Since the Serpentine Galleries opened in London’s Hyde Park in 1970, it has become renowned for its pioneering exhibitions which champion new ideas in contemporary art. That ethos is still going strong today and, for our modern times, the Serpentine has turned its mind to the climate crisis.
Back to Earth, curated by Rebecca Lewin, is a long-term, interdisciplinary, artistic programme which aims to “remind us of the fragility of the earth immediately beneath our feet, and the planet we depend on”.
At its heart are thought-provoking installations by leading artists, staged at Serpentine North (until 18 September 2022). Films; graphic posters; photography; sound installations; sculptural works; large scale; small scale; all immersive; subtle – it’s like every medium of the art world has come together and exploded within one over-arching theme.
As part of the line-up, for instance, Brian Eno has created a new sound and light installation emerging from his research into generative compositions. While, artist Tabita Rezaire/Amakaba and architect Yussef Agbo-Ola/Olaniyi Studio have set out to explore our relationship to medicinal plants. The result is the Ikum: Drying Temple – a chapel-like construction made from materials recycled from Serpentine’s previous exhibitions. It is also adorned with specially woven panels that will eventually be reassembled into a building in Amakaba, Rezaire’s centre for agroecology in French Guiana. The multisensory, cocooning space provokes us to remember the healing powers of plants.
Also prompting contemplation are a series of earth and clay forms by Dineo Seshee Bopape. The artist’s movements and breath are translated into sound pieces by animist and shaman Catitu Tayassu in a collaboration that explores methods of reengaging with our bodies, lands and ancestors.
Meanwhile, research-based design studio Formafantasma has presented a manifesto for exhibition-making that minimises carbon emissions, alongside many other artist’s designed posters.
There’s a lot to take in – from artist Giles Round’s mirrored surfaces and forms based on the satellites that survey environmental changes to a new wallpaper by artist Carolina Caycedo, which envelop the exhibition space. This is a collage of satellite images of waterways that have been shaped by human intervention across the Americas.
There’s also a new film commission, The Family and The Zombie by Karrabing Film Collective, which sets out to explore the significance of the connection of land and indigenous communities.
In the Serpentine’s restaurant The Magazine – there are further works to explore as you tuck into a new sustainable menu by Turner Prize nominated Cooking Sections. While, in Kensington Gardens, there is a new garden created specially for pollinators – entitled the Pollinator Pathmaker. In fact, Back to Earth will also feature an extensive live programme for the next two years.
Involved in the project are over sixty leading artists, architects, poets, filmmakers, scientists, thinkers and designers – all of which have delievered their own response to the environmental crisis.
“Back to Earth is a programme about change and a catalyst for change. Evoking responses to the climate emergency and spotlighting a multitude of durational perspectives from across the globe, Back to Earth will reflect how we can learn from diverse experiences to create change,” says Rebecca Lewin.
To add to your all-immersive journey, a unique ‘smell score’ by artist and researcher Sissel Tolaas will evolve through the space and over the course of the exhibition, drawing on the emotional power of our sense of smell to address the need for change in response to the climate emergency.
Expanding beyond the exhibition space, nothing remains untouched, including the gallery shop which has been transformed through a collaboration between design and experiential futures company Superflux and designer Ghazaal Vojdani. They have created a ‘shop for the future’ that aims to gather knowledge from a group of advisors, offering visitors a selection of books and products that reflect alternative models of consumption in a changed climate.
Needless to say that sustainability is at the core of the exhibition, with Back to Earth using existing structures and reusing the materials from disassembled parts of Radio Ballads, the preceding exhibition, to minimise waste build and reimagine exhibition making. Almost all work has been produced locally and inks and papers involved in printed materials have been selected to prioritise recycled processes.
Artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist has the last word: “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.”