RA Magazine Winter 2009
Issue Number: 105
The world in our hands
Art cannot save the world, but it can change our perceptions of it. So says Professor Chris Rapley, who tells Richard Cork about the global warming theme at the heart of the RA’s ‘Earth’ exhibition. We also ask artists who are in the show about how they are rising to the challenge
Despite the overwhelming evidence, too many people still insist on believing that planet Earth is safe. Their complacency is unjustified and may well terminate in catastrophe. But they prefer to dismiss the warnings of global disaster as mere hysteria, cooked up by madmen besotted with fantasies about imminent extinction.
This is the belief of Professor Chris Rapley, Director of the Science Museum in London. Anyone who meets him will quickly realise that he cannot be relegated to the lunatic fringe. Soon after welcoming me into his office at the Science Museum, he is honest enough to make clear that he is ‘quite nervous of the millennial doomster: the scientific community rather shies away from this approach’.
Rapley’s standpoint, backed up by his other role as Professor of Climate Science at University College London, has nothing to do with any exaggerated obsessions about global annihilation. ‘I want to communicate in a fair and balanced way,’ says Rapley, before explaining with great clarity how he arrived at his profound understanding of climate change and its consequences.
His approach is underpinned by decades of pioneering research. After reading Physics at Oxford in the 1960s, Rapley began exploring ‘space science – building instruments that allow us to look at the X-rays coming from the cosmos’. From his base in University College he worked on a big NASA mission in Washington. ‘It was the moment when people started looking at the earth from space satellites.’ As well as becoming fascinated by ‘how the earth works as a system’, he realised that ‘climate change alters everything. Around 1981 it really kicked in for me. Transforming elements of the atmosphere is not good, and yet humans burn fossil fuels for a cheap source of energy. It’s not a great idea.’
While Rapley talks, I notice that an image of planet Earth floats silently on his laptop screen in a far corner of the office. Although radiant, it is suspended in the dark emptiness of the cosmos and looks vulnerable. Nobody knows more than Rapley about the dangers it now confronts. During the 1990s he worked in Stockholm with the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), ‘trying to pull together the science of the carbon cycle, of the biosphere, and the way humans interfere with this’. On his return, he became Director of the British Antarctic Survey, which ‘operates research bases monitoring what is really going on’.
The evidence disturbed him so much that he is now determined, as the recently appointed Director of the Science Museum, to ‘fight public perception of the museum as a passive box where visitors come and genuflect. It tells the story of how we got where we are, but I believe that’s a prelude to becoming the forum for the great issues of our day. It can, hopefully, be as engaging as possible and produce a different kind of visitor, committed to changing the way people think, talk and act about climate change.’ This is one of the reasons he has taken such an interest in the RA’s ‘Earth’ exhibition, briefing the RA staff on the science.
Rapley explains that he wants us all ‘to rediscover democracy, and – like the artists in the “Earth” show – to think hard about how we influence behaviour’. He leans forward and gestures decisively. ‘On climate change we must take a strong position. The evidence is overwhelming that humans are having a tangible impact on food supplies, water supplies and massive droughts. The risks are real. They sharpen up my thinking as a father and grandfather. There could be seriously disruptive consequences to what we’re doing.’
What role might artists play in this increasingly desperate situation? His reply is positive. ‘I’ve always been interested in the arts, and I passionately wish that the interplay between science and art were closer. I would love it if the audience for art became more aware of these important scientific issues. After all, science isn’t completely separate – it’s central to everything. I’ve always liked the idea of the Renaissance individual, because the richness of the world around you is enhanced by looking at it in as many different ways as possible: and that is the role of the artist. I admire artists’ power to bring alive a subject that’s distant but in our world – artists can sharpen our focus and make us address these big issues in unpredictable ways.’
Concentrating on stark and elegiac photographs of our relationship with ‘the macro-view’ or the bigger picture, Edward Burtynsky is convinced that ‘we don’t have a lot of time’. Based in Toronto, the artist travelled through seven countries to explore ‘mines and quarries as evidence of our intervention in the natural world. The taking of stone over the centuries leaves behind a whole lot of waste land.’
His latest book is called, quite simply, Oil (£85, Steidl). He points out that ‘oil permeates the land, allowing us to go into classic over-reach and puts us out on a very precarious limb’. Burtynsky’s voice grows urgent as he explains: ‘To use less oil doesn’t mean having a worse life. We’ll probably be more community-based, and our food won’t have to travel thousands of miles to reach us. At the moment, we don’t know how well they’re regulating their insecticide sprays on farms in Mexico or Chile. It’s obviously risky. Local farmers may be more expensive, but at least their food is not going to kill us.’
As an artist, what does Burtynsky hope he can achieve in such an alarming context? ‘I find places and images that stand for the human desire to take from the land and convert it into what we desire and need. I photograph the voids of quarries and mines, or places filled with waste materials such as tyres. I engage the viewer, using colour, light, form and the visually compelling moment.’
Yet he warns that, ‘after the four elements – earth, air, fire and water – we humans have now become the fifth element. We can change the planet but instead we’re destroying it. We’re behaving like the classic image of the ostrich with its head buried in the sand.’
Does Burtynsky feel in any way hopeful about our future? Do we have one? ‘I think that we’re capable of solving these problems. Global warming and the oceans are in our face, right now. What I feel is that, as individuals, we can do small things. But where real change has to happen is in government, which must provide the incentives for the greening of our cities.’
Burtynsky also believes that the corporate world has to alter its priorities. ‘What are these corporations that we’ve let loose on our planet?’ he asks. ‘Greening costs a lot, and at the same time your priority is to make a profit for your shareholders. You could put yourself out of business! But what about the needs of customers and the environment? ‘That’s why it all depends on leadership,’ he continues. ‘Is Obama going to have his day, and say to America: “We have to start ratcheting it back!” I think the world is holding its breath.’
Ackroyd & Harvey
British artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, known as Ackroyd & Harvey, have worked together as an artistic partnership for twenty years. ‘What binds us is a shared fascination with processes of growth and decay. We began by planting seedling grass on surfaces and walls of buildings and have an abiding interest in the tensions and the conflicts between nature and the man-made world,’ says Ackroyd. Famously, they planted a vertical grass wall on the side of the National Theatre and as Harvey points out: ‘We have also developed a body of work where we exploit the light sensitivity of the pigment chlorophyll to make living biochemical photographs in the grass – where it receives light it grows green, where it doesn’t it’s yellow. The photographs are like apparitions and are corrupted by excessive light. We have worked with scientists in finding a way to stabilise the image in the grass. We always work at the intersection between nature and the man-made.’
The pair find inspiration in the German artist Joseph Beuys, who put ecology on the same playing field as art in the 1970s and 80s and was a founder member of the German Green Party. ‘Artists are able to make you think and can help promote a cultural shift. Beuys led the way,’ says Ackroyd. In his visionary 7000 Oaks project at the 1982 Documenta VII in Kassel, Germany, Beuys planted trees throughout the city. ‘It is a hugely generous piece of work: it nourishes the city and will be there for generations, living and breathing with the people,’ says Ackroyd. Now, as part of the ‘Earth’ show, Ackroyd & Harvey are exhibiting over 200 saplings grown from acorns collected under the first tree Beuys planted at Kassel.
‘We gathered about 700, brought them back to our studio in Surrey, potted them and germinated them. We are bringing the young trees to the RA. Every Friday during the exhibition we are discussing the work in conversations with invited experts.’
The pair have also made expeditions to the High Arctic with Cape Farewell, the charity that brings together artists, scientists and educators to stimulate cultural responses to climate change. It was during an expedition to Spitsbergen (also known as Svalbard, made famous by Phillip Pullman's novels) that one object in particular came to epitomise for them man’s depredation of the area. On a shelf in the environmental manager’s office was the leg bone of a polar bear. Ackroyd & Harvey acquired this bone and have reduced it to carbon-graphite, using the dust to grow a diamond crystal. Polar Bear Diamond is on display in ‘Earth’.
‘We wanted to replicate, through an industrial process, something that takes millions of years to occur naturally in the earth,’ they explain. ‘In one sense it carries an implicit pathos, an anticipation of loss, and how rarity inevitably increases value. A diamond is made out of the single element of carbon, and is prized for its endurance. The diamond we are displaying is man-made and reflects how man-made fabrication methods and consumption demand high levels of energy and fossil fuel, which jeopardise many of Earth’s fragile eco-systems, such as the Arctic.’
As early as 1984, the young Cornelia Parker made an eerily prophetic image of miniature lead casts of world monuments submerged in a gutter of dirty water. Today she affirms that ‘there has been a sense of the apocalyptic in my work for a long time’. But in recent years her anxiety about the planet has intensified into alarm. ‘I’ve been around enough scientists to realise that it’s much more serious than most people think. We’re starting to see the effects of the drought in Australia which supplies 80 per cent of Japan’s
food, the bee population in massive decline, the collapse is starting already.’
Everything, says Parker, is ‘coming home to roost’. Recently, climate scientists told her at a conference that everything was accelerating much more quickly than four or five years ago. According to Parker, ‘We must change the way we think about everything to have even a chance of pulling through.’ She is angry about ‘big business deliberately fostering disinformation’. And she points out that ‘governments can’t agree about anything except the most conservative reforms. We can’t even adapt to lagging our lofts! We need true leadership – and fast.’
When exhibiting in Peru last year, she admired ‘the amazing terraces surrounding Machu Picchu, whose crops have been fed by glacial water for aeons. But the British ambassador told me that the glaciers in Peru will all be gone in ten years.’
How does Parker feel about these predictions? ‘As an artist, I feel powerless in some ways and vocal in other ways. When you’ve got kids of your own, the enormity of it all seems even more staggering. I’ve not thought about much else for the past few years. We are the first species to know that we are becoming extinct, but we’re just not doing enough about it.’
In the ‘Earth’ exhibition, Parker is displaying Heart of Darkness from 2004. The title is from the Joseph Conrad novel that inspired the film Apocalypse Now. ‘My piece contains the burnt remains from a forest in Florida. Forestry guys were doing a controlled burn, but the wind kicked up and this huge fire developed, called Impassable One. For me it seemed to be a metaphor for the butterfly effect of political tinkering. From the hanging chads in the US elections, which led to eight disastrous years of Bush, to the cutting of rainforests to grow biofuel crops to power Hummers.’
Parker is nevertheless convinced that ‘human creativity on every possible level is what will get us out of this’. In such a climate Parker sees the artist’s role as vital. ‘Art is good because it continues the debate. We need a mass movement to bang on the doors of power.’
Way back in the 1970s, David Nash RA’s faith in the future prompted him to plant the iconic Ash Dome near his home in the Ffestiniog Valley, in north Wales. ‘People were saying, “We’re not going to see the end of the twentieth century,”’ he recalls. But Ash Dome – a circle of trees he planted in 1977 – has been growing steadily and stubbornly ever since. ‘I wanted it to answer my big question: how can you have a sculpture outside which is genuinely of its place, able to enjoy long duration and formed from the elements of that place? Ash Dome is rooted there. I have made sculptures from the prunings from its 22 trees. And I’ve replanted the four-and-a-half acres around the dome as well.’
When the Royal Academy invited him to contribute to ‘Earth’, Nash says, ‘I thought it was great for the dome to be included. It validates the original idea when it was planted in 1977 that it was to be a sculpture of the 21st century.’ How does he feel about global warming? ‘Part of me finds it incredibly dramatic – this huge change, with icebergs breaking off and splashing in the water. It’s definitely happening. Ever since the 1970s I have believed that the environment is at risk, and I thought then that we would have figured it all out by now. But we’re in dire trouble: there could be a devastating famine or pestilence that will cull the world’s population. And there’s war as well – dog eats dog.’
Viewed in such an alarming context, Ash Dome seems more heartening and well-judged than ever. So when Nash told the RA that he was making some large drawings of Ash Dome, the exhibition organisers invited him to show them.
‘I’ve been doing them on site – that’s important,’ he says. ‘They’re each very distinct and could have been done by four different people. There’s a green one in pastel, a graphite drawing, and another one made with pigment and earth dug up from inside the dome. I put a sod of wet turf on the paper, and started drawing with that, then powdered charcoal or pigment. The wind can be useful when applying the powder down-wind. I’m using the same elements that grow the trees to make the drawings.’
Nash is not at all complacent about the future of Ash Dome. In discussing the potentially grave predicament of the planet with the RA, he said there were no easy options. ‘I emphasised that we must have the sense of a long-term project, otherwise the fight for our planet will simply be confined to short-term stunts.’
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