On 'Dear Earth'

Words by Madeleine Bazil

Welcome to Confluences, a column on art, kinship and life.

“Life takes place in relationships - we can’t live without them. Those dependencies are interdependencies,” says psychologist and professor Darcia Narvaez in Issue #14’s A Worldview Route to Kinship, speaking about kinship networks: “I think the vital part of that is the relational aspect, not the individual. We are stardust. We are Earth dust. Our ancestors are in us. And our ancestors include the slime moulds and the sponges and all the other non-human animals of the tree of Life.”

As I continue to consider our current theme, connection, I recently find myself meandering through the new group exhibition, Dear Earth, at London’s Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery. Dear Earth, on until 3 September, explores “themes of care, hope, and emotional and spiritual connection with our environment”—as the exhibition text states. I’m both inspired and frustrated as I peruse the show.

The exhibition features thought-provoking pieces by a slate of 15 international artists. Yet the curatorial aims feel lacking: at times falling short of the intellectual heft that the subject matter (or indeed, the artwork itself) demands. There is considerable focus placed on imploring the audience to “care” about climate change and our connection to the earth—about which the exhibition’s self-selecting viewership likely already do care quite a bit—and not enough focus on what action lies beyond that; that is, praxis, intervention, and radical engagement. Marv Recinto writes for Art Review that “what we are left with here is the vague sense that the exhibition is attempting to suggest that some sort of universal optimism will help the planet through its man-made devastation. Which isn’t a lot. But it could be.” We have reached an inflection point of environmental collapse where it is no longer sufficient, or a responsible use of resources, for large-scale galleries and museums’ curatorial teams to aim merely to raise awareness. It becomes vital, rather, to dig into specifics—something which Dear Earth approaches tentatively and sporadically.

It’s due time for exhibitions like Dear Earth, which deal in amorphous “hope,” to take up the mantle of rigorously interrogating what this means and how to actively preserve our connection and relationship with the Earth.

Andrea Bowers’s neon artwork, stating “Climate Change is Real” in punchy retro script, arguably entails a wink and a nod from the artist—perhaps a comment on popular culture and digital-age virality. But on a curatorial level, its inclusion in the show reads more as low-hanging Instagram bait for visitors. Far more interesting is Bowers’ large-scale installation Memorial to Arcadia Woodlands Clear-Cut (Green, Violet, and Brown) - an arresting sculptural entity of multicoloured paracord, wood, metal, and paint. As the exhibition text explains, the piece “commemorates a forest in California that Bowers attempted to save by climbing and tying herself to an oak tree alongside three other activists. The action failed to prevent the destruction of the pristine grove of trees and the protesters were arrested. Bowers later returned to the site, collecting the remaining wood clippings and connecting them with ropes and other tree-sitting gear to create this shrine.” Here, the work of art functions as a manifestation of a body politic; a physical record of both ideology and direct action; a tangible memorial to ecological grief; an archive of human connection to the Earth—and it is tremendously powerful.

I’m similarly impressed by artist Imani Jacqueline Brown, whose multidisciplinary project Follow the Oil incorporates interactive mapping and data visualisation, satellite video imagery, archival materials, and more to coagulate data on the ecological crisis facing Louisiana, USA, today—and tracing environmental racism and extractive economic systems back throughout American history to slavery. Her work, as her website notes, seeks “to expose the layers of violence and resistance that comprise the foundations of settler-colonial society.” Follow the Oil is part of Brown’s larger research investigation into the infrastructure of fossil fuel in coastal Louisiana and the petrochemical industry’s roots in slavery and settler-colonialism. Brown’s research and creative output operates as a site of enquiry—challenging, discomfiting, and propelling action.

While Dear Earth’s curatorial ethos feels at times trite or insufficient, in need of a re-imagining of the role of art and the gallery space in our time of ecological crisis, nothing about artworks like Follow the Oil or Memorial to Arcadia Woodlands Clear-Cut feels naïve or pat. It’s works such as these that elevate the exhibition as a whole: offering a new and improved blueprint for art to operate as a medium of active and sustained research, resistance, and action instead of as a response or reaction. As Narvaez notes, life is contingent on interdependencies—the relational aspect of connection with the planet. It’s due time for exhibitions like Dear Earth, which deal in amorphous “hope,” to take up the mantle of rigorously interrogating what this means and how to actively preserve our connection and relationship with the Earth. And so to me, the moments where the exhibition holds space for such deeper examination are the most intriguing and gratifying parts of it.

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Words by

Madeleine Bazil

Madeleine Bazil is a multidisciplinary artist and writer interested in memory, intimacy, and the ways we navigate worlds - real and imagined. She c… Learn more

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