It all started with extinction. An Extinction Marathon, actually: 12 hours of people talking about how species die out and what happens when they do. Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. Gustav Metzger, the pioneer of auto-destructive art. Adam Curtis, the British documentarian. Documentary film-maker Laura Poitras. Gilbert & George. William Gibson. Yoko Ono. The list goes on.
That was in 2014, at the Serpentine Galleries in London’s idyllic Kensington Gardens. The theme is being reprised this summer in “Back to Earth,” an exhibition at the Serpentine’s North Gallery that brings together more than a dozen artists to address what is now a climate crisis — one that threatens populations with extinction as it renders large portions of Earth uninhabitable through fire, flood and searing heat. Earlier this month, Londoners faced suburban wildfires and melting tarmac as the temperature surpassed 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
On view until September 18, the Serpentine show includes a sound installation by Brian Eno, a structure created by Tabita Rezaire and Yussef Agbo-Ola for drying medicinal plants, a highly unusual garden by artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and much more, with much of it overseen from ceiling height by a fleet of wooden satellites by sculptor Giles Round. The gift shop has been subjected to an intervention called “It’s Easier to Imagine the End of Capitalism than the End of the World.” There’s even a “climavore” menu at the adjacent café.
“I think art can be a wake-up call for people,” Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Serpentine’s artistic director, said in an interview via Zoom. “We could never say that art can solve this very massive problem. But I think no field can solve this on its own. I think we can only address this extinction crisis if we work together — science, art, politics, all the different fields.”
Many scientists agree. “There is a clear need for communicating climate change,” Vikki Thompson, a climatologist at the University of Bristol in England, said in an e-mail. “It is brilliant that exhibitions such as the Serpentine’s continue to be commissioned, encouraging more people to start talking and thinking about the climate crisis.”
Hovering above this exhibition is the spirit of Gustav Metzger, the German-born British conceptualist whose work was informed by his searing experience as a Jewish adolescent. In 1939, he and his younger brother had been evacuated to England through the Kindertransport program, but most of their family stayed behind and were slaughtered in the camps. Metzger issued manifestoes from 1959 on, portraying auto-destructive art as his response to capitalism, nuclear weapons and the destruction of the environment. Lecturing at an art school in 1962, he inspired Pete Townshend to start smashing his guitar at the end of his concerts with the Who. Metzger himself shredded sheets of nylon on numerous occasions by painting or spraying them with hydrochloric acid. Decades later, he insisted that Obrist make the climate crisis central to the Serpentine’s agenda.
For a while this idea took a back seat to other initiatives at the Serpentine, among them a potential Eno retrospective. Shortly after he was approached, however, Eno heard on the radio that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had concluded that we had 12 years left to avert catastrophe. It was 2018; Eno was 70. “And I thought, that’s probably about the amount of time that I have left on a not-optimistic scenario,” he told me. “Am I going to spend the next two years thinking about a show of my work?”
Eno was nervous about saying no to the gallery, he said, “because, you know, it was a very nice invitation.” But then, he added, “I rather timidly mentioned this at the meeting and they were absolutely ecstatic, because they had just decided that the future of the Serpentine should be more than pictures on walls, that it should have a mission — the same mission I felt I should have.” A mission that will be expressed as well in his forthcoming album, “FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE,” announced on Thursday and due out in October.
The Serpentine’s mission was to have been declared in 2020 with an event marking the Serpentine’s 50th anniversary. Instead it was noted in a more low-key fashion on Earth Day that year with an online project by Olafur Eliasson. Eno created a sound installation the following summer. The current exhibition, curated chiefly by Rebecca Lewin and Sarah Hamed of the Serpentine, is the most ambitious piece of the program to date. For Earth Day 2023, Eno, Obrist and others at the Serpentine will curate a Back to Earth Marathon not unlike the 2014 Extinction Marathon. As for Metzger, who died in 2017 at 90, he’s currently the subject of a climate-focused exhibition at Kestle Barton, a contemporary art centre in rural Cornwall, up through September 4.
The works on view at the Serpentine are not all at the same level. The Times of London took issue with such examples of empty sloganeering as an artist-designed poster that advocates “taking decolonial and anti-capitalist action now.” But much of what’s in the show has elicited a very different response.
A particular favourite is “IKUM: Drying Temple,” a gossamer construction for drying medicinal plants, created by Rezaire, an artist who grew up in Paris but lives now in the Amazon rainforests of French Guiana, and Agbo-Ola, who grew up in rural Virginia but moved to London to study architecture at the Royal College of Art. It consists of a tall pine frame that serves as a stretcher for dyed cotton panels to which bunches of fresh plants are pinned to dry.
Ginsberg is also focused on plants, though in a very different way. Her contribution is “Pollinator Pathmaker,” an 820-foot-long flower bed that was planted not to please humans, but to benefit pollinators — bees and insects, many of them in danger of extinction. “A lot of my work is about shifting perspective,” she said. Her garden — near the formal, 19th-century Italian Gardens, and a 10-minute walk from the rest of the exhibition in the North Gallery — involves looking at plants from a pollinator’s perspective.
“Pollinators see differently,” she explained. “They sense differently. Bees, for example, can’t see the colour red, but they can see ultraviolet. Butterflies can see red, green, blue and ultraviolet. Bees can memorise the locations of the plants they visit and optimise the fastest route around all the flowers — and they may visit 10,000 flowers in a day. So I started to think, what would a garden look like if we weren’t making it in a tasteful way?”
Kind of crazy is the answer — “super dense, intensively blooming across the year, very colourful and full of strange combinations of plants.” But designing such a garden is complicated — so complicated that Ginsberg partnered with a string-theory physicist in Poland, Przemek Witaszczyk, to create an algorithm that would help her figure out what to plant. At the website pollinator.art, you too can use this algorithm to get instructions that are specific to your garden.
If “Pollinator Pathmaker” is, as Ginsberg put it, “a genteel way to think about” extinction issues, Carolina Caycedo’s “This Land is a Poem of Ten Rivers Healing” is more confrontational. Born in London, raised in Colombia, living now in Los Angeles, Caycedo has spent years documenting the scars left by dams. At the Serpentine, she uses aerial and satellite photography to chronicle the fates of 10 rivers in North and South America in immersive, floor-to-ceiling wall covering. One section documents the 2019 Brumadinho dam collapse, when waste from a Brazilian iron-ore mine buried more than 250 people alive in an avalanche of toxic sludge. Another comes in response to the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam that flooded part of the Magdalena River — the economic, social and cultural heart of Colombia. “I always say the river called me back,” said Caycedo, who grew up on a farm near its banks.
But activism comes at a price. “Colombia today leads — it breaks my heart to say this — leads in the number of killed environmentalists worldwide for the last two years,” she said. According to Global Witness, a fact-finding organisation based in London, 129 defenders were murdered in Colombia in 24 months. That’s one every five or six days.
Yet there are positive developments as well. Caycedo’s installation concludes with the story of the undamming of the Elwha River in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula after 101 years — a century in which the river’s sockeye salmon were rendered extinct and a half-dozen other species endangered. “So it’s not only the fatalities and the crimes,” Caycedo said. “You can also add processes of healing and restoration.”
Healing of a different sort is the point of Eno’s sound installation, “Making Gardens Out of Silence in the Uncanny Valley.” It’s a place for contemplation, a darkened room illuminated by shafts of light, furnished with a bench and resonant with ambient music that sounds hopeful, anticipatory and alive.
The UN issued a follow-up climate report a year ago that said, in effect, we’ve missed the opportunity that existed in 2018 — but there’s still time to avert the worst. “I think if we have any chance at all of solving the crisis we’re in now, it will come down to a sort of re-falling in love with the world,” Eno said. “A deep sense of the beauty and the intricacy and the extraordinary interconnectedness of it. And I see that beginning to happen.” He cited Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel “The Ministry for the Future” and “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, celebrities like Billie Eilish, whom he called “the great minimalist of pop music,” and Marie Kondo, who tells us how to simplify our lives. “Minimalism I think is very important. It’s saying, use less. I’m of course a minimalist, too.” He gave a little laugh. “But that’s a long story.” — NYT