Serpentine Galleries’ ‘Back to Earth’ evokes responses to climate calamity


Contemporary artists have taken on the role of confronting the precarious present as environmental catastrophe deepens. And so, environmentally conscious art is gaining popularity. Several art institutions and associations around the world offer scholarships and awards to visual artists whose work directly confronts climate catastrophe. Whether in American art, Korean art, or the art of any other culture, the concept of environment has almost always been present. Its representation can be exact or even sometimes abstract, limiting it to natural colors only. When we talk about nature and the environment, especially the climate crisis, we see how artists have shaped their work in the past around the history of the planet and its ecology. by Robert Smithson spiral jetty, completed in 1970, is undoubtedly the most famous work of land art. Smithson had to rearrange rock, dirt, and seaweed to create a long (1,500 ft) spiral-shaped pier extending into the Great Salt Lake in Utah for his earthen sculpture. From 1980 to 1983, Christo Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude circled 11 Florida islands in pink polypropylene fabric, and in 1997-1998 they wrapped 180 trees in woven polyester fabric at the Beyeler Foundation and Berower Park in Basel, Switzerland. Another notable work was James Turrell’s initiative to re-sculpt the ground surrounding the Roden Crater volcano in Arizona – arguably the largest ever undertaken.

A major multi-site exhibit responding to climate catastrophe this year is back to earth to the serpentine galleries. It is their creative, long-term, multi-disciplinary response to catastrophic and urgent global climate change. back to earth will reflect how we can learn from varied experiences to generate change by evoking responses to the climate emergency and highlighting a variety of sustainable perspectives from around the world. Serpentine has produced groundbreaking performances from a wide variety of young practitioners to the most recognized artists of our time since 1970, championing new ideas in contemporary art.

Seba Calfuqueo, 2022, video, film, set set Ko Image: Sebastien Melo

back to earth is a multi-year initiative in which more than 60 of the world’s most prominent artists, architects, poets, filmmakers, scientists, philosophers and designers are invited to respond to environmental catastrophe. These collaborators develop artistic campaigns, protocols and projects with the help of partner organizations and networks. The interdisciplinary initiative spans all of Serpentine’s onsite, offsite and online programs, pooling resources to amplify existing climate-related projects and campaigns, as well as generate new ones. back to earth recognizes ecology as part of daily activities and institutions.

By land, sea and air we came, 2021, video, Adham Faramawy |  STIRworld
By land, sea and air we came, 2021, video, Adham Faramawy Image: Courtesy of Serpentine Galleries

An installation by artist Tabita Rezaire and architect Yussef Agbo-Ola of studio Olaniyi will explore man’s relationship with medicinal plants. They created a temple as a multi-sensory environment for people to remember the healing properties of plants. The temple is made of recycled materials from past Serpentine shows and has specially woven panels that will be rebuilt into a structure at Amakaba, the agroecological center of Rezaire in French Guiana. The Palais de Tokyo in Paris collaborated on this exhibition. A series of earth and clay figures by Dineo Seshee Bopape will be among the other attractions. In a partnership that studies the techniques of re-engagement with our bodies, our lands and our ancestors, the animist Catitu Tayassu transforms the movements and the breath of the artist into sound compositions.

Installation view of The Family (A Zombie Movie) by Karrabing Film Collective, as part of POWER NIGHTS curated by Lucia Pietroiusti at E-WERK Luckenwalde, 2021 - 2022. Courtesy E-WERK Luckenwalde and Karrabing Film Collective |  STIRworld
Installation view of Family (A zombie movie) by Karrabing Film Collective, as part of POWER NIGHTS curated by Lucia Pietroiusti at E-WERK Luckenwalde, 2021-2022. Courtesy E-WERK Luckenwalde and Karrabing Film Collective Image: Stefan Korté

Along with many other artist-designed posters, Formafantasma, a research-based design company, will come up with a manifesto for making exhibitions that reduce carbon emissions. The art installation by artist Giles Round will feature mirrored surfaces and shapes inspired by satellites that monitor environmental changes to maximize natural light and limit the need for artificial lighting. Carolina Caycedo’s new wallpaper will envelop the exhibit area, combining satellite photos of human-influenced waterways across the Americas. The family and the zombie, a new film commission from Karrabing Film Collective, will make its UK debut, exploring the importance of connection to the land and indigenous cultures. Artist and researcher Sissel Tolaas has created a one-of-a-kind olfactory score that will unfold in the space and during the exhibition, using the emotional power of our sense of smell to highlight the need for change in response to the climate crisis.

Sun & Sea |  STIRworld
Sun & Sea Image: Elon Shoenholz

Bettina Korek and Hans Ulrich Obrist said that the back to earth The program, in its third year, has proven to be a dynamic platform for multidisciplinary ideas and practice at Serpentine. They claim that the immersive exhibition is an opportunity to present a selection of back to earth initiatives to the public under the aegis of a show, to analyze the interaction between artists, intellectuals, performers and curators, and to consider the relevance of forging new links between art and society. According to them, the earth and the climate catastrophe that people face as natural creatures couldn’t be a more universal topic. The calls for change and innovative solutions that have emerged as a result of back to earth inspired them and they hope they will inspire others.

back to earth at Serpentine North will continue to use existing structures and materials from the deconstructed portions of the previous facility, Radio ballads, to reduce waste and reinvent exhibition production. Almost all of the work has been created in-house, and the inks and papers used in the printed products have been chosen with recycling processes in mind.

Static Range, 2021, performative installation, Himali Singh Soin, Maat Museum |  STIRworld
Static range, 2021, performance installation, Himali Singh Soin, Maat Museum Image: Courtesy of Serpentine Galleries

An exhibition on transformation that also serves as a catalyst for change, back to earth is a complex web of interrelated studies, actions and activities that echoes the global response to the climate problem. The project asks the following questions: What new ecosystems can create agency within organizations? To come up with complicated solutions to complex problems, what kind of shared research, shared resources, and collaborative work process is needed? How can arts organizations raise awareness of climate action that benefits people, places and imaginations around the world?

Seba Calfuqueo,2022, video, photo from the film, Tray Tray Ko |  STIRworld
Seba Calfuqueo, 2022, video, film, set set Ko Image: Sebastien Melo

The back to earth marathon, co-hosted with Brian Eno, will bring together participants from all disciplines to respond to today’s environmental emergencies on Earth Day 2023, reflecting Serpentine’s long-term commitment to working with visual artists in the face of the climate change and to build on long-standing experience in producing ambitious, multidisciplinary, live art events at the forefront of contemporary thought. The program will include an exhibition held at Serpentine North from June 22 to September 18, 2022, with other works located in Serpentine’s The Magazine restaurant and further afield in Kensington Gardens. back to earth will also present an extensive live program with activations during the exhibition and for the next two years.

By land, sea and air we came, 2021, video, Adham Faramawy |  STIRworld
By land, sea and air we came, 2021, video, Adham Faramawy Image: Courtesy of Serpentine Galleries

(Text by Vatsala Sethi, Deputy Editorial Coordinator (Arts))


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