Alison Wilding on her summer exhibition on the climate crisis

Alison Wilding on her summer exhibition on the climate crisis

Selecting the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition is one of the biggest curating jobs in the world, but it’s done by artists, not professional curators. This year’s chief is Alison Wilding RA, not someone you might think of as a flashy or prominent socialite, but a deeply sensitive and thoughtful abstract sculptor who has been twice shortlisted for the Turner Prize. She didn’t choose art at random, but imposed a theme far removed from the cozy suburban image of the summer exhibition. “I thought there was only one possible topic,” she says. “Climate.”

This sprawling event, which sees famous artists hanging alongside first-time exhibitors in the grand drawing rooms of Burlington House, to dedicate to the climate crisis felt a bit radical to some of the most distinguished Royal Academicians. “Some thought it might turn into a very dystopian exhibition,” she says. Obviously there’s a lot to be dystopian about, but Wilding was surprised at how much enjoyment and joy she found. In addition to mourning the destruction of nature, the art here is filled with reverence for the landscapes of the earth. “There’s a celebratory aspect,” she says. The result, she finds, has “dark corners, but also really nice spots”.

Part of the challenge for artists, however, is that so much contemporary art is itself technologically extravagant or industrially manufactured, from power-guzzling neon lights to installations that use chemicals, oil, or dead animals. Wilding ruefully acknowledges that she and other sculptors need to engage with her practice. “There are so many materials that seem impermissible now – resin, all sorts of industrial processes. Actually, we’re screwed,” she laughs grimly. In fact, the need to make art that is kind to the earth is a new creative challenge: “Some people are trying to make their work fully sustainable.”

She also considered the environmental impact of such a big show. The biggest problem, she says, is the carbon footprint of bringing art together from all over the world: “Shipping is a massive problem.” Leading international artists always exhibit here, including this year’s Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, who recently received the Honorary RA was appointed. For her part, Wilding says she has endeavored to select as many “local” artists as possible to keep emissions down.

Because this is the world’s largest open submission art exhibition – and the numbers are staggering. I’ve always wondered if it really was free for everything it claims to be. Oh yes, confirms Wilding. “Literally anyone who pays the entry fee can apply. We looked at 15,000 submissions. There are, I think, 1,465 works in the exhibition.”

And there’s the catch. Despite Wilding’s excellent intentions, giving energy and form to this vast open exhibition is a fragile undertaking. Many of the works in the exhibition look like they’ve been mechanically attuned to the theme – flower-covered statues, a traditional landscape with an implausibly added mushroom cloud – and en masse they melt into something of a mush. For all its seeming edginess, climate is an issue that can encourage sloppy, mellow middle-class art. Still, Earth’s need is urgent — and here’s some of the work Wilding sees as a way forward.

Hanging from the edge: five highlights

Room curated by Conrad Shawcross
Shawcross has made machines and sculptures of everything from Charles Babbage’s difference machine to the DNA spiral. So the scientific reality of the climate crisis does not escape this intelligent artist, who has exclusively selected carbon-neutral art. The days of high-tech installations that contribute to our impact on the planet are coming to an end.

Alice Channer and Phillip King
“There is great work by Alice Channer [in the foreground]says Wilding, which is juxtaposed with sculptures of Phillip King, the former President of the Royal Academy who died in 2021. Channer’s sculptures combine human-altered ingredients, including tree trunks, to create unsettling images of the world slowly being suffocated. King’s works, on the other hand, are a poetic reminder that art has always been a heartfelt way of loving the planet.

Cristina Iglesias (main picture)
When visitors to the summer exhibition enter the courtyard, they see green shoots growing freely in an installation by this Spanish sculptor. Walk through the green and you enter a maze of mirrors and sculpted roots that gives you the feeling of being in a subterranean plant world. Iglesias is in a tradition of artists meditating on the environment since the 1960s.

Uta Koegelsberger
In 2020, wildfires devastated California. Particularly staggering was the destruction of one-tenth of the world’s population of giant sequoias, trees that can live for thousands of years and reach colossal heights. The London-based Kögelsbergers’ project on this catastrophe is not just an observation, they are involved in the reforestation of the lost forests. Your video of the blackened forest is an ashen warning.

Gavin Turk
Former young British artist Turk made a name for himself with artworks that literally advertise his own name and face – including a blue plaque for himself and a statue that puts his features on Sid Vicious. But this apparent narcissist has always been politically active and is now a climate activist. Its eerie, shimmering cube filled with the dregs of modern life lures you with beauty to shock you with truth.

The summer exhibition is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, to August 21st.

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