schoosing the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is one of the greatest curators in the world, but it is done by artists and not professional curators. This year’s boss is Alison Wilding RA, not someone you would see as a gaudy or grand public figure, but a very sensitive and thoughtful abstract sculptor, who has been shortlisted twice for the Turner Prize. She did not select art at random, but imposed a subject that is far removed from the cozy cityscape of the Summer Exhibition. “I thought there was only one possible theme,” she says. “Climate.”
Dedicating this sprawling event, which sees famous artists hung alongside first-time exhibitors in the grand salons of Burlington House, to the climate crisis struck some of the more genteel Royal Academicians as a tad radical. “Some thought it could turn into a very dystopian exhibit,” she says. There’s obviously enough to be dystopian about, but Wilding was surprised by how much fun and joy she found. Besides mourning the destruction of nature, the art here is full of reverence for the landscapes of the earth. “There’s a festive aspect,” she says. The result, she thinks, has “dark corners, but also really nice areas”.
But part of the challenge for artists is that so much contemporary art itself is technologically extravagant or industrially manufactured, from electricity-guzzling neons to installations that use chemicals, oil, or dead animals. Wilding sadly acknowledges that she and other sculptors must look to their practice. “There are so many materials that now seem banned – resin, all kinds of industrial processes. We’re basically fucked,” she laughs grimly. But in fact, the need to make art that’s kind to the earth is a new creative challenge: “Some people are trying to make their work completely sustainable.”
She has also thought about the environmental impact of such a big show. The biggest problem, she says, is the environmental footprint of bringing together art from around the world: “Shipping is a huge problem.” Leading international artists always perform here, including this year’s Swiss Pipilotti Rist, who was recently named an honorary RA. For her part, Wilding says she strived to pick as many “local” artists as possible to limit emissions.
Because this is the world’s largest open-entry art exhibition—and the numbers are staggering. I’ve always wondered if it was really free for everything it claims to be. Oh yes, confirms Wilding. “Literally anyone who pays the registration fee can sign up. We viewed 15,000 submissions. There are, I think, 1,465 works in the show.”
And therein lies the pinch. Despite Wilding’s good intentions, it is a fragile undertaking to give energy and shape to this large open exhibition. Many works in the show look as if they are mechanically in tune with the theme – statues covered in flowers, a traditional landscape with the unlikely addition of a mushroom cloud – and en masse they coalesce into a bit of a slurry. For all its apparent edginess, climate is a theme that can encourage slack, soft, middle-class art. Still, Earth’s plight is urgent — and here are some of the works that Wilding believes show a way forward.
Hanging on the edge: five highlights
Room composed by Conrad Shawcross
Shawcross has created machines and sculptures on everything from Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine to the DNA spiral. The scientific reality of the climate crisis is therefore not lost on this intelligent artist, who has only opted for climate-neutral art. The days of hi-tech installations contributing to our impact on the planet are coming to an end.
Alice Channer and Phillip King
“There is a great work by Alice Channer [in the foreground]said Wilding, who works alongside sculptures by Phillip King, the former president of the Royal Academy who died in 2021. Channer’s sculptures combine human-transformed ingredients, including tree trunks, to create disturbing images of the world slowly being stifled. by King, meanwhile, serve as poetic reminders that art has always been a genuine way of loving the planet.
Cristina Iglesias (main photo)
When visitors to the Summer Exhibition enter the courtyard, they see green shoots growing freely in an installation by this Spanish sculptor. Go through the greenery and you enter a labyrinth of mirrors and sculpted roots that makes you feel like you are in some subterranean vegetable world. Iglesias stands in the tradition of artists who have been meditating on the environment since the 1960s.
In 2020, wildfires devastated California. Particularly shocking was the destruction of a tenth of the world’s population of giant sequoias, trees that can live for thousands of years and reach colossal heights. London-based Kögelsberger’s project on this catastrophe is not just observational, she is involved in replanting the lost forests. Her video of the blackened forests is an ashen warning.
Former young British artist Turk made a name for himself with artwork that literally promoted his own name and face – including a blue plaque to himself and a statue that puts his features on Sid Vicious. But this apparent narcissist has always been politically engaged and he is now a climate activist. Its eerie glittering cube filled with the trash of modern life lures you with beauty, to shock you with the truth.
The Summer Exhibition is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until August 21†