Back to Earth exhibition in London takes stock of climate crisis

Show features creative responses to environmental concerns from more 60 artists and thinkers

A programme of live events accompanies the Back to Earth exhibition and features the UK premiere of the award-winning opera ‘Sun & Sea’ (pictured) by Lina Lapelytee. Photo: Elon Shoenholz
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As severe drought in Africa destroys lives and livelihoods and wildfires sweep through parts of Europe, the sweltering weather leading the UK into summer has brought home the effects of an overheating world.

Sunbathers last week baked in June temperatures of 34°C in Hyde Park, west London, where an art gallery has unveiled its programme responding to the world's urgent climate crisis.

Running until September, the Back to Earth exhibition is part of a larger multi-year project looking at environmental issues through the lens of more than 60 leading artists, architects, filmmakers, scientists, thinkers and designers.

Bettina Korek, chief executive of Serpentine Galleries, said the exhibition was a chance to "think about the interplay" among all those taking part in moving the climate-change conversation forward, as well as to create "new connections between art and society".

With its main stage at Serpentine North Gallery, the exhibit features more works in its adjacent restaurant, The Magazine, and further afield in Kensington Gardens.

The rich and comforting smell of earth laid on the floor of the gallery engulfs the exhibit room, readying visitors for a sense-driven series of works by renowned international artists.

Also adorning the walls is a collage of Google Earth images showing the changing landscapes of areas in South America by artist Carolina Caycedo depicts the scale and speed with which land is being stripped by deforestation.

On another wall hangs The Future is Fragile, Handle with Care, a flag by conceptual artist Agnes Denes which was raised on the masthead above Tate Britain last year.

A multisensory ‘temple’ designed by artist Tabita Rezaire and architect Yussef Agbo-Ola invites visitors to explore their relationship with medicinal plants. Rows of herbs, plants and flowers are attached to the installation’s wooden web, their powerful perfumes an uplifting promise of the healing powers of unadulterated nature.

In keeping with Back to Earth’s regenerative theme, the installation was constructed using materials recycled from previous Serpentine exhibitions and will be reinstalled in the Amazon jungle in French Guiana after the London exhibition ends.

Dineo Seshee Bopape’s earth and clay forms, translated into sound pieces by animist and shaman Catitu Tayassu, carry the similarly esoteric suggestions of most of the works on display.

Alongside Back To Earth is a three-month live programme of events, which will be held in the Black Chapel in Kensington Gardens, a conceptual artwork in the form of a pavilion, designed as a "sanctuary for reflection, refuge and conviviality", the Serpentine website says.

The line-up includes the UK premiere of Sun & Sea, the opera awarded the Golden Lion for best national participation at Venice Biennale 2019.

Another premiere will be The Family (A Zombie Movie) by Karrabing Film Collective, a three-screen colour film that explores the significance of indigenous communities’ connection to land.

Organisers of the exhibition say the artistry echoes the global response to the climate crisis and asks what and how humans can act as a “catalyst for change”.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of Serpentine Galleries, said: “There could not be a more universal subject matter than the Earth and the climate crisis we are facing as natural beings. We are galvanised by the calls for change and creative solutions that have come to life through Back to Earth and hope that they inspire more.”

In one cavernous gallery room, Making Gardens out of Silence, a sound and light installation from British musician and visual artist Brian Eno, emerges from the creator’s research into generative compositions — the process whereby art is partly or completely created by an autonomous system, such as a computer.

While the exhibition invites contemplation of a past in which humans' simpler interaction with nature gave way to a more pristine environment, it is still forward-looking in its search for innovative solutions to the current crisis.

Alexandra Daisy Ginsber’s Pollinator Pathmaker uses an artificial intelligence algorithm to record and monitor planting patterns. Focusing on the needs of pollinators in the UK, the ongoing “artwork for bees” will be on display in Kensington Gardens and online for the next two years.

Other creative solutions include miniature mirrored satellites by artist Giles Round, dozens of which hang from the ceiling of the gallery. Strategically placed, the reflective surfaces are meant to maximise natural daylight to reduce the need for artificial lighting.

With sustainability at the core of the exhibition, Back to Earth uses existing structures and recycled materials from disassembled parts from its previous show to minimise waste.

Research-based design studio Formafantasma is also reimagining art spaces with its manifesto for exhibitions that minimise carbon emissions.

The Magazine offers diners a culinary take on the exhibition theme, with a new ‘climavore’ menu from chef Tomas Kolkus that uses regenerative aquaculture and agriculture.

Updated: June 29, 2022, 5:00 AM