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Earth: Art of a Changing World

Royal Academy of Arts, London    3/12/09 - 31/1/10




The Royal Academy Galleries are surrounded by designer shops and commercial galleries that couldn't be more flashy or ostentatious. Walking up the Burlington Arcade, past bespoke tailors and exclusive perfumeries to an exhibition that contains works of art that are a response to climate change, you have the uneasy feeling that you are about to become complicit with an exhibition that, because of its context, is largely an admission of failure.

Radical Nature at the Barbican earlier in the year had a strong historical feel, and many of the older works - like those by Agnes Denes and The Harrisons - retained elements of radical 60's utopianism. Earth: Art for a Changing Planet has works from the Cape Farewell project, but despite this there is an air of defeatism to the show, with a number of artists appearing to react with powerlessness, confusion or indifference.

The curators acknowledge this in the catalogue: 'Few of the artists showing here hold the reality of climate change at the centre of their practice. They are not activists per se'. The result, though, is an exhibition that in places seems flabby and watered down. And it's the best known artists - establishment figures like Gary Hume, Anthony Gormley, Tracey Emin - that are the obvious suspects in this regard. All three are known as essentially apolitical figurative artists, and their inert contributions, even Amazonian Field (1992) by Gormley, stretch credibility by their inclusion.

More relevant near the entrance are Mona Hatoum's 'Hot Spot' (2006 - above) and two elegant conceptual works by Ackroyd and Harvey. Beuys' Acorns (2007 - left) is a project in which the artists have grown saplings from oak trees planted by Beuys in Kassel in 1982, whilst Polar Diamond (2009) is a diamond made from the cremated bone of a polar bear. The bone was found during a trip to the Arctic as part of the Cape Farewell project, and the work speaks succinctly of the values that we place on the objects that surround us.

Gary Hume is included in the first main gallery, a section called: 'Perceived Reality'. The works here and in the next section 'The Artist as Explorer' are largely concerned with representations of the world as it is. Antii Laitinen's It's My Island (2007 - below right) is a three screen video with accompanying photographs depicting the artist building a miniature island in the sea. Whereas Smithson's Spiral Jetty was made on an industrial scale using mechanical diggers, Laitinen's construction is smaller and more feeble. But his island, which refers directly to man's tendency to form the world in his own image, is hand-made and so the video has both drama and pathos as we watch him struggle to carry heavy rocks against the waves.

Sophie Calle's photographs have layers of autobiographical content relating to her late grandmother's wish to visit the arctic. The work seems more than a little self-indulgent, but photographs nearby by Edward Burtynsky and Tomas Saraceno have a purer more sublime beauty. Both have the quality of bearing witness, the former depicting industrial processes, like an enormous chicken-processing plant, and the latter giant salt flats in Bolivia.

The best section of the show is called 'Destruction'. This includes Tide (2008 - below) by Darren Almond comprising nearly 600 perfectly synchronized clocks that, once a minute, clatter ominously as the digits change. Nearby Tacita Dean and Tracey Moffat appropriate postcards and found-footage of disasters for The Russian Ending and Doomed respectively. Moffat's film is a compilation of Hollywood tsunamis, whirlwinds and earthquakes, most rendered using digital special effects. The reality of climate change is, however, probably more insidious and subtle than this. Also in this section are the excellent Medusa Swarm by Tue Greenfort and 100 Years by Kris Martin.

The show seems to waver uncertainly in the final section called 'Re-reality' which includes beautiful abstract paintings by Keith Tyson, two transparent eyeball-like globes by Mariele Neudecker and tapestries by Tracey Emin. The title refers to the curators' comparison of climate change to the moon-landing of 1968 as redefining our views of ourselves and of the planet. Its a point that is well made, but not necessarily by the works that were chosen.


RW 1/1/10