Contemporary artists examine nature and climate change in online exhibition at Runway Gallery

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Contemporary artists examine nature and climate change in online exhibition at Runway Gallery
Simon McCheung, Interstellar/ Awoken, 2017.

LONDON.- Curator Lee Sharrock and Daniel Syrett, curator of Blacks Club, Century Club and director of Runway Gallery, teamed up to launch ReWild, a virtual environmental exhibition online at Runway Gallery from 3 to 10 December.

A percentage of proceeds will be donated to Friends of the Earth, one of the original environmental NGO’s formed back in 1969 in San Francisco and now present in over 70 countries.

The exhibition features artists who are responding to the climate crisis in their art, or capturing the beauty of a planet that we are gradually destroying.

Sir David Attenborough recently released his documentary and book - A Life on our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future - which documents his extraordinary career as our foremost natural historian and laments the tragic destruction of our planet’s biodiversity. Climate change is arguably the most pressing issue of our time, emphasized by statistics in Attenborough’s book stating that 31 % of the Earth’s natural habitat has been destroyed between 1937 when he was an 11 year-old boy, and 2020 when he has reached his 94th year. In 2020 the world population is 7.8 billion, the carbon in the atmosphere is 415 parts per million, and the remaining wilderness is now only 35%.

ReWild takes its name from Attenborough’s rallying cry to ‘Rewild the world’. He states in his book: “We share Earth with the living world – the most remarkable life-support system imaginable, constructed over billions of years. The planet’s stability has wavered just as its biodiversity has declined – the two things are bound together. To restore stability to our planet, therefore, we must restore its biodiversity, the thing we have removed. It is the only way out of this crisis that we ourselves have created. We must rewild the world.”

Attenborough talks in his book about a sixth mass extinction, saying: “A sixth mass extinction is well underway. Our garden of Eden will be lost. I wish I wasn’t involved in this struggle. I wish I wasn’t there.”

ReWild features two prints from photographer Simon McCheung’s climate change series, photographed in Iceland and depicting the journey of an imaginary astronaut landing on an alien planet and admiring the landscape through his glass helmet. During his journey McCheung spoke to locals who voiced their concerns about climate change and its impact on future generations.

Hayden Kays is exhibiting ‘Big fish, little fish, plastic bag’, which was the best-selling print at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 2019 and highlights the damage single use plastics wreak on our planet.

Artist MM (Maxim of iconic Band The Prodigy) is exhibiting a painting titled ‘Thousand Hands’, an apocalyptic vision of the effect of climate change on the future of our planet.

The ReWild exhibition features an Alexander Newley print of poet Robert Burns, who penned these words evoking the beauty of nature:

'How pleasant thy banks and green vallies below,
Where wild in the woodlands the primroses blow;
There oft, as mild ev’ning leaps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades my Mary and me.'

Sculptor Tom Waugh’s ‘Anthropocene Fossil No.1’ and ‘Flat White’ are featured in ReWild. ‘Flat White’ is an exquisitely crafted marble sculpture of a discarded coffee cup. Waugh explains: “Flat White is a hyper-realistic sculpture of a crushed coffee cup carved in precious Statuario Marble. The value of the material used and the attention to detail creates a cognitive dissonance when set against the worthless subject and the humorous title of the piece. This raises questions about the value we place on objects and the impact consumer culture has on the natural world.

The current geological era has been named the 'anthropocene' and is defined by human impact on our geology and ecosystems. In my series of Anthropocene Fossil sculptures I imagine what the fossils of the future might look like. 'Anthropocene fossil number 1' depicts plastic coffee lid emerging from a rock and serves as a stark reminder of the impact of plastic pollution.”

Artist Ann-Marie James talks about the 2 prints she has created for the exhibition: “These Risograph prints are from a series called ‘Hercules at the Crossroads’ and are based on a print by Albrecht Durer of the same name. I have extracted and re-worked just the trees from Durer’s original, and I kept his title, because here we all are, as a planet, at a crossroads.”

Abigail Fallis has made a new print of her ‘Black Helix on Yellow’ for the ReWild exhibition, featuring a tower of shopping trollies, evoking the trollies sometimes seen discarded in canals and on roadsides, in a comment on our damaging throwaway consumer culture. While Graeme Messer’s mirror artwork ‘The Answer is No’ features the words ‘Can I rewind and start again’, posing the question of whether we’ve left it too late to reverse the damage done to the planet.

Featured artist Toni Gallagher, whose delicate pig x-ray print is featured says: “Humans, having evolved with anthropocentric values are destroying our planet, the balance in nature is tipping, like an ill weighted see-saw. Mother Nature is more powerful than us; we have created an unsustainable relationship with the planet which threatens the survival of every species on Earth, we need to listen and act now”.

Jimmy Galvin exhibits ‘And the Earth died Screaming’, a powerful painting which he describes as: “A comment about how we treat the environment through our ignorance that all major issues of destruction are caused by humans hence the bullets that are a metaphor for humans appetite for destruction”.

Trish Wylie is exhibiting two pieces created on a pre-lockdown working visit to The Joshua Tree. She explains: “Both these two pieces, ‘Pearl in The Desert’ and ‘Pearl in the Desert with the Virgin Mary’ are from two trips to the Mojave Desert in 2019, the first with my family and granddaughter Pearl, the second a solo trip for ten days painting watercolours. The Mojave Desert includes the famous Joshua Trees, which were stunning in all their unusual presence; they are an iconic feature of the desert as are Coyotes, Road Runners, and Cholla Cacti. The Joshua Tree has been given temporary endangered species status due to their declining numbers, from climate change, wildfires and habitat destruction due to urban sprawl”.

According to organisations including the United Nations, who found that up to 1 million species are threatened with extinction, we are living through the ‘Sixth Extinction’ or Holocene extinction: for the 6th time in the history of life, global fauna has experienced a major collapse in numbers. This ‘biological annihilation’ is due to human activities such as deforestation, mining and carbon dioxide emissions.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in an FT interview in October 2019 that “Climate Change is the apartheid of our times. It is tragic that increasing CO2 levels and global temperatures are triggering more severe droughts, flooding, hurricanes and wildfires around the globe, with the poorest citizens being the ones suffering the most”.

2019 was the year that the world finally began to take notice of the climate change activists, with a new generation of school children galvanised by the formidable Greta Thunberg into walking out of school on Friday’s in protest at the collective world governments inaction regarding climate change. Although some climate-deniers - the most prominent and powerful being President Trump – continued to sit back apathetically and ignore the obvious and catastrophic effects of an overheating planet; flash flooding, earthquakes, wildfires and melting glaciers.

As we entered 2020 and the dawn of a new decade, the global picture didn’t look any more optimistic, with parts of Australia evacuated and thousands of people fleeing wildfires that began burning in October, turning the air an apocalyptic shade of red. While most people were recovering from New Year’s Eve celebrations, Indonesia was reeling after Jakarta was hit by some of the heaviest rainfall ever recorded, resulting in flash floods and landslide displacing tens of thousands of people. The Meteorological, Climatological and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) described the disaster as “one of the most extreme rainfall” events since records began in 1866 (* source:Telegraph).

The climate crisis hasn’t gone unnoticed by the creative communities, with many artists around the world responding to it in their practice, and the Royal Academy in London staging an ‘Eco-Visionaries’ exhibition in 2019 featuring artists confronting a planet in a state of emergency.

The international response to the climate crisis accelerated before the Coronavirus pandemic, with organisations such as the United Nations and International Monetary fund, and movements such as Friends of the Earth, Extinction Rebellion and the School Strike for Climate created by Nobel-Prize nominee Greta Thunberg, mobilising to raise the profile of the climate crisis and lobby governments to reduce CO2 emissions in their countries.

Even the Coronavirus pandemic that blindsided the world at the start of the year is not unrelated to the interference of man in the natural world; for Covid-19 is a virus that is said to have originated in bats. An ironic butterfly effect meant that at the height of lockdown when flights were grounded and cities became ghost towns with people were confined to their homes, the planet was given a chance to breathe and worldwide carbon emissions were drastically reduced. The flip side of reduced carbon emissions during lockdown has been an increase in the use of single use plastics, with discarded medical masks littering streets and dirtying rivers around the world.

As we feel our way through the global Covid-19 pandemic, scientists measure the effect of lockdown on the planet. Global lockdown led to a sharp fall in CO2 emissions, and the scale of social disruption caused by the novel Coronavirus is unprecedented in our lifetime.

One stark indicator of the pandemic’s far-reaching impact, which grounded flights and travel, and saw empty streets and towns all over the world, was the reduction in fossil fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.

In China, carbon emissions were down an estimated 18% between early February and mid-March due to falls in coal consumption and industrial output, according to calculations first published by climate science and policy website CarbonBrief. Meanwhile, in the European Union, declining power demands and depressed manufacturing during lockdown led to a fall in emissions of nearly 400 million metric tons, a figure that represents about 9 per cent of the EU’s cumulative 2020 emissions target. That slowdown caused the world’s largest emitter to avoid some 250 million metric tons of carbon pollution, more than half the annual carbon emissions of the United Kingdom. However, this positive impact won’t last if governments around the world don’t make a concerted effort to move towards cleaner energy sources.

The art world has a part to play too, and in 2020 we have seen significant events such as Frieze Art Fair, Art Basel, and the Venice Biennale cancelled or moved online. Pre-lockdown, there were debates about the negative impact of the contemporary art world on the environment, resulting from the annual art merry-go-round of art fairs, auctions and Biennales. This involved significant carbon emissions from shipping artworks around the world, labour intensive installations and the private jets, helicopters, super-yachts and flights of Uber-rich art collectors.

So, despite the devastating effects of Covid-19 in terms of global death and infection rates, the only silver lining is that the world was forced to stop for a minute and be still. We need to contemplate the effect our actions have on the planet, and hopefully move forward to a new way of living with a smaller carbon footprint and more consideration for the Earth.

Artists throughout history have created work that responds to the world around them, such as the Soviet-era propaganda graphics that shaped the Russian Revolution, or the Dada art movement formed during WW1 as a response to the horrors of war. And in more recent memory, as we live through an era of rising global temperatures and increasing natural disasters and resulting mass migration, members of the artistic community have been producing work addressing climate change, warning of the damage we are doing to our planet or attempting to capture the beauty of nature.

The artists featured in ReWild aim to raise awareness of climate change and harness the beauty of nature in their artistic practice. For if we don’t ReWild our planet, Attenborough says ominously that: “Scientists predict by 2030 the rainforest turns into a dry savanna, altering the global water cycle. The Arctic becomes ice-free, global warming increases, frozen soils release methane and accelerate climate change dramatically”.

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