require a little more effort to assimilate. Tomas Saraceno’s Endless Series (2006) for example, in which the artist is depicted through photographs while considering potential habitats on Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, echoes not only his earlier interest in unusual habitats but also, the possibility of creating living spaces in terrains where none may have formerly been possible. Saraceno’s work, in turn, made me think of the work of American maverick architect aka ‘Garbage Warrior’ Michael Reynolds whose ever-expanding compound of self-sustained, off-the-grid’ Earth-ships in the New Mexico desert, prove that by working with nature, instead of against it, a good life is possible in a normally non-conducive environment. Sophie Cale’s North Pole (2009) is another piece in this section effectively reflecting, not only on a sense of place, but also of time, as it relates to environment. Cale’s artistic journey took her to the Artic, a journey which was also an unfulfilled goal of her recently deceased mother. Once there, Cale buried a photo of her mother, along with her treasured pearl necklace and diamond ring in a glacier, effectively taking her mother where she had always longed to go. Poet Lemn Sissay’s rousing wakeup call What If? conveyed in this exhibition via a video recording of Sissay performing his work, accompanied by two jazz musicians, Gary Crosby and Peter Edward, shows the poet’s emotive words often overlaying interspersed clips of traffic jams, crowds of commuters and other frantic urban phenomena, making the message of his poem seem even more urgent. For me, the most potent message of Sissay’s poem was contained in the repeated phrases, ‘What if we were wrong? What if we weakened ourselves getting strong?’

Cornelia Parker is represented by Heart of Darkness (2004), the title of which was inspired by Conrad’s Room 3, ‘Destruction’.  Parker views the charred remains of the Florida forest-fire hanging here as ‘a metaphor for the disastrous consequences of political tinkering’.


Cornelia Parker

Heart of Darkness, 2004


Courtesy of the Artist and Frith Street Gallery, London


The video collage of Australian artist, Tracey Moffatt, Doomed (2007), (edited by Gary Hillberg), depicting catastrophic scenes from Hollywood disaster movies may seem comic until you realise that some of the scenarios being enacted could become realities if our wasteful habits and lifestyles remain unaltered. Tue Greenfort’s Medusa Swarm (2009), a host of jellyfish, made of delicate Murano glass, is deceptively pleasing, for in reality, these creatures are becoming increasingly problematic as more and more of their predators expire through changing habitats, leading to their former victims’ ever escalating numbers. Only last week, Japanese divers were photographed with record numbers of native giant jellyfish in their waters, which, they feel, are probably due to rising sea temperatures. At times, in terms of art, an idea which seems very simple can speak volumes, ‘time’ being the operative word in the case of Darren Almond’s Tide, (2008), which consists of nothing more than a wall full of digital clocks, all flipping their numbers in unison, demonstrating the swiftly passing tides of time.

The concluding room of the exhibition, ‘Re-reality’ holds two pieces of especially effective work – Yao Lu’s Spring in the City (2008) and Keith Tyson’s three Nature Paintings (2008) (Mixed media on aluminium). Lu’s work hovers between two mediums – painting and photography as it is a digitally manoeuvred photograph of mounds of trash in China, cleverly alerted to mimic the style of traditional Chinese ink painting. Conversely, Tyson’s work, admittedly ‘created by nature’, is intrinsically beautiful, even more so when one considers that Tyson accidentally discovered that when chemicals are mixed with pigment, mysterious elemental patterns emerge.



Keith Tyson

Nature Painting, 2008

Mixed Media on Aluminum

Courtesy of the Artist


Although some of the other works in this concluding section may seem somewhat anti-climatic, best-selling author Ian McEwan’s piece,‘The Hot Breath of Our Civilisation’ redeems them. McEwan’s impassioned treatise questions whether this is the ‘beginning, or the beginning of the end.’

Collective responses must be preceded by honest questions inspired by mutual curiosity and concern. Earth – Art of a Changing World encourages thought which may, or may not lead to action, no matter where you stand on the issue of Climate Change, which may sooner than later, be nowhere, where our environment once was, but is no more.


Darren Almond

Tide, 2008

digital wall clocks, Perspex, electro-mechanics, steel, vinyl, computerised electronic control system and components

Courtesy of the artist and White Cube, London






10am –6pm daily (last admission 5.30pm)

Late night openings: Fridays until 10pm (last admission 9.30pm)

£7 full price; £6 Registered Disabled and 60 + years; £5 NUS / ISIC cardholders; £4 12–18 years and Income Support; £3 8–11 years; 7 and under free. Family Ticket: £16

Tickets are available daily at the RA. To book tickets in advance please visit




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