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'Eco-Visionaries' Review - Royal Academy of Arts

23rd November 2019 — 23rd February 2020

Standard - £12

Concessions - £8


The Royal Academy of Arts has brought the show 'Eco-Visionaries' to life in a self-proclaimed confrontation with “a planet in a state of emergency.” Provocative pieces in The Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries emphasize the death and destruction that human beings have brought upon the Earth’s ecosystem, alongside works that suggest unconventional methods of escaping said eco-devastation. Through a variety of mediums and messages, the common theme seems simply to be the unhealthy relationship humans have developed with the Earth.

Close-up image of Island House in Laguna Grande. Image courtesy of the RA.

Upon entry, there is a nearly empty, short corridor with a timeline sitting on the right wall, setting up the historical background of climate and population change for viewers. This set-up allows the audience to understand just what these artists are responding to; it also emphasizes a comprehension of the magnitude of damage the environment is facing. Entrance to the first gallery reveals a submerged globe infested with an algae-looking substance in murky waters, establishing the tone for the rest of the show. The first gallery excellently positions the stage for environmental rage, starting with the permeated underwater globe. The following piece is what I would describe as a film collage, with snippets of different voices and languages and a composition of varying clips from movies and television, titled A Film, Reclaimed by Ana Vaz and Tristan Bera. This piece is the only one that blurs the line between sensationalizing ecological destruction and spreading awareness on how to ameliorate it. This piece also highlights the role of feminism in uplifting the environmental movement alongside the flaws of capitalism and its role in contributing to climate change.

The reason for the stressing of these two matters is that it seems ironic that in a show criticizing capitalism and consumerism as a huge root of the environmental problem, and praising feminism for its inclusivity and empowerment, the show itself proves to be inaccessible and perhaps an accessory to capitalism in its £12 entry fee—seemingly redundant in the face of the show and particularly this piece. Sitting perpendicularly to this large film is a set of Tue Greenfort’s lovely looking ink prints on paper, titled Tilapia. The prints are made using real tilapia fish painted with oil, which symbolises of the state of frequent oil spills in oceans, and the constant suffering of the inhabitants of the sea. A piece which is quite beautiful and easy to enjoy becomes nuanced in the way it criticizes that complacency of humans towards oil spills.

At the end of the first gallery, a most beautiful juxtaposition occurs between Virgil Abloh’s bronze piece, Alaska Chair, and Olafur Eliasson Hon RA’s C-prints titled, The Ice Melting Series. Abloh’s sculpture, a half-sinking bronze chair repurposed from a wooden IKEA chair, comments on mass consumption in relation to rising sea levels. The chair seemingly sinks into the ground of light reflections off of the prints. That is, a sort of metaphorical reflection of the rising water from the melting of ice caps, a marriage of the two issues brought out in the C-prints and the sculpture. The curatorial team succeeds in placing these two works side by side and it is arguably the most appropriate pairing of the whole show. The two pieces have their individual but similar messages, but placed next to each other, they create a sort of performative physical allegory that further strengthens both points.

Alaska Chair and The Ice Melting Series. Image courtesy of the RA.

The second gallery, the smallest of the three, contains pieces that are abstract and thought-provoking about adaptation to environmental change. The biggest of the pieces is a video of an animated rhinoceros walking around an empty room. Truthfully, my inclination was to disregard this piece until the very end because it did not seem particularly enticing to me. However, I realized it was a mistake to ignore, for it was a commentary on extinction—the rhino in question was a reproduction of the last male northern white rhino to exist—who died in March 2018. The rhino in the video goes in and out of overt pixelation and realistic animation, and its behavior is reproduced based off footage of the last herd in existence. This piece, titled The Substitute, provides the tension that I believe most viewers need to face—if action is not taken, soon all we will have left of endangered species will be reproductions such as this one, which are simply multiple pixelations of what once was a living, breathing three dimensional organic-being—simply put, an insufficient substitute.

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, The Substitute (video still), 2019.Visualisation by The Mill. © Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. Image courtesy of the RA.

The last gallery contains artworks that reflect alternative futures for organic beings. One of the works is a painting alongside a sculpture of a residential project, titled Island House in Laguna Grande, by Andrés Jaque and the Office for Political Innovation with Patrick Craine. This futuristic looking house sculpture seems space-aged and ultramodern, but the painting accompanying it is interesting in the portrayal of future people living in or around it. The painting is of the house on a beach and there are approximately 39 human figures all enjoying themselves on the coast, and of those there are only nine or eleven (some are racially ambiguous) people of colour portrayed, and none of the 39 people have visible disabilities. This makes me wonder if this portrayal is a purposeful commentary on the kinds of people who will survive the eco-crisis—richer, whiter, able bodied people who benefit already from capitalism and will be far from the first to suffer the initial detriments of our decaying environment. Instead, these people will continue to let the world suffer until it affects them personally, in which they will finally decide to take action because it benefits them personally. This aesthetically pleasing housing development and the naked figures displayed next to it represent this possibility, the nudity enforcing the late-stage action probability by supporting the heat of late-stage climate change.

Across from this unseemingly controversial painting-sculpture set is the only real interactive piece of the show—a theater with a movie that runs every 10 minutes or so. There are two tiny theater rooms opposite of each other. The movie starts with the audience required to put on headphones and look into the mirror at themselves as a group. There’s an introduction of human beings as a species and then the voice asks questions that the group is supposed to answer through the mirror, such as the daunting, “Who do you think will be the first to die in this mirror?” The intention is that we all point to that person in the mirror, which is confronting in such a way that many in my group did not point (including myself at first) and honestly, the oldest person in my viewing left after two minutes. We trickled out in order of age, leaving me (the seemingly youngest) to be the very last to leave and only to finish the video in its entirety. The video is captivating in the way that it takes viewers on a journey that forces them to confront themselves as humans but also compare themselves to jellyfish—at first introduced as the most different animal to humans but then slowly likened to us in our shared destructive natures, thriving amongst environmental chaos.

Eventually the screen shows us the viewers on the other side while they are on the section of the screening with the pointing, unaware that we are watching them, a backhanded confrontation of our previous selves. It is in a way an enthralling experience, and yet the whole time I could not stop thinking about two things. First of all—how inaccessible it was to d/Deaf people, which I asked about after the screening. I was told I could use a transcript, but there was no captioning available for the video—which seems to defeat its purpose. The video confronts us as individuals, which isn’t unique to this piece—the whole show is about criticism of individualism and people. However, I found little to no accusations towards big capitalist companies in their huge pollution contributions to the eco-crisis. There is a mistake in not including a bigger piece in the show confronting the substantial hand that capitalism and governments hold in the destruction of the environment.

Malka Architecture,The Green Machine, 2014. Installation view, Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 23 November 2019 — 23 February 2020. Photo: © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry.

This show is curated brilliantly and has proven itself to be a worthwhile exhibit to visit in these times of creeping eco-crisis. While the above is true, I still think that it is key to note that the show is inaccessible in many manners—in regards to its price, the uncaptioned video, and even the placards in the two later galleries, which are printed in white letters on a light beige background and thus proving to be inaccessible to the visually impaired. These are all factors, intentional or not, that seem to reflect my point of the figures in the Island House in Laguna Grande; the way in which the environmental movement is presented through these pieces does not seem to include or want those with disabilities, and they are and will be left behind. True environmentalism is a facet of feminism, as made evident from A Film, Reclaimed. Therein environmentalism, such as this show, should be made accessible to all groups, including those with disabilities and/or low-income individuals.

Edited by Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor

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