Image: Fiona Glen

Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a Planet in a State of Emergency


Long-form review of Eco-Visionaries at the Royal Academy, London, published in Art & the Public Sphere vol. 8.2 in June 2020. 

Excerpts:

Recently, I learned of the deeper roots of the term emergency: a state of emergence. This expanded definition could be helpful in reorienting ourselves to the vertiginous uncertainties we face; a reminder that profound change is inherently abundant with potential. What might the emergent possibilities for our biosphere and the communities within it be, as they erupt from ecological disruption and indeterminate transformation? And how might our arts – through storytelling, speculation or solution-building – contribute towards more generative planetary relations?

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In its second incarnation as one of the RA’s headline winter exhibitions, Eco-visionaries tantalizingly appeared to invite the forthright intensity of activism into one of the United Kingdom’s more conservative cultural institutions. While the arts often present transformative perspectives, it was notable for the RA to adopt a language of ‘confrontation’, and planetary ‘emergency’ – a phrase that has rapidly entered mainstream vocabulary over the past year, proliferating in the influence of XR. Hearteningly, this was a marketable possibility for one of London’s more establishment-aligned galler- ies, even in a year which has seen two-week-long Rebellions paralyse the city centre and derail ‘business as usual’. Hinting at the possibilities and actions emerging from environmental despair, Eco-visionaries made a potent promise.

Stepping into the RA’s Burlington Galleries, I find the first room dark- ened. In the muted light, the first work I encounter is a globe, pirouetting smoothly on its clear acrylic axis in a tank of water. Artist duo HeHe’s Domestic Catastrophe No3: La Planète Laborataire (2018) initially resembles the familiar view from above – the cloudless clarity of satellite vision, the scientific God’s- eye ‘view from nowhere’ (Haraway 1988: 575–99) – yet in the gloom, their model Earth is cloaked in a choking bath of luminescent green fibres. These strands cluster on the brow of the planet and dance in irregular dust devils across the base of the murky tank; they are reminiscent of noxious gas, or microplastics, or the fine coating of artificial hair on plastic model animals, or glow-in-the-dark Halloween merchandize, or radium pollution, or an algal bloom suffocating a lake. I think of the scale and pain of Jorie Graham’s poem, ‘Self Portrait at Three Degrees’ (2015):

take plankton – it is the most important plant on earth – think love – [...] – blooms so large they can be photographed from space – every- thing living – take it – here you take it, I can’t hold it anymore.

Here, illuminated by the eerily glowing tank, I am also suspended in Clara Rockmore’s vibrato-rich performance of La Cygne. Her iconic Theremin melody also oscillates mournfully through the slim, sombre corridor that approached the exhibition, where a timeline sketched a few dozen key moments within 250 years of environmental activism, catastrophes, artistic gestures, political summits, nuclear disasters and human population growth. With its melan- choly soundtrack, Hehe’s elegiac work primes each attendee with a sense of predetermined disaster – a battle already lost, and a strange start to an exhibition supposedly foregrounding confrontational‘visionaries’.

Hosting eight of 21 total artworks, the exhibition’s first room is themed around the ‘butterfly effect’ nature of ecological change, where damage produced in one location is often felt elsewhere. Here, meandering enticingly across a rippling table, is Carolina Caycedo’s Serpent River Book (2017), with its leaves rising and falling like a mountainscape or forest treetops. The assemblage of maps, drawings, aerial photographs, testimonies, notes and speculative stories of industrializing rivers in Colombia, Brazil and Mexico gathered in the accordion book’s 72 pages is a nuanced contribution to this room’s concern with the complex and critical interlinking of agents and effects. Like a living incarnation of a fable full of twists and loops, this work wanders like a snake with spinal ridges, bringing a sense of animation into the gallery. Its form seems like a reminder that evolution, in Latin, simply means ‘unfold- ing’ (Berger [1977] 2009: 41). Unfolding: the speciality of a story built between many voices, a story suitable to speak of a webbed, sprawling crisis that exceeds one narrative.

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Tue Greenfort’s Tilapia (series) (2017) applies Japanese gyo taku (fish print) technique to several prints of near-extinct fish from Lake Victoria; the thick black ink of these ‘living fossils’ pulls at the thin, hanging newsprint sheets. Despite Greenfort’s intriguing research base, the roughly presented Tilapia (series) appears sketch-like and feeble in its position, literally side-lined by the strongest and most unsettling piece in the space, Ana Vaz and Tristan Bera’s A Film, Reclaimed (2017). The nineteen-minute montage is a juxtaposition of found footage, assimilating colonial military propaganda, big game hunting, Hollywood blockbusters and cult film. Structured into three chapters around Donna Haraway’s concepts of Anthropocene, Capitalocene and Chthulucene, the cinematic essay is punctuated with blunt and incisive statements: ‘[o]ur current economic system is at war with the planet. We are the planet. The planet is us’. Importantly, Vaz and Bera’s continuous intertwining of English and French make the translation and mutability of each element in A Film, Reclaimed evident – another notable multiplying of voice within Eco-visionaries.

In contrast, The Breast Milk of the Volcano (2017) – Unknown Fields’ mesmerizing portrait of the Bolivian salt flats – reads more like a poetic documentary. While the film pans across plains segmented into a watercolour palette of increasingly concentrated mineral pools, a narrator recounts a creation myth of how giants, transformed into bodily mountains, leaked the minerals that are now eagerly prospected and extracted by new giants: Apple, Siemens, Tesla. While its narrative is intelligently tender, weaving together multiple ways of knowing, the hypnotic visuals of this work belong better to an exhibition of‘Art after the Anthropocene’, a popular term for our geological era that has been criticized for indulging a certain fatalistic voyeurism (Demos 2017; Alaimo 2016): a fascination with the sublime scale of anthropogenic destruction.

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Entering the second, central space, I hear the dull thunder of heavy animal footsteps, made electronically indistinct and distorted. Projected onto a white wall, a grey cloud of glitchy, switching digital cubes begins to solidify into a herculean rhinoceros. The subject of Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s The Substitute (2019) surprises me with its heavy, full presence, despite emerging as a mass of data alone; the animal is detailed down to fine wrinkles and small gestures, recreated by Google’s Deep Mind software from footage of the last male northern white rhino, Sudan, who died in 2018. The physical solidity of a critically vulnerable species is translated into shimmering cubes of evanes- cent data. Reincarnating the rhino spectacularly in a sterile virtual space that mirrors the white cube of the gallery, Ginsberg’s Substitute is a testament not only to Sudan, but our desire to visualize and control life before valu- ing its existence – exemplified in our hypocritical fascination with forging new species while ignoring or annihilating existing ones.

In dialogue with this deeply resonant piece are the two lightbox displays of Basim Magdy’s Our Prehistoric Fate (2011), commissioned for display in the war strategy room of Josip Broz Tito’s former nuclear control bunker outside Sarajevo. In one clamped print, bold white letters claim ‘THE FUTURE BELONGS TO US’ from a military green background, while the other displays a 1960s hand-painted illustration of a little-known dinosaur, the Ankylosaurus. Brilliantly expansive in its irony, this piece tangles together politics, biology and history. Reminiscent of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s definition of precarity as ‘that here and now in which pasts may not lead to futures’, this space reminds us of our place in geological time and the likelihood of our eventual vanishment – in spite (or because) of egoistic, patriotic and macho claims to fully own our fate, or those of other creatures (Tsing 2015: 61).

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There is a place for dreaming in all projects of hope, but back in the world we know, Rimini Protokoll explores the interspecies relations we are more likely to experience in our disrupted ecosystems. The collective’s interac- tive installation win > < win (2017) sees us sit before an entrancing tank of jellyfish, pulsing and cycling in the circulatory flow, their hair-slim tentacles lilting as they snag microscopic prey. Through headphones, a warmly patron- izing voice, akin to British comedy series Look Around You’s Nigel Lambert, invites us to look ourselves in the eye, in the mirrored back wall of the tank – the animals who ‘used to think they were the crown of creation’. Composed from interviews with scientists from across the world, the piece’s richly multi- accented narrative charts how jellyfish are thriving in the conditions produced by destructive human practices: warming water enhances feeding and breed- ing capacities, while overfishing and ocean plastics choke out competitors. This perspicacious work concentrates multiple strands of complex, interlinked change through one multiplying animal, semi-immortal in its simplicity. With win > < win, Rimini Protokoll forces us to re-evaluate biological ‘success’, imagining a future where we are absent – proven as inefficient, un-resilient and extinct as the previous ‘big consumers’, the dinosaurs. Here, we look beyond ourselves to a very different vision than that of human solution-build- ing and survival. This work is a vitally provocative inclusion in Eco-visionaries, although its placement feels disjointed, contradicting the final space’s theme of compassionate agriculture and architecture, and concluding the exhibition with an unsettling rather than action-oriented affective experience.

Ecology, climate change and the precarious future of life on earth are far more than a single theme, acting more as a multifarious tangle of forces that infiltrate and affect all others. While the notion of curating an exhibition about ‘the economy’ or ‘politics’, for instance, seems parodic, it is a regular occur- rence for ‘eco-art’ to be grouped into a single and seemingly-niche category – making it easy to ignore, or to pay token attention. Any of Eco-visionaries’ three internal themes – divided between their three relatively small spaces – would have been a fitting framework within which the exhibition could have been curated, thereby creating a more coherent and revealing conversation between the works included.

As the centrality of environmental crises calls for further arts and culture programming which foreground the work of many artists and designers exploring biospheric transformation, Eco-visionaries is a vitally timely contri- bution. However, lacking strong curatorial structure, it risks reinforcing a perception of ‘eco-art’ in which all work engaged with environmental change or ‘sustainability’ can be grouped together without further exploration of artists’ shared and diverging lines of inquiry. 

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Yet, while its unevenness and dilated focus fail to deliver on the energizing promise of ‘visionary’ confrontation, the exhibition is fundamentally rich in thought-provoking pieces; it creates a prolific platform for a handful of power- ful works, especially as it tours further museums internationally. The contri- butions of Rimini Protokoll, Daisy Aleksandra Ginsberg, Basim Magdy and others do offer alternative angles on our position in the world – tools for reori- entation and filaments of anger and hope that we may take forward into our future of emergent threat and opportunity, ready to translate into action.