New Royal Academy exhibition rethinks the environment through design

Eco-Visionaries draws from different creative practices in an attempt to find solutions for the environmental crisis.

A new exhibition at the Royal Academy brings together creatives — across the fields of art, architecture and design — and presents their responses to the ongoing climate crisis.

The exhibition, entitled Eco-Visionaries, is part of a project between five other museums across Europe, who are all responding to the same question: How are creative practitioners addressing climate change?

It will look at how creatives have highlighted the urgency of the climate crisis, what the future holds, and possible solutions to environmental problems.

Designs for an overpopulated planet: Foragers (2009), by Dunne & Raby. Photo by Jason Evans. Courtesy of the artists.

Curator Gonzalo Herrero Delicado says: “We are looking at the alternative visions from designers and architects and how they are trying to reframe and reformat our relationship with nature.

“The exhibition is about trying to understand our place in the world.”

Designers such as Virgil Abloh, Olafur Eliasson and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg all have work on display.

Ginsberg, a London-based designer, is presenting her 2019 AI project, The Substitute, for the first time in Europe. Using zoological archival footage, as well as data from Google’s AI branch DeepMind, it creates a life-size virtual reproduction of a northern white rhinoceros. The last male of this particular species died in 2018.

The Substitute (2019), Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. Courtesy of Ginsberg.

Visitors will be able to view the virtual rhinoceros which will move through a viewing window with immersive sound, as if in a natural science museum.

“We can recreate digitally a species that is lost because of us,” Delicado says. “But does it mean just because we can do that, we shouldn’t take care of the other species that are now endangered?”

“It’s asking the question whether technology will save us or not,” he adds.

The exhibition aims to make visitors reconsider this kind of accepted thinking. “Sometimes technology can be used as a ‘sticky plaster’ to fix the issue,” according to Delicado. “We want the exhibition to help people understand the full issue and then find a solution.”

Another animal-themed project from artist collective Rimini Protokoll takes the form of an installation of live jellyfish — one of the only species which actually benefits from global warming. Not only do they prefer warmer sea temperatures, their predators — turtles — are diminishing because of the plastic crisis.

Broad design spectrum

The exhibition’s design scope is broad. One of the design pieces is a tilted bronze chair from Virgil Abloh, who recently collaborated with IKEA. The chair, part of the Acqua Alta collection, is purposefully uncomfortable because of its slant. Delicado says it is a comment on rising sea levels.

“He’s questioning how our daily consumption habits have a massive impact on the environment,” Delicado says. “Whatever the object, it’s making us rethink our consumption habits.”

A less conceptual piece is Jade Eco Park, a 2016 urban design project for a Taiwanese park by French architectural studio Philippe Rahm. After measuring the conditions (temperature, humidity and pollution) of the park in the city of Taichung, the studio created ‘climatic maps’.

Using these maps, it then created ‘devices’ which reinforce areas that are more comfortable. These devices — both artificial and natural — include naturally-cooling trees and convection-cooling apparatus that blow cool air, which is chilled underground.

Large-scale projects like this will be displayed through models, film installations and photography.

The Meteorological Garden, by Philippe Rahm architectes. Courtesy of Philippe Rahm architectes.

“There is no one solution, and no solution will come from a single practitioner”

The exhibition is loosely divided into three sections, the first “dystopian” room looks at the impact of humankind’s actions, the second focuses on speculative projects about what the future might look like, and the third has a “more positive message” about design solutions.

The content is more complex than this outline, however — many of the projects could be placed in different sections of the exhibition according to Delicado.

That resistance to categorisation speaks to another theme of the exhibition, that solutions for the ongoing crisis may not necessarily come from one discipline. Instead, an interdisciplinary approach — combining art, design and architecture — might be needed.

SKREI’s design for a domestic power plant. Photo by Lara Jacinto and SKREI. Courtesy of the artists.

“Calling people artists, designers and architects is difficult,” Delicado says. “A lot of these projects are from people who come from diverse disciplines.”

Virgil Abloh, for example, was trained as an architect and engineer and now works as a designer. Olafur Eliasson, known for his environmental design work on solar-panelled lamps as well as a recent immersive exhibition at Tate Modern, has a series of photographs about the melting ice caps.

“There is no one solution, and no solution will come from a single practitioner,” Delicado adds. “It needs to be a collaboration.”

Eco-Visionaries run from 23 November 2019 — 23 February 2020 at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD. Tickets cost £12.

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