How art exhibitions are changing in the face of the climate crisis - Museums Association

How art exhibitions are changing in the face of the climate crisis

Galleries are forging links between different disciplines and locations to stimulate imaginative responses to the planetary emergency
Museums for Climate Justice
The Our Time On Earth exhibition ran last year at the Barbican Centre in London Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Barbican Centre

Tate Liverpool was brought to life last year with an immersive installation that featured a living installation of plants, farming tools, bones, minerals and lots more. Back to the Fields by Glasgow-based artist Ruth Ewan, was one of 150 works in the Radical Landscapes exhibition (ended last September), which told a social and cultural history of Britain through the themes of trespass, land-use and the climate emergency.

Ewan is among an increasing number of artists creating works addressing the global climate crisis, either directly or indirectly. But what impact do art exhibitions that feature this type of work have on audiences and do they encourage people to take action to tackle the issue?

Ruth Ewan’s work Back to the Fields confronted the audience with a living landscape at Tate Liverpool’s Radical Landscapes show

The press information for Radical Landscapes said it aimed to shine “a light on the restorative potential of nature to provoke debate and stimulate social change”.

One of the other artists was London-based Yuri Pattison, with the 2019 sculpture, Sun[set] Provisioning. The artwork is connected to environmental sensors that detect local pollution levels. It then uses this data to generate a changing image of an ocean sunset: the more pollution, the more spectacular and colourful the rendering.

“It’s hypnotising and looks really beautiful,” says Louise Shannon, the head of programme delivery at Tate Liverpool. “And then you realise that it’s linked to troubling environmental data.”

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Ewan’s work, which was a visual representation of the French Republican Calendar featuring 360 items that denoted the days of the year, brought the environment into the gallery even more directly.

“I think for people to see a living landscape within the galleries was a bit of a shock,” says Shannon. Staff and repeat visitors could witness the work changing over time, such as the flowers on a tree coming in and out of bloom, she recalls. Overall, Shannon says the museum hoped that the exhibition would prompt visitors to consider their relationship with the land.

The Tate Liverpool show is indicative of wider trends in museum exhibitions – not only in addressing the climate crisis but in the connections that are made between galleries and the outside world. Though the sector has arguably been late to take on the subject, it is increasingly adopting collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches that are stimulating audiences’ imaginations and exploring practical solutions.

Jeremy Deller provokes a fresh take on the British landscape with his neon Cerne Abbas giant exhibited at Tate Liverpool’s Radical Landscapes exhibition, which ended last September

London’s Senate House Library is hosting the sound installation A Thousand Words for Weather (see below) until 25 March. This is based on a collaboration between writer Jessica Lee and seven other poets of different native tongues, who worked together to choose and translate words for weather from each language.

The resulting “dictionary” was then developed into a sonic work by sound artist Claudia Molitor. This is played through speakers and headphones in the library, and continually adjusted using real-time Met Office data to reflect the weather outside.

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Michael Morris, an associate director at Artangel, which commissioned and produced the project, says hearing it in the traditionally quiet space of a library is a striking experience that he hopes will stimulate reflection.

“We want people to think about the weather,” he says, arguing that this traditional subject for creative work has been recently neglected. “Whether it’s Turner’s or Constable’s landscapes or the romantic poets, it was always an inspiration.

But in recent years, there’s been a very different relationship with the weather. And it’s almost as if artists and writers have kept their distance from it because we’re so anxious about the weather now and what we’ve done to it.”

Exhibiting bad behaviour

Last year, London’s Wellcome Collection held two exhibitions focusing on the environment. Rooted Beings, which ended in August, asked audiences to consider what we might learn from plant behaviour, and the impacts of colonial expeditions on the exploitation of natural resources and Indigenous knowledges.

In the Air (ended last October) focused on our relationship with the air, including the history of activism against pollution, from 17th-century accounts of coal smoke in London to today’s protests against levels of toxic air in our cities that disproportionately impact communities of colour.

Visitors at the Wellcome Collections Rooted Beings exhibition last year. Foreground: The Inner Ocean: The Passion Flower, Ingela Ihrman, 2017, courtesy of Moderna Museet, Stockholm and the artist. Background: As The Roots Spoke, the Cracks Deepen, Gözde İlkin, 2020 Wellcome Collection / Steven Pocock, 2022

But not all environment focused exhibitions are held in traditional museum spaces. Cornwall’s Eden Project is currently showing Super Natural  (until 26 February), which explores the relationships between humans and plants through the work of international artists such as Ai Weiwei, Kedisha Coakley, Patricia Domínguez, Iman Datoo, Ingela Ihrman and Eduardo Navarro. This show also asks audiences to consider what we might learn from plants and other reciprocal relationships in nature.

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London’s Serpentine Galleries has been strengthening its focus on ecology through exhibitions and other projects for more than a decade. The galleries’ artistic director, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, says that following an exhibition of Gustav Metzger’s work in 2009, the artist urged the institution to carry out deeper and longer-term work on the environment.

The Serpentine worked with Metzger again in 2014 to present Extinction Marathon, an interdisciplinary event exploring extinction through the work of artists, writers, scientists and others. The gallery then began its General Ecology project in 2018. It describes this work as a “strategic effort to embed environmental subjects and methods throughout the galleries’ outputs, structures and networks”.

Closely related is Back to Earth, another interdisciplinary programme that led to an exhibition at the Serpentine in 2022. The show included an “enveloping space of healing” full of medicinal herbs created by artist Tabita Rezaire/AMAKABA in the Amazon and architect Yussef Agbo-Ola/Olaniyi Studio, and a sound installation by the musician Brian Eno.

Another element is a garden that supports pollinating insects in nearby Kensington Gardens. To develop a design that encourages the maximum number of pollinator species, artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg used a custom-built algorithm, available online at pollinator.art.

The garden demonstrates how Back to Earth aims for tangible impacts beyond the gallery walls, says Obrist. The project has also included work with 2021 Turner Prize nominee Cooking Sections to develop planet-friendly recipes that now appear on the menu at the gallery restaurant.

The Our Time On Earth exhibition at The Curve, Barbican Centre Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Barbican Centre

Alongside this, the Serpentine has worked with streaming platform Mubi to distribute a documentary by Malian filmmaker Manthia Diawara, and with Penguin to publish a book including 140 artists’ contributions of practical ideas for engaging with the climate emergency. And it plans in future to collaborate with Berlin’s Museum of Natural History on holding a Back to Earth marathon.

“One could say that Back to Earth is a very big archipelago,” says Obrist. “The Serpentine is the instigator, it’s the relay, and then it goes into the world.” He hopes that the project will move visitors and encourage them to think about how they can contribute.

Time travel

Graciela Melitsko Thornton, creative green consultancy lead at the charity Julie’s Bicycle, says exhibitions can contribute to addressing the climate emergency by engaging people’s emotions and offering new perspectives in accessible public spaces. She points to We Are History, an exhibition held in 2021-22 at London’s Somerset House that “offered a historical perspective on the climate crisis and encouraged people to look further back in time” to its roots in the colonial era and the industrial revolution.

There is a danger that contemplating the climate can lead to despair. But Our Time on Earth, an exhibition held at London’s Barbican, set out to stimulate positive emotions.

“Arts and culture can bring a sense of creativity, and the power of imagination to instil hope and courage into audiences to feel that it isn’t hopeless,” says Luke Kemp, a co-head at Barbican International Enterprises, which developed the show.

The exhibition opened with Sanctuary of the Unseen Forest, an immersive projection of a tree from the Colombian rainforest by digital art collective Marshmallow Laser Feast.

Kemp says this work set the tone by using digital technology to create a sense of wonder at the natural world and convey how “we’re all part of this huge system”. He adds that with some elements of the show – such as a film presented by the Brazilian Indigenous-led collective Selvagem – it was important to avoid too much curatorial guidance.

“Sometimes as an institution we have to step back a bit and allow them to present the stories that they feel need to be told and that they need to tell.”

Ceding control was also central to a new eco art festival held at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) in October 2022. Earth Rising involved contributions from artists, musicians, scientists and others on its 48-acre Dublin campus.

It’s very important for us to come at this with a listening perspective and not as the experts

Annie Fletcher, director, Irish Museum of Modern Art

Speaking to Museums Journal before the event, Imma director Annie Fletcher said she wanted to largely avoid top-down direction and instead foster a convivial and collaborative atmosphere “a bit like a citizens’ assembly”.

“Museums are inherently unsustainable in their structure, and traditionally in terms of their practice, so I think it’s very important for us to come at this with a listening perspective and not as the experts,” she said.

A central element was a mural wall painting by artist Navine G Dossos on the colonnades of Imma’s 17th-century courtyard. Dossos used participatory workshops to help determine which colours to use. The space also hosted a pavilion by Reddy Architecture + Urbanism that used eco-conscious materials such as willow stems.

Alongside these commissions, the museum put out an open call for submissions, and accepted anything that was feasible. The festival involved about 70 contributions – such as performances, talks, workshops and film screenings – from Ireland and internationally.

 In encouraging fluid boundaries between different disciplines, Fletcher says the museum was guided by what artists are increasingly
doing anyway. “Nobody is interested in gatekeeping around a sense of creativity,” Fletcher says. “I love that – it’s really exciting.”

Jonathan Knott is a freelance writer

Developing sustainable exhibitions

While some museums and galleries already have robust sustainability policies, others are in the process of developing these.

Our Time on Earth is the first exhibition for which the Barbican actively measured and quantified its environmental footprint. The show was at the organisation’s London home between May and August 2022 and will open at Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec City, Canada, on 15 June until 17 December, before continuing its international tour.

The Barbican has published a statement setting out its guiding sustainability principles, which includes areas such as design, energy and materials.

This formed part of the contracts signed by all those who collaborated on the exhibition, says Luke Kemp, a co-head of Barbican International Enterprises, which curated the exhibition. He describes the document as “a set of ambitions – it’s to create a baseline for the organisation in exhibition-making”.

“A lot of this is about being open and transparent,” he adds. “It’s not just to say ‘look at all the amazing things we’ve done’, but also to be realistic about the things that we weren’t able to achieve. And to look at the reasons why, so that this can be a learning experience for future exhibitions.”

To read the full statement visit the Barbican website

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