Art and Hope in a Time of Crisis
Dear Earth at the Hayward Gallery
In recent years, public debate around the climate catastrophe has become increasingly fraught, divisive and desperate. But the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery offers a fresh approach. Rather than promoting a discourse of despair, this diverse selection of artworks invites reflection about how we might cultivate meaningful and harmonious relationships with the natural world – and so bring about positive change. Rebecca Empson shares her experiences.
As you step into the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition Dear Earth: Art and Hope in a Time of Crisis, you are greeted outside by a large screen showing a flickering standard in the Nevada desert, reminiscent of an oil refinery’s gas flare. The artist John Gerrard imagined a colourless vapour flag that, in his words, called for a global, post-national, borderless space in which we come together and fight for a new legislative order to combat climate change. This is a fitting rally by which to open this exhibition. Dear Earth, curated by Rachel Thomas (her first show as chief curator at the Hayward), brings together fifteen artists and is accompanied by a catalogue featuring thought-provoking reflections by figures such as Rebecca Solnit and Greta Thunberg. The exhibition proposes that the way to address climate change is not through a focus on destruction and despair, but by instead highlighting our continued connection and care with the natural world as a form of resistance. This approach aligns with the ‘ecological turn’ in the arts and social sciences which emphasises care and hope as a critique of the consumption, extraction and supremacy that characterise late capitalism and the Anthropocene.
Thomas, herself involved in forms of environmental activism, explained that many environmental movements have reached an impasse. Conventional methods of direct action have fallen short of bringing about significant change, and so, following the lead of eco-feminists like Solnit and Joanna Macy, the artists in this exhibition show how people can rethink ideas about climate change by highlighting positive ways of connecting. Many of the artists are activists, or work with activists, using their platform to drive meaningful change. The exhibition and its related events are one such intervention, aiming to reach the public in ways that normal media fails to do.
Among the works on the ground floor are five large-scale portraits by British artists-duo Ackroyd & Harvey. The portraits are grown from grass seed. As the grass grows, it is exposed to light projected through photographic negatives, which, through the process of photosynthesis, imprint themselves onto the grass, forming the portraits. The materials used represent the four ecological cornerstones of soil, sea, air and water. They depict five environmental activists who are campaigning for and defending each of these elements. The portraits are literally the organic depictions of the grass-root activists who defend them. There is something hauntingly beautiful about this interconnection – as living things they invite us to dwell and attend to them as modern-day guardians of the natural world.
One of the portraits depicts Paul Powlesland, a nature rights activist and barrister. He explained to me that our relationship with nature is not, in fact, enshrined in law. What is in the law is there to defend capitalist modes of extraction. We actively need to bring this relationship with nature into being, so that it can be protected from the myriad legal and illegal threats that it faces. This idea, drawn from anarchist notions of prefigurative politics, proposes that through small everyday acts of care and attention, we can actively bring the world we want into being – something echoed in the ‘Rights of Nature’ approach that advocates for agency and rights to nature (cf. Evjemo 2023). Ackroyd & Harvey’s portraits show us how individual activists have carved out spaces of care and hope within human-centric cities.
On the roof of the gallery, we are exposed to Jenny Kendler’s sculpture Birds Watching III. The sculpture, created in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London, is composed of 100 huge eyes belonging to bird species that are threatened or extinct because of climate change. With the eyes of the birds looking at us, the sculpture reverses the normative human-centred gaze by placing us as objects under the scrutiny of the birds threatened by our actions. This act of being looked at, of being scrutinised, allows us to be, as Kendler put it, “seated back in the natural world, to remember that we are not above or superior to nature, but deeply embedded in it. Our current society is founded on human supremacy, human exceptionalism, which allows for white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism and so on.” She continued, “it is because of this that we are disconnected from the natural world around us, and this is the reason we feel lonely […] we feel a sense of loss, but we don’t know where it comes from.” Allowing ourselves to be the objects of our own destruction, rather than active subjects, is a radical intervention and a deeply humbling experience. With the birds looking at us, we are forced to ask who we have become and how we can change as individuals. We realise that we are not simply spectators in this age of the Anthropocene.
During the press view, alongside Agnes Denes’ The Living Pyramid, Daiara Tukano, a Turkano Amazonian woman artist-activist, performed an ancient Amazonian incantation to cleanse water, wearing a ceremonial headdress. Afterwards, I found myself with Tukano in front of her two paintings. The first, Ohpëkó Pati – world of the sacred waters of the Grand Mother of the universe, depicts the Turkano origin myth of the forest; the great grandmother with her legs astride giving amniotic fluid and breastmilk to the earth to make it fertile. The other, Pirõ nīkī. Forest of the serpent, is painted directly on to the wall of the gallery, showing large trees with connected roots encircled by a giant snake. In the centre is a stump with a single stunted sampling. “This tree is Europe”, she explained flatly, “it is depicted as a cut down tree, a symbol of its extractive colonial and imperial legacy. We often say that our elders are like big trees, but the roots and branches never invade each other’s space or threaten each other. In our culture nature is part of us, it is not separate”.
Standing there with Tukano, I began to feel a sense of sadness and desperation rather than hope. Individual acts of care aside, the effects of climate change are felt disproportionately around the world according to deep-seated structural inequalities and historical legacies of racism. As if to emphasise this point further, Tukano and I watched a film by Richard Mosse, called Grid (Palimi-u). Sat on a bench next to each other, we listened to the desperate calls for help by Yanomami people after illegal gold miners enter their forest, causing pollution and fear. My sense of desperation gave way to a sense of anxiety that we as individuals cannot change things if the broader structures predicated on the exploitation of the natural world for our consumption remain intact.
I was about to leave the show when I was taken to a wild garden cultivated by Paul Pulford from Grounded Ecotherapy on the roof of Queen Elizabeth Hall. Grounded Ecotherapy encourages people affected by mental health issues to get involved in the outdoors. Pulford is adamant that working with the soil has helped him after seven years of heroin addiction. Here, a beautiful garden provides an environment in which to dwell, reflect and enjoy a moment of connection. A space that seems entirely out of place among the concrete of the South Bank Centre, and yet also entirely in place. In the act of making and tending to it, the highly divisive forces of late capitalism are put on pause and recalibrated, and I was reminded that perhaps this is what we can do at this moment.
Creating spaces and environments in which to calibrate broader change is what Gerrard’s vapour flag installation Surrender (Flag) 2023 invites us to do too. The actual flag is situated outside Las Vegas in the Nevada desert. “This is an environment that if utilised for solar power would be amazing, but instead we are burning 100 million barrels of oil a day and we are making a future desert. […] Current state-bound legislative pressure through COP Agreements have failed to work”, bemoans Gerrard, “the nation state appears as a historical relic not fit for purpose”. His flag suggests a global post-geographic legislative space where people can gather and negotiate, beyond the confines of nations, to pledge a new standard by which to live on this planet; a place where a younger generation can negotiate a new post-national treaty on climate change.
The call to surrender our sovereignty and borders and to work together as a global forum for change appears hopeful, and something we can strive toward. It reminds me of Pulford’s point that to safe-guard nature, we need to move beyond existing legal frameworks and make the laws that we need to sustain it. The tension between individual acts of care in the present and the need for broader structural change is not addressed head-on in the exhibition, but it’s a tension that underlies many of the fascinating exhibits. They urge us to live in a world that is co-created with the natural world, to allow ourselves to be looked back at, and to realise that we can do more than we think to combat climate change.
Dear Earth: Art and Hope in a Time of Crisis is on view at the Hayward Gallery until 3 September 2023 and shows works from Ackroyd & Harvey, Andrea Bowers, Imani Jaqueline Brown, Agnes Denes, John Gerrard, Christina Iglesias, Aluaiy Kaumakan, Jenny Kendler, Richard Mosse, Otobong Nkanga, Cornelia Parker, Himali Singh Soin, Hito Steyerl, Daiara Tukano, Grounded Ecotherapy
REBECCA EMPSON is Professor of Anthropology at UCL where she teaches on the Anthropology of Capitalism and the Environment. Her research has explored the kinds of communities and subjects that emerge in the extractive mineral economy of Mongolia. She is currently focused on Baltic sea relations, between and beyond humans.
Edited by MARTHE LISSON
Copy-Edited by IGOR ROGELJA
Standfirst by NICHOLAS LACKENBY
Lead image: Richard Mosse, Oil Spill on Kichwa Territory I. Block 192, Rio Tigre, Loreto, 2023.
Digital C print. 121.92 x 162.56 cm. © Richard Mosse, 2023. Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery and carlier gebauer.