Radical Nature: art & architecture for a changing planet 1969-2009
Barbican Art Gallery London 19 June to 18 October
Just what was it that 'Radical Nature' aimed to achieve? This exhibition, the first significant display of recent artistic engagements with ecological issues within a major UK gallery, was disappointingly muddled. Conflicting artistic approaches, strategies and ideologies were presented shoulder-to-shoulder, effectively trivialising their various standpoints. There were messianic mythmakers (Joseph Beuys, Buckminster Fuller), hippie survivalists (Newton Harrison and Helen Mayer Harrison, Ant Farm), dialectic conceptualists Hans Haacke, Robert Smithson) and tinkering contemporaries (Tue Greenfort, Simon Starling). Where conceptual unities collapsed, topological similarities abounded. On the gallery's lower floor a dense installation of artworks incorporated living plant life: Hans Haacke's mound of fecund earth, Grass Grows, 1969; Henrik Hakansson's hunk of horizontal rainforest imported into the gallery and kept alive with artificial lighting and water pumps, Fallen Forest, 2006; the Harrisons' indoor vegetable plot, Full Farm, 1972; architect group A12's garden-like mirrored chamber Green Room, 2009; and Simon Starling's raft of vegetation, Island for Weeds, first seen at the Venice Biennale in 2003. Curator Francesco Manacorda's theoretical model here is the 'binary' western distinction between 'culture' and 'nature' that allows the latter to be exploited without repercussions for the former. To destabilise this supposedly widely held notion, he literally merges the two terms by bringing the outdoors indoors. This might seem reminiscent of Smithson's use of 'Site' and 'Nonsite', but where Smithson's model established a dialectical relationship between two locations, this dynamic doesn't exist with pre-existing artworks. Without this critical bite, the opening gambit of 'Radical Nature' resembled little more than a vegetative theme park.
'Radical Nature' was not a radical exhibition, and it is unclear whether this was even the intention. Another possibility is that it was intended to be a historical survey of ecological radicalism without itself instantiating any overtly left-wing position. If so, I found it troubling that important strains of activist art were left out. These include those 'reparative' artists and architects such as Alan Sonfist, Mel Chin and Patricia Johanson whose work aims to repair directly tracts of damaged land or waterways. Also absent were more contemporary activists working towards ecological justice and Third World eco-politics. This is not a marginal issue: climate change affects fragile areas in Africa and Asia more devastatingly than western ones, since rich countries do not rely on subsistence farming and have robust infrastructures that lessen the impact of droughts, floods and other disasters. So why were non-western artists largely excluded? Beuys, who helped found the German Green Party, was here, but Maria Thereza Alves, the artist who helped found the Brazilian Green Party, was not. Mierle Laderman Ukeles is represented here with her Touch Sanitation, 1977-84, in which she shook hands with workers from the New York City Department of Sanitation, but Ashok Sukumaran and Shaina Anand's collaboration with Delhi rickshaw drivers, Motornama Roshanara, was not. Recent international exhibitions in Germany (Documenta 11, 2002), United Arab Emirates (Sharjah Biennale, 2007) and India ('48[degrees]C--Public.Art.Ecology', Delhi, 2008) have firmly established the links between geopolitics and ecology, but this exhibition shirked the task. Similarly, the architectural examples seemed more whimsical than 'radical'. Diller Scofidio + Renfro's The Blur Building, 2002, a pavilion created from a haze of fog pumped up from a Swiss lake, and R&Sie(n)'s entropic architecture both blurred 'nature' and 'culture', certainly, but this seemed obfuscatory in light of the acute reality of the environmental crisis and its global impact on broader communities. …