Art and nature in a dialectical collision

Even the remotest hermit knows that the effects of climate change are the greatest threat faced by mankind. So where does that leave artists? Can they contribute anything to debates about the environment? Might the imperatives of environmentalism constrain their freedom to make interesting work? And what do we actually mean when we talk about nature, anyway? Is it polluted oceans or something that occurs closer to home?

These are some of the questions answered by Radical Nature, a show with a refreshingly can-do attitude that opens at the Barbican today. Subtitled “art and architecture for a changing planet”, it includes land art, installation, video and sculpture ranging from 1969 to the present day…

These projects directly address the upshot of what the show’s curator, Francesco Manacorda, identifies as a dangerous dualism concerning how we think about nature and culture: while all that is manmade is connected to the natural world, he argues, treating that world as a separate entity allows for shameless despoliation and pollution. But while many artists here lament the rift or attempt to close the gap, only a few explore its potential.

When Robert Smithson disappeared into the wilderness to make his Spiral Jetty (his massive earthwork in Utah’s Great Salt Lake) in the early 1970s, nature’s status as ‘other’ meant it was the perfect site for art liberated from so-called civilisation and the corrupting art market. In a film documenting the project’s creation , a JCB digger makes for a lonely pioneer, shovelling earth that will become an elegant coil.

Smithson’s radical gestures risked obscurity, something Agnes Denes was in no danger of when a decade or so later she planted a field of wheat in downtown Manhattan. Denes’s photographs of the project, which depict her standing with staff in hand and the wind in her red hair, warrior-like in the midst of a vast golden crop with skyscrapers behind her – deliver a spectacular wallop.

RTFA. All relevant, today – not only pieces from 1969 [a good year BTW] but those from antiquity not represented here – and the latest lot. At least these folks are trying instead of sitting back and whining in a cubicle somewhere in greyness.

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