Thursday, December 31, 2009

Earth: Art of a Changing World at the Royal Academy

Yesterday I visited the Earth: Art of a Changing World exhibition at the Royal Academy. It's fantastic, the best show I've been to in a long time - superior to the Radical Nature one at the Barbican earlier this year.

It collects works by many artists that have enviromental themes, especially addressing climate change. In many ways it does what the Centre for Alternative Technology's (CAT) Arts in Transition initiative wants artists to do.

It's not overwhelmingly polemical. Many of the works are oblique, some funny, many sad or touching, some make you angry, and a surprising number are very beautiful.

36 pieces are gathered under the following themes: Introduction; External, Perceived Reality; Destruction; the Artist as Explorer; and Re-Reality. Many current art world stars are represented, including David Nash, Anthony Gormley, Keith Tyson, Sophie Calle, and Tracey Emin - whose 3 pieces are the best things by her I've seen - touching and beautifully executed.

Several artists have been to Greenland on Cape Farewell tours, specifically organised to expose artists to the physical effects of climat change in the arctic. Novelist Ian McEwan, who went on one such trip, is represented by a text he wrote in response.

Yael Bartana's video about Israeli men driving their 4x4s over sand dunes for kicks is crazy - is this the summit of human progress? 'Progress' is also questioned by Lemn Sissay's poem, performed in a video with a jazz trio, "What if?" - poignant and challenging.

Another video, 'Doomed', by Tracey Moffat, is a hilarious compilation of disaster sequences from Hollywood movies. Yao Lu alters an image of rubbish dumps to make them seem at first glance like traditional Chinese landscapes.

Clare Twomey's ceramic flowers and Adriane Colburne's fabulous installation Up From Under the Edge of the Earth, are among pieces that by being incredibly beautiful and fragile remind us of the care we need to take to preserve our awesome natural environment, while Edward Burtynsky's photographs of Canadian tar sand exploitation, quarries and a Chinese chicken-processing factory (whose rows of women workers themselves look like factory farmed chicks), show us how little care some industries are taking.

Finally, we are made to hope that Antti Laitinen's documention of his long, futile attempt to make an island in the freezing Baltic Sea, striving like King Canute to fight the inevitable tidal forces, is not a prophetic allegory for humanity's attempt to stave off the effects of global warming.

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