Ecovisionaries; Saved by the Jellyfish

This exhibition at the R.A. has suffered some pretty bad reviews, two or three stars at best, and generally a lot of accusations of virtue signalling, obliqueness and preaching to the choir. In some ways I agree and in some I think reviewers are jumping on the bandwagon a bit. 

The exhibition stated pretty disastrously for me; a cloudy fish tank containing a barely visible spinning globe, accompanied, inexplicably, by Saint-Saens’ The Swan played on a Theremin. Well, obviously we were having the polluted state of the atmosphere spelled out to us via the tank, which has maybe been done a bit too much to feature in an exhibition with the word ‘visionaries’ in it. But the Saint-Saens? I have absolutely no idea at all whether HeHe were going for irony, a nice tune or being a bit ‘edgy’. The one thing I can commit to, is that it felt trite and was not a good choice as you walked in the front door. 

Serpent River Book was around the corner, which deals with the affect of hydroelectric power on the environment and private ownership of previously public bodies of water. It taught me some things about this subject and raised issues which I don’t think are widely discussed. In this respect it was an effective, albeit gentle and inoffensive piece. The arrangement of the accordion fold artists’ book as a river was pleasing, as were the images, maps and other information it contained. So, pleasing, nice even, but not exactly visionary. 

The Ice Melting Series by Eliasson (which is quite old, 2002) was, as ever a stark reminder of the emergency we face. I always find Eliasson’s melting ice works very moving and anxiety provoking. And I would say I’m not alone, based on how many people are at his exhibitions whenever I go. He used straightforward images, with some illusion created by changing the perspective to illustrate a melting glacier in his native Iceland. It simply presented photographic evidence of the massive problem, and was accompanied by some information which expanded upon the images further. 

The Substitute was next; Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s CGI northern white rhino which stomps about, pixelating, disappearing and reappearing as you watch. The last male of this species died last year. Looking at the image was extremely sad and not something that I will forget for a while. Like the Eliassson (although much more elaborately), this is a fairly simple visual representation of an irrevocable loss. There is no preaching or judgement present, and that is, I think, an excellent way to affect change in people. It delivers the information arrestingly and unforgettably, and then the viewer can decide how and if to respond. 

Breast Milk of the Volcano is a film (and accompanying glass battery) about the Bolivian Salt Flats which contain the vast majority of the world’s lithium (needed for energy efficient lithium-ion batteries). This was extremely interesting and raised important issues relating to indigenous people and the dichotomy of clean energy/rare earth elements. Like Serpent River Book, but much more so, I learnt a great deal in this film, and it will definitely affect my thinking in future. It didn’t feel preachy, just informative. 

Other pieces included a truly dull and extremely un-visionary bronze chair from Virgil Abloh; Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian (21/11/19) said this seemed more like a good bit of advertising for IKEA than a thought provoking piece about the climate crisis, and I am inclined to agree, although apparently this was the RA trying to reach a teenage audience (which seems rather lazy and patronising to me, couldn’t they have commissioned something from Rubem Robierb or Elizabeth Farrell?).

Climate Meltdown by Rubem Robierb

We also saw some large test tubes containing imaginary plastic eating organisms, equipment to enable humans to consume tough roots and woody plants (with absolutely no explanation or substance behind them whatsoever) and some prints from an ex-nuclear bunker. A lot of this was seemingly badly, or not at all thought through. I didn’t offer any real solutions to the crisis, which is particularly frustrating from the architecture community (which was well represented here) since concrete is a huge pollutant without much of a solution presently. Edwin Heathcote of the FT (5/12/19) points out that the exhibition “underplays design’s complicity in the very problem it seeks to illustrate”. I agree entirely with this. The last room was overwhelmingly the work of architects, and I found it rather a waste of wall space in the main. I had hoped for some real life solutions to the real life problems that I was shown in the first two rooms, but instead I was presented with a series of utopian looking ideas for floating communes – human/dolphin/ant/whatever, de-desertification machines etc etc. Eddy Frankel of TimeOut would disagree with me on this, saying that these “solutions” are visionary, but the seemed entirely half hearted to me. What’s the point if it looks like a solution but this is just an illusion? This is a problem that plagues the environmental movement constantly, and I don’t have any desire to see it reproduced, unapologetically, at the RA. 

The last installation in Eco-Visionaries might make me forgive all this. win><win which is the work of collective Rimini Protokoll, tells the tale of the rise of the jellyfish. To briefly explain, the audience walk in and sit down opposite what looks like a straight forward mirror, headphones then transmit a somewhat disquieting voice (it felt a bit like the faintly sinister narrator’s voice you often hear in a DC film) asking a series of questions which the audience are supposed to answer with gestures – How old are you? Who in this room will live longest? Who will die soonest? Etc. This led into a lengthy section made up of facts about jellyfish, and during this the mirror revealed itself to be a tank of moon jellyfish. The gist of this is that jellyfish stand to inherit the earth due to a variety of factors, not least the fact that they thrive on warmed water, are spawned from effectively immortal polyps, can be cut in half and regenerate, are seeing the natural predators die at the hands of plastic pollution, warming seas and toxins in the ecosystem… I could go on. They’ve also been around a very, very long time, maybe more than 500 million years. They clog up nuclear power cooling systems and desalination plants, wipe out fish populations and the incidence of jellyfish stings is increasing rapidly. The difference between simplicity of the jellies and our own human complexity, their success and our impending doom, is stark. The jellyfish eventually fade and we see an image of some other audience members, not our own image as at the start. These new faces are clearly being asked the same questions that we responded to earlier. They look rather foolish and naive in the context. Point made! This installation is clever, funny, unsettling and thought provoking. The use of information, humour, illusion and theatre is very effective; almost every review I have read agreed that this is the stand out piece of the exhibition. 

Overall then, Eco-Visionaries is a bit unimaginative and a lot of it doesn’t make any kind of real contribution in terms of changing people’s minds, or offering solutions to the problem. A few particular pieces definitely buck this trend; win><win, Breast Milk of a Volcano, The Substitute. These are successful because they present shocking (and new) information effectively and simply. The do not preach overtly, rather they place viewers in a mindset of wanting to change yourself, others, habits, etc. The other major success of this exhibition is that it has been formulated to be very low impact itself. There has been substantial reuse of materials, avoidance of single use plastics and only one piece was transported by aeroplane. I actually think that this was very downplayed and they should be shouting about it a lot more. It sets a good example in an industry which historically has a bad reputation in this regard. 

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