RA gets a bit hip

How do you solve a problem like the Royal Academy? How about an exhibition inspired by climate change?

If you look closely at the word “Earth”, you will discover that its middle three letters spell “art”. This little bit of serendipity has of course become the logo of the Royal Academy’s impending exhibition on art loosely inspired by climate change. But don’t let the marketing people put you off. And don’t let the climate-change thing put you off, either. This is not a breast-beating show by any means. And it signals something of a new direction for the RA.

True, the venerable Academy has a job on its hands after the successes of the big Anish Kapoor and “Wild Thing” shows, the latter on the work of Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, and Eric Gill. Blockbuster service resumes in late January with “The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters”. But over December and January, we have the second annual GSK Contemporary exhibition at the RA’s other building. And this year, the theme is “Earth: art of a changing world”. It happened to open just four days before the UN’s Copenhagen Climate Summit.

Whatever your stance on the global-warming business, this, surely, is what an academy of arts should be doing: finding room for contemporary artists – some 35 of them – dealing with current issues, appealing to a different and doubtless younger audience. Some are well-known – Tacita Dean, Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, Mona Hatoum, Gary Hume, Cornelia Parker, Bill Woodrow – some less so. The point is that it’s an ensemble show. All praise too to GlaxoSmithKline, the GSK of the title, for sponsoring. But first let me explain what all this means physically, because it’s important: the buildings.

The Royal Academy is the ultimate Janus-faced institution. Broadly speaking, it’s mainstream art in its main, south, building, and edgier, less populist stuff in its other building facing north. We all know the Burlington House face of the place, entered via a grand courtyard off Piccadilly. But behind the galleries of the RA lies the secret world of the Royal Academy Schools. Then there’s a gap of a few yards and then you get to the back of the RA’s other building. This is high Victorian, faces north to the moneyed, private-gallery-infested world of Bond Street and Savile Row, and was originally the University of London Senate House, then later the British Museum’s ethnographic “Museum of Mankind”. For some years now, the RA has owned it and put on more experimental – or conversely commercial – shows there. A lot of it is leased out to the private Haunch of Venison gallery.

So the two buildings sit back-to-back, facing in opposite directions, and there is absolutely no direct link between the two of them despite the fact that they are only yards apart and in the same ownership. You might think this would be an easy thing to fix. You would be wrong. The RA has agonised over it for years, commissioning plan after plan. Finally they have a new masterplan – by the architect of Berlin’s ingeniously reinstated Neues Museum, David Chipperfield, a Stirling Prize winner and an RA himself. The idea is to do the obvious thing and make a direct link between the main central staircases of the two buildings. The Schools would be given more space in compensation, and rather more of a public profile in consequence. It’s by no means easy – the level changes between the two buildings mean some burrowing is required, and you do have to slice through the Schools – but it’s perfectly do-able.

As Kathleen Soriano, the RA’s exhibitions director in succession to the famously maverick Norman Rosenthal, says: “One of the things we really need to do is forge a strong link between the two buildings, so that we’ve effectively got a single footprint, a single Royal Academy.” All this, however, is some way off. For now, 6 Burlington Gardens, home of the Earth exhibition – is still a place apart. But Soriano is working on that.
The quickest way to get from one building to the other is to nip along Burlington Arcade, the Georgian ideal of a shopping mall, which runs up the western edge of the RA’s fiefdom. “It’s so glaringly obvious. There’s this channel that sits right alongside us,” says Soriano. So the owners of Burlington Arcade have signed up as partners, commissioning a light installation, “Onward” by United Visual Artists – replacing many of the arcade’s existing hanging lamps – that will run from Piccadilly right through the arcade and on to the portico of 6 Burlington Gardens. These are effectively light-pulsing pulsing polyhedra in Perspex and aluminium, gently reminding you of mutating life forms and the use of energy, that act as your link-creatures from one building to the other. It helps that this is the time of year when the arcade would normally do some Christmas lights anyway.

There’s another first, too: the RA is collaborating with the National Trust (think about the respective member profiles of the two organisations and it’s a wonder they haven’t done this before) on another commission for Earth. By artists Marcos Lutyens and Alessandro Marianantoni, it will cling to the façade of 6 Burlington Gardens above the portico.

Lutyens’s and Marianantoni’s piece is called “CO 2morrow”. Based on a clever carbon-scrubbing molecule that looks a bit virus-like, it responds to CO2 readers at NT properties around the country, which will route their readings via a university environment department through to the RA to activate LED lights within the sculpture. And that, essentially, is the big (8 metre diameter) crowd-pulling announcement of what’s going on inside. The exhibition, says Soriano, it’s all going to be very subtle.

“It’s about art, and contemporary artists. The issue – the science – is sitting underneath it. We wanted to create an exhibition that wasn’t literal in any sense. There aren’t any icebergs or polar bears in the show. We wanted it to have an element of looking to the future – hopefulness, as opposed to death, doom and destruction.” There’s a small amount of familiar work there, such as the inclusion of Gormley’s famous “Field” of little fired-clay people (in its Amazonian version). But most of the work is new, or new-ish.

So: it’s a brave move by the RA, and one which will doubtless attract its fair share of criticism for either doom-mongering (strongly denied by Soriano) or political correctness. I’m all in favour. After all the media, scientific and political frenzy surrounding climate change, I’m very happy to let artists provide an alternative view. And just as happy to see both sides of the RA working together at last.

©Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, London, 22 November 2009, as “What on Earth is this?”


The GSK Contemporary, “Earth: art of a changing world” is at the Royal Academy’s 6 Burlington Gardens until January 31.

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