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_shift review: Eco-Visionaries at the RA

London's Royal Academy of Arts offers an exploration of a planet on thin ice

Amid an environmental crisis, we are reminded daily of the impact human activity has on the planet. This month witnessed the flooding of Venice, the extinction of the Sumatran rhino in Malaysia and a UN climate report that calls the future “bleak.”

Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a Planet in a State of Emergency is a poignant inquiry into this complex and multifaceted terrestrial crisis. The exhibit, at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, showcases how artists, designers and architects are responding to these ecological transformations.

“Eco-Visionaries moves beyond mainstream notions of sustainability to present those creative practices that are providing new and critical ways to look at ecology and our relationship with nature, now and in the future,” says Rose Thompson, assistant curator of the exhibition.

Dim lighting and grey-washed walls set the tone for the opening room of the exhibit. A globe submerged in green-tinged water by artist duo HeHe encapsulates the purpose of this display. As you enter, the lucid glare from A Film, Reclaimed channels your attention, a cinematographic, abstract interpretation of our planetary state. Tilapia by Tue Greenfort decorates the adjacent wall in a collage of the endangered fish [Tilapia] printed on to ink-wrinkled rice paper. An ancient technique that has its origins in Japan, fish prints symbolise a great catch – an ironic statement in this art piece.

An anticipated addition to the exhibit is from fashion-cum-furniture designer, Virgil Abloh with Alaska Chair. The piece acts as a reflection of rising sea levels and the furniture you might see currently floating down a flooded Venetian Street. The chair is designed to appear partly submerged, with a doorstop wedge under one leg symbolising “the short-term, makeshift solutions we have for tackling climate change,” as detailed in its description. Its polished bronze finish sets it as a dystopian trophy of our time.

Alaska Chair by Virgil Abloh. Image courtesy of @virgilabloh via Instagram

In the wall alongside this piece hangs The Ice Melting Series from Danish-Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson. The 20 framed photographs capture the process of glacial ice melting in Iceland, with no time frame or scale of loss, it evokes the unquantifiable impact human life has on nature. This exhibition coincides with Eliasson’s exhibition at the Tate, which also leverages a strong environmental focus.

However, the stark poignancy of these artworks is somewhat undone by the obvious linearity of its layout. In an exhibition aimed to be of interest to younger audiences, which includes teenagers and young creative practitioners, it falls short in setting a scene that captivates, is thought-provoking and emotive.

Despite this interpretation, the premise of the exhibition remains clear throughout. We all know there is a climate emergency but it is how we respond and adapt to these environmental consequences that moves us forward.

Spectators can watch a pixelated block evolve into a digital replica of a – now extinct – male white rhino, resurrected in the form of artificial intelligence (AI) equipped with rhino grunting sounds retrieved from footage of the last herd. The Substitute by Daisy Ginsberg explores a prevailing fascination with designing alternative nature while neglecting what we already have.

The Substitute by Daisy Ginsberg. Image courtesy of @coooperhewitt via Instagram

Though each art piece denotes a critical message, this exhibition does not scare-monger by suggesting an apocalyptic doomsday is nigh. Thompson explains, the work also provides visionary optimism by “offering alternative ways to overcome an almost lost sense of hope in the future. A future where humans will manage to reconnect with nature and create a more empathetic relationship with their fellow species.”

Proffering a welcomed sign of optimism, a lightbox display titled Our Prehistoric Fate by Basim Magdy reads “the future belongs to us.”

The final room features a selection of architectural innovation. First to capture attention, is a biogas producing device, Biogas Power Plant, by Portuguese architect group Skrei. Its industrial appearance juxtaposes its eco-function. New-York based architect studio WORKac and art collective Ant Farm present its collaborative project 3.CCityClimateConventionCruise, a drawing series and 3D model of a floating city “designed to encourage dialogue about climate change, its effects and possible new ways to exist together on the planet,” explains Dan Wood, co-founder of WORKac. When asked what he hopes 3.C. City communicates to spectators, Wood shares: “That things can be different, and that change can be exhilarating.”

The grand finale of the exhibition certainly does not disappoint, in the UK debut of win < > win by German collective Rimini Protokoll. This immersive installation invites attendees to put on headphones, close their eyes and follow instructions that include using your fingers to show how old you are and pointing to who you think will live the longest in front of a circular mirror. When told to open your eyes again, you face a tank of live jellyfish – the brainless species that benefit from climate change and are likely to outlive humans. In this ten-or-so minute experience you become mesmerised by the ethereal movement and simple yet intricate anatomy of these invertebrates. Though the narration informs you of the jellyfish, the spectacle provides a strong sense of our place in the world during a climate emergency.

“We have staged them in a very playful yet classical way, but on the other hand you look at a catastrophe, you look at something that is proof for the problems that we have.” says Helgard Haug, co-founder of the collective.

Embed from Getty Images

win < > win by Rimini Protokoll

Though this exhibit is presented as a wake-up call, the people most likely to attend already know about the issues at hand. The Extinction Rebels and eco-activists among us are the audience this exhibition truly speaks to.

Nevertheless, Ec0-Visionaires is undoubtedly important and highlights the role museums and institutions alike should hold in the conversation around ecological awareness. The diverse group of artists and holistic approach to curation addresses complex issues. And the provocative art works strike a balance between critical inquiry and deft optimism.

Co-founder of WORKac, Thomas Wood, summarises: “The poignancy of this moment threatens to become ever more poignant with each year of inaction. Hopefully this exhibition is one small step in a much larger change in collective consciousness. It does seem that the tide is turning.”

Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency. On at the Royal Academy of Arts from 23 November 2019 – 23 February 2020 at the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries.

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