Exhibition Review: Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency, Royal Academy of Arts, London

It’s a fact: “we are facing an ecological emergency”. The likes of young environmental guardians Greta Thunberg, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Artemisa Xakriaba and their peers have voiced these facts for the world to take note and take action. Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency, an exhibition that is currently on at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, on the other hand takes those facts and visualises them to encourage people to take note and to take action.

Tackling issues from climate change to food shortage, species extinction and resource depletion, Eco-Visionaries brings together artists, designers and architects from around the world who accept and acknowledge the hard facts, and are reconsidering the relationship between humans and nature.

Each visionary offers their alternative visions on how the future may look, encouraging visitors to rethink their own lives, make changes, and most importantly, to reconnect with nature. Recognising that without a connection to nature people are unlikely to take action, the exhibition invites the audience “to interact with the environment in a more respectful way, putting nature and other species’ needs before our own”.

While discussions about climate change more recently have focused on “future generations”, Eco-Visionaries serves to remind viewers that the planet is experiencing environmental changes right here, right now – as the exhibition’s introduction draws light on: “we are no longer discussing an environmental catastrophe that might impact future generations, but a catastrophe that will now drastically affect our own”.

Mother Nature waits for “no man”, so to speak, and that is what one of Eco Visionaries’s highlights, win >< win seeks to address – the mortality of humans and their demise as a dominant species. The 2017 installation win >< win, by the art collective Rimini Protokoll, which as entertaining and engaging as it is, highlights a few “home truths”: that humans are the most endangered species on this planet and so too face extinction.

Using jellyfish, one of the few species in the world to actually benefit from the effects of global warming, as a focal point, viewers sit in a small auditorium wearing headphones before the lights dim and a screen ahead unveils a mirror. The male voice poses questions to the viewers about their age and mortality, as they look at themselves through the mirror, asking them to respond with gestures such as pointing and putting up their hands. The mirror soon fades away and the audience then becomes witness to a tank of live jellyfish.

The audio, which is akin to listening to an insightful radio documentary about global warming, explains how jellyfish, who are carnivores, are rapidly multiplying due to warmer seas and a scarcity of endangered sea turtles that prey on them. Seeing such creatures up close begs viewers to ask questions about non-native species to this planet, and the volume of unwelcome critters and things that live on this planet that seek to destroy the natural ecosystems.

At some point during the 16-minute interactive installation, viewers can then see through the tank and it becomes apparent that other viewers are sitting in a similar auditorium directly opposite. On the other side of the tank, they too are experiencing win >< win, although at a different time sequence. As the audio poses further questions of the mortality of the viewers in the second auditorium, win >< win serves as reminder of the vulnerabities of the human species and that they are not top of the food chain.

The Eco-Visionaries exhibition also displays artwork from familiar names such as artist and climate activist, Olafur Eliasson. In The Ice Melting Series, Olafur Eliasson highlights shrinking polar ice caps, getting visitors to examine how the choices and actions of humans anywhere in the world impacts the rest of the world no matter how far away a land may be from them geographically.

As visitors enter the exhibition, they are invited to view a plastic globe which spins in a tank surrounded by small green particles, indicative of plastics, which is in fact having an impact on the rotations of the planet and attempting to slow it down. The installation, entitled Domestic Catastrophe Nº3: La Planėte Laboratoire, is by the Paris-based design collective HeHe.

On closer inspection of the HeHe exhibit, the particles sit on the globe like microfibre clothing creates bobbles on clothes and just sits on the garments. When you see it in the context of the globe, it appears like a dead weight. If someone has not questioned the impact of microfibres in the context of the bigger picture before, this exhibit most certainly does that.

Madrid In The Air, a film especially commissioned for the exhibition, monitors the skyline of Madrid over a 24-hour period. The film, by London-based architect and researcher Nerea Calvillo, literally brings to light the veil of pollutants in the air seen in various illuminous colours. Another film, The Breast Milk of the Volcano, sees research studio Unknown Fields present findings from an expedition to Bolivia and the Atacama Desert, source of over half the world’s reserves of lithium, questioning the sustainability of the lithium-based batteries that power most electronic devices today.

In The Substitute, artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg enables visitors to come face-to-face with a life-size digital reproduction of a northern white rhinoceros, the last male of the subspecies of which died in 2018. Drawing upon rare zoological archival footage as well as experimental data from AI company DeepMind, viewers are reminded of animal species that face extinction.

Eco-Visionaries excells at presenting the hard facts in a way that gets people to really think about the environment and to examine the impact of their choices on the planet. It also encourages them to make changes in their own lives and to take action.

What we are witnessing now on this planet is what happens when inaction occurs, and while taking no action is an action in-and-of itself, what Eco-Visisonaries reminds visitors is that inaction comes at a price. Eco-Visionaries also suggests that for those willing to play an active role in the survival of the planet and its healing, there is “the need to relearn how to survive without further damage to the planet and coexisting with more empathy towards other living beings”.

Eco-Visionaries relays all of these messages not in an aggressive, worthy nor righteous manner, but in a most impactful way – one that is likely to serve as a visual reminder for those who have visited the exhibition as they makes choices in their daily lives, and so making for consciously-aware, environmentally-aware choices that serve a greater good for the planet and its native species.

Image Credits: © Royal Academy of Arts, London/David Parry

Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency is on at the Royal Academy of Arts from now until 23 February 2020

Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She writes about lifestyles including sustainable and green living. She also offers content services to businesses and individuals at Rosamedea.com

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