Taking a Pulse on Climate: The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2022

I and fellow environmental activist Val Saunders attended the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition to see whether its theme – climate – had conveyed the climate and ecological emergency and to engage other visitors.

Most were surprised to hear the theme; they simply relished the diverse swirls of colour, with many attracted to the cover image – a vibrant yellow lemon studded with beads and costume jewellery depicting spreading mould (Bad Lemon (Josh) by Kathleen Ryan). As only a quarter referenced climate change specifically, perhaps Grayson Perry’s flippant intro sums it up: “Oh, and there are several works about climate change too.”

Kathleen Ryan’s ‘Bad Lemon (Josh)’ – kinda makes you wonder if she was consciously or unconsciously suggesting we are all bad eggs/lemons

I later posted 80 photos, inviting friends to guess the theme. Most suggested death, decay or consumerism, despite ‘obvious’ inclusions – Sheila Rodge’s painting of a forest fire (Inferno); a print showing cracked, dry earth (Waiting for Rain by Linda Britt); Anna Heringer’s textile evoking drowned habitations, Rivers of Bangladesh; a still life of dead sunflowers with an exotic parrot (Watershed Moment by Emma Bass); Adam Dant’s London streets overlaying an antique map of the Mediterranean (Argonautica Londinensi); Phil Shaw’s weather-themed books (Climate Change); Scott Brooker’s Thanks, Man! painting of a polar bear flipping the bird; three black-and-white photographs of a disappearing stream (Impermanence Triptych by Annalisa Burrello); and Robin Smart’s retro TV collage of an imploding Earth overlaid with Disney’s cartoon logo, “That’s all folks!” (Fin).

  1. (Clockwise, L–R): Sheila Rodge, Inferno; 2. Linda Britt, Waiting for Rain; 3. Anna Heringer, Rivers of Bangladesh; 4. Emma Bass, Watershed Moment; 5. Adam Dant, Argonautica Londonensi; 6. Phil Shaw, Climate Change; 7. Scott Brooker, Thanks, Man!; 8. Annalisa Burrello, Impermanence Triptych; 9. Robin Smart, Fin; 10.–12. Val and other visitors taking in the exhibition, some critically, some less so – the young African-American I spoke with (pictured) commented that as a snapshot of contemporary society, it did connect our self-obsessed consumer lifestyles with the existential threats we now face; she recommended I review the Plastic in Pots installation as a reference; 13. Stephen Chambers, Midas Tree; 14. Val protesting in front of Gary Hume’s Swans; 15. (top) Ying Tang, Untitled; (sadly no info available on artist for bottom photo)*

Eco activists called it a “wasted opportunity”. Yet as a snapshot of contemporary society, it did connect our self-obssessed consumer lifestyles with the existential threats we now face – for example, Alexandra Gribaudi and Theodore Plytas’s installation Plastic in Pots: Self glass jars filled with plastics on a wire rack recorded personal consumption, while Yoree Ko’s witty cartoon map of hell, Devil’s Heaven, served a final warning.

Witty but true: Yoree Ko’s ‘Devil’s Heaven’

But in view of imminent annihilation if we continue our current trajectory towards 3°C of warming, what can art say? Considering 18th century romantic artists were already mourning the loss of an innocent, agrarian lifestyle by invoking classical pastoralism in their landscapes, is any time left for discussion as the Earth burns and everything in it dies?

Perhaps the final takeaway echoes Marie Antoinette’s famous last words: when an exhausted Earth hands you mouldy lemons, just stud them with exquisite beadwork.

*I have only featured a few of the 1,500+ artworks featured in this exhibition, based mostly on my own photographs; for a more comprehensive list + images of many of the works on view, see: https://se.royalacademy.org.uk/2022/artworks.

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