Thursday, 9 July 2009

Radical Nature

The Barbican is currently showing a fascinating exhibition on nature and activism, Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969-2009. There’s a great range in feeling, from the shocking grand beauty and optimism of Agnes Denes’ wheatfield in Manhattan to Lara Almarcegui’s careful documenting of London’s patches of waste ground. 

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield - A Confrontation, 1982 (It's being recreated in Dalston now.)

Like many of the projects displayed, these are site specific. Unable to contain them the exhibition has to document them.  Others are installations – uprooted trees and other plants appear popular. Lots of thought was given to displacement of nature and the dissolution that follows. 

There were also interesting displays of ecologically minded buildings, some achieved and others free-floating utopian conceptions. R&Sie(n) showed a termite-shaped building covered with plant life, blending into its forest environment which according to the blurb ‘incorporates instability, entropy and the hybridisation of the vegetal and biological’. I went to the exhibition with my brother-in-law, who is himself a talented architect, and he wondered whether this kind of design could cause problems in giving the illusion of not impacting upon the surrounding ecosystems, especially if the design isn’t as efficient as it could be. The problem here might be that buildings should make us feel part of a place and ecosystems (since even the most urban city is a habitat), without obscuring the impact of the ways we get our water, energy and generally comfortable environment. I particularly liked the exhibition’s geodesic domes, which combined spaciousness and intimacy, showed sympathy with natural shapes while clearly being designed

Domes have mixed associations though (this is great, not sure about this).

The exhibition’s timescale was disconcerting. Hari Kunzru’s review compared the 1970s ‘global ideas and blue-sky thinking’ with today’s artist’s ‘pragmatism… less about saving the world than recovering some flotsam and jetsom from the collapse.’ I felt some alarm at the disconnection between the creativity of the artists working over the past four decades and what’s actually happened, a little as I do on reading Gary Snyder’s brilliant 1969 essay ‘Four Changes’ with its acute analyses of our pollution, population and consumption problems. Snyder’s 1995 postscript acknowledges the problems have got worse rather than better but ends with typical calm:

            My teacher once said to me

- become one with the knot itself,

till it dissolves away.

- sweep the garden.

- any size.

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