With the world's attention firmly focused on the environment, artists are getting in on the act at London's Royal Academy and demonstrating the extent to which contemporary art can engage with the issue of climate change. The latest in the GSK Contemporary series, Earth: Art of a Changing World, presents new and recent work from more than 30 leading international contemporary artists and emerging talents. Works by the likes of Ackroyd & Harvey, Spencer Finch, Antony Gormley, Mona Hatoum, Marcos Lutyens & Alessandro Marianantoni, Gary Hume and David Nash are included. As decisions affecting the world's future are made in Copenhagen, these artists share their outlooks on climate change, offering fresh perspectives through contemporary art.
The somewhat unadventurous title promises little and smacks of eco-warrior-cum-political protester. It is all didacticism and dullness - not qualities that make for a successful exhibition. Even the catalogue reads like a Greenpeace mail-out, with the "art" in "Earth" rendered in bold. Subtlety, it seems, isn't its prime concern. But what's in a name? Fortunately for the RA, very little. The vast majority of artists featured steer away from preaching and produce art that, while dealing with the theme at the heart of the exhibition, is not ruled by it. Within this context of understated but poignant work, images of rising tides or rapidly melting icebergs are forgivable, even acceptable.
Upon entering the Burlington Gardens site, visitors are greeted by a giant cloud. The work, by the American artist Finch and titled Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004) was constructed on-site over a six-day period. Starting from scratch and working with a wooden framework in which to build the cloud slowly from the centre all the way out, the piece was carefully moved up the staircase and suspended on completion.
Made using different coloured gels, the work recreates the outdoor environment in an indoor context. It is concerned with temperature, humidity and light levels, but more than this it is a bold focal point and a signifier of what's to come. "It's very important that visitors leave saying: 'That was incredible,' as opposed to talking about the temperature of the sea rising by two or three degrees," says Kathleen Soriano, the director of exhibitions at the RA and the show's co-curator.
"It's not about the literal process or issues involved in climate change, it's about much more," she says. Far from being mere reportage, Finch's work offers a platform for artistic commitment as well as environmental engagement. The artist also understands the curatorial approach to presenting the issues. "Finch spent time thinking about the space and the context of where his work was going to be," says Soriano.
Not all of the works here are so successful. Tracey Emin exhibits two pieces: a tapestry embroidered with birds, insects and flowers, titled I Loved You Like the Sky, and a neon sign reading: "Your heart is like the wind." The link to climate change is, at best, tenuous. At worst, her beaming fluorescent lights proclaiming personal concerns speak of unapologetic consumerism, obsessive individualism and waste. Her inclusion is indicative of a wider problem: that of fluctuating levels of concern for the issues at stake. Would the RA's brave new show survive without such celebrity endorsement?
Organisers and participants argue yes. "The subject matter is so ripe for the picking," says Heather Ackroyd. "It's so charged and so potent that it kind of plays out across a whole range of subject matters and interests a variety of spectators. Climate change is a big umbrella term, but it's happening on a microcosmic level, on a very detailed, intimate level as well, so I think that there's a huge scope for artists to find something to draw on."
This relationship between issue and art is central to the project. For a selection of artists, this involves translating the global scale of climate change into a human narrative. Others are focused on the fragility of the Earth or the role of the artist in the cycle of human and cultural evolution - as communicator, reflector and interpreter of key issues of the day. For some, holding up a mirror to our changing world is the most powerful way to examine the ideas from a variety of angles. For others, the environment resonates more subtly within the piece, building on its power to create an overall visual and experiential impact that explores some of the cultural impacts of climate change.
"There's a very wide-ranging take on the subject matter," says Ackroyd. "Some are very oblique, some very lateral, and some kind of hit it more directly on the head." Highlights include Antony Gormley's Amazonian Field, a popular 1992 work that has been reinstalled as part of the show, in which visitors are confronted by a sea of clay figurines that dominate the room and stare up with wide, expectant eyes. Elsewhere, Sophie Calle buries a necklace, ring and portrait of her deceased mother in a glacier. In the text that accompanies the photos of these objects and those of the landscape, Calle wonders "if the climate changes will carry [her mother] to the sea to be taken north by the West Greenland current, or retreat up the valley towards the ice cap".
Tomas Saraceno's Endless Series, taken in Bolivia at Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt flat, depicts a lone figure in an imagined environment, exploring the possibilities of creating a secure future in this new home. His work challenges the way we live and develops ideas of fantastical habitable environments. In 400 Thousand Generations, Mariele Neudecker constructs a fragile reality within "tanks". These worlds seem to be preserved in stasis, like museum objects, but are constantly changing. The chemicals in which these landscapes are suspended give them a clarity and a sense of the hyper-real that are at odds with the fantastical worlds represented. The title refers to the number of generations it took for photosensitive tissue to evolve into the human eye.
The Chinese artist Yao Lu presents Spring in the City, a watercolour of a pastoral landscape. From a distance, the misty mountains and perfectly formed inhabitants possess an enticing, dreamlike quality. On closer inspection, however, we find that nothing is as it seems. The mountains are, in fact, heaps of green netting, and the mist is not watercolour, but a trick of digital photography. Cornelia Parker's Heart of Darkness, a work consisting of pieces of charred wood taken from the site of a forest fire in Florida, is particularly unsettling. Hung from the ceiling in a block in the middle of a white room, the black fragments are surprisingly beautiful and still. Yet their fabric speaks of destruction and loss, each remnant telling a story of death and displacement.
The work of Ackroyd & Harvey is similarly haunting. The duo, who often use living materials and are concerned with processes of growth, change, transformation and decay, have created Polar Diamond, a piece commissioned specifically for the exhibition. The work involved the artists getting hold of a polar bear leg bone, burning it on a barbecue set in the back garden of their studio and having graphite extracted from the carbon. Over a period of four months, the material transmuted and was chemically transformed into a crystal diamond.
The piece enabled the artists to ask questions fundamental to the climate-change debate. "What are our sense of values?" says Ackroyd. "And how do we face the possibility of losing species that are as iconic as the polar bear? Their territory is subjected to accelerated levels of climate change. How do we cope with that? What price is being paid for carbon? What price is being paid for the way that we are choosing to use energy to live our lives?"
Interestingly, the diamond shattered a week before it was due to arrive in the UK. "In a way, the destruction of the piece worked for us," says Ackroyd. "It talks a lot about control and fragility and the piece is now multilayered. It's more relevant than ever to the theme of the show."