Iona Durno 

Back to Earth

Climate change is everywhere, literally and
metaphorically. Whether it’s reports on how the UK’s recent heatwave saw us reaching record-breaking temperatures (and actually experiencing said wretched heat), watching David Attenborough’s latest documentary, or seeing one of the many books addressing global warming on the shelves of your local bookshop: there is no escaping it. Inevitably, art is also being used to address this ever-growing global issue.

The Serpentine’s Back to Earth exhibition does just that, featuring a multifaceted collection of works curated by artists, poets, filmmakers, scientists, thinkers and designers in response to the climate crisis. 

Upon entering the gallery, an array of call-to-action posters confront you, setting the tone for the rest of the collaboration. The entirety of the space is encircled by an alluring palette of blues, greens and umbers – a wallpaper created by Carolina Caycedo titled This Land is a Poem of Ten Rivers – offering a satellite view across the Americas that showcases the vastness of human-made dammed waterways.

Perhaps you wouldn’t typically associate scent with art, yet an earthy aroma ebbs and flows as you make your way through the gallery, courtesy of an innovative smell score by Sissel Tolaas. Visitors are invited to interact and fully engage with the exhibition through four questions in the introduction foldout relating to the surrounding smells – mini pencils are even provided to note down your answers!

A twitch in your nose will lead you to one of the central rooms, following a new direction of scent – a concoction of dried sage, rosemary, thyme, salvia, heartsease, mugwort, chamomile, lavender, motherwort, viper’s-bugloss and yarrow. These medicinal plants, along with dyed cotton tensiles, reclaimed pine frame and biodegradable cable ties, form IKUM: Drying Temple, by Tabita Rezaire/AMAKABA and Yussef Agbo-Ola/OLANIYI STUDIO. Not only does the beauty of these bouquets against the vibrant green and yellow backdrop of the cotton elicit a feeling of awe and appreciation, but the aroma that fills the room (which becomes stronger as the plants dry out) creates a healing space that makes you want to stop and breathe in the fragrant air. Knowing the healing properties of the featured plants further makes you want to bathe in their aromatic embrace, birthing a desire within to become better acquainted with the natural benefits the earth has to offer us.

IKUM: Drying Temple promotes the consideration of how we can beneficially utilise the resources we have at our fingertips without destroying the planet by consequence. The piece drives home the belief that we must look after the earth as it can look after us – a message reflected by Seba Calfuqeo on one of the surrounding posters, reading: ‘When we harvest something, we must give an offering in order to sustain the balance.’

Perhaps the most notable piece in the exhibition is Brian Eno’s sound and light installation: Making gardens out of silence in the uncanny valley. Offering a moment of peaceful reflection, the low-lit area and soothing music provide an immediate sense of tranquillity, calming your mind and body the longer you immerse yourself in the experience. Once you’ve been enticed by this relaxing ambience, you will notice the names of extinct species filtering through the music. Eno has achieved something truly impactful here through means of such gentility; imploring people to contemplate the state of the earth and the crisis we currently face by creating a space that allows us a moment to slow down, quieten our thoughts, open our minds, before he goes on to feed us with the names of species that hold a meaning heavier than they should. Hearing these names in such a calm state elicits a raw, almost epiphanic, emotion towards the earth. Surely, we can spare more of these emotions for the world we live in, can we not? In Eno’s words, ‘perhaps if we become re-enchanted by the amazing improbability of life; perhaps if we suffer regret and even shame at what we’ve already lost; perhaps if we feel exhilarated by the challenges we face and what might yet become possible – then we can fall in love again, this time with nature, with human civilisation and with our hopes for the future.’

Another noteworthy piece is The Family (A Zombie Movie) by Karrabing Film Collective. This short film follows an indigenous community in Australia and their encounter with a white zombie who brings with him the detrimental effects of consumerism upon their land. Bracketing the screen is the quote ‘we are the future ancestors’, underlining the key focus of the video on rebuilding the connection between indigenous communities, their ancestors and their land after the destructive impacts they have faced as a result of colonialism and over-consumption. It is often forgotten that those in indigenous communities are impacted greatly by the climate crisis despite being lesser contributors to its effects, with Karrabing Film Collective’s work serving us a great reminder of such imbalances that the repercussions of climate change have on communities across the world.

The exhibition also continues outside of the gallery, with Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s Pollinator Pathmaker located at North Flower Walk in Kensington Gardens. Embracing a walk through nature, the garden walkway boasts a selection of flowers that please the eye and brighten the area with surges of colour, complemented with wood-carved sculptures of varying pollinators to emphasise their importance as well as add to the visual brilliance of the garden. It is these pollinators, more importantly, that the Pollinator Pathmaker makes purpose for, both attracting and offering sanctuary to an important selection of bees, wasps, moths and beetles. Furthermore, what may simply seem like an attractive placement of flowers, was actually intricately planned out using a custom-built computer algorithm, which created the arrangement for the Pollinator Pathmaker to maximise potential and efficiency for the most pollinators throughout the year, thus maintaining our native flora. What makes this installation even better is the solution it offers the public; there is a QR code you can scan on the information display at the entrance of the walkway (alternatively, you can visit that allows you to use the same algorithm to design and establish your own pollinator garden.

Whether you’re an expert or novice on the climate change crisis, or are yet to feel concern, Back to Earth is both a unique and insightful exhibition that offers revolutionary impact and accessible consumption for anyone. Its sensory diversity and encouragement for interactivity sets it apart from your typical gallery exhibition, creating a handful of distinctive spaces that everyone would greatly benefit from attending.

by Iona Durno

Back to Earth ran in the Serpentine North Gallery (West Carriage Drive, London W2 2AR) from 22 June 2022 – 18 September 2022. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s ‘Pollinator Pathmaker: Serpentine Edition Garden’ is located on the North Flower Walk in Kensington Gardens.

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