Artists and architects from diverse cultures around the world show the hugely different problems that the climate emergency is creating, and make clear the complexity of perceived solutions
Immersed in the soothing environment of a Brian Eno sound and light installation, it’s easy to forget that I’m in an exhibition about the climate emergency. Waves of immersive sound swirl around me in a tranquilly-lit brick room, delivering a cocooning experience for contemplation with no sense of urgency. This haven-like space is part of Back to Earth, a collection at Serpentine North Gallery in London’s Hyde Park of artistic responses to the crisis.
As part of the gallery’s continuing exploration of the theme, the exhibition invited artists working in different media and from around the world to contribute pieces in response to the climate crisis, and in doing so give insights into their hopes and fears for the future. The inevitably hugely diverse results range from large-scale installations to poster format calls to action, and are presented as a ‘reminder of the specificity and fragility of earth and the Earth’.
Aware that ‘the potential for overwhelming is very close to the surface,’ exhibition curator Rebecca Lewin hopes visitors may instead find ‘a sense of hope’ in the exhibits, as well as an understanding of the many co-existing responses to very complex problems from artists with very different lived experiences. After all, she points out, no single approach can ever be the whole solution.
One of the most arresting exhibits, Ikum: Drying Temple, can be found in the middle of the gallery. This is a large, walk-through tensile installation created by architect Yussef Agbo-Ola and artist Tabita Rezaire and made using wood from previous exhibitions. The canopy is made of modular woven panels stretched between timbers, with a bunch of medicinal plants at the centre of each panel intended to emit a scent as they dry over the course of the exhibition (although when I visited this was not yet detectable). Designed to encourage an intimacy with the plants, the sensory experience is supplemented by a sound track, and the panels will be reassembled in different structures at a healing centre being developed by Rezaire in French Guiana. The form is inspired by that of the ant, in acknowledgement of its important role keeping soil healthy and distributing seeds.
Carolina Caycedo’s This Land is a Poem of Ten Rivers Healing large-scale installation stretches around the gallery walls in an abstract interpretation of landscapes affected by hydro-electric dams in the Americas. Part of her broader Be Dammed project, this aims to create a better understanding of the impacts of these massive interventions by creating huge aerial images mapping the landscapes post-dams. A final section shows the starkly contrasting increased ecological diversity of a river delta landscape that has been undammed.
‘Her point is that green energy can come at a cost to the environment if you don’t take account of all the implications,’ says Lewin, adding that this addresses the paradox that what might seem to be the answer (green energy) can be a rather more complex question that may initially have been thought.
The exhibition is effective in reminding the visitor of the earth itself, particularly in the clay wall built inside the gallery by South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape and the Brazilian-born Katy’taya Catitu Tayassu, topped by small clay heads, and in Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s Pollinator Pathmaker garden outside.
It’s a mixed bag that ranges more broadly than might be expected – the Australia-based Karrabing Film Collective’s The Family (A Zombie Movie) explores themes of toxic capitalism and indigenous culture while Giles Round’s suspended models reference the satellites monitoring global climate and ecological events. Whether baffling, tenuous or intriguing, the installations are generally far more engaging than the posters, which feel as if they belong to a different exhibition altogether. But ultimately, nothing in Back to Earth could possibly have anything like the impact on visitors as the climate itself outside the gallery walls when I visited in July – the scorching temperatures parching the landscape and ramming home the urgency of the situation far more clearly than any exhibition could.
The show is best taken in as part of a double-whammy with Theaster Gates’ sombre Black Chapel Serpentine Pavilion 2022, created with the support of Adjaye Associates.
Back to Earth, Serpentine North & Serpentine Pavilion, both Hyde Park, London