Exhibitions focusing on environmental crisis go back to the eco-art pioneers of the 1970s, but with the culture sector now more widely acknowledging a global emergency, the theme has suddenly become mainstream.
County Durham’s Thought Foundation has been on the case, ever since its establishment in 2017. With the third in its Thoughtful Planet series, Michaela Wetherell has curated an eclectic and heartfelt consciousness raising exhibition on the subject. In a mix of contributions similar to Ustinov College’s earlier Encounter (see Corridor8 review here), there is everything from a school project and interactive play for kids to climate science and artists of national renown, supplemented by an energetic programme of social engagement.
The venue itself is a buzzy social space. The art is installed around the edges of a big open former something-or-other (maybe a garage?) with a café and a shop at one end, music playing and children running everywhere (scuffing and smudging some of the art) while more studious visitors read the wall-texts. Perhaps this is a model of the integration sought by so many established arts venues and community organisations who strive to speak each other’s language and reach each other’s audiences. The art is put on a pedestal and democratised at the same time.
Leanne Pearce Billinghurst’s two giant portraits of David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg preside over the show and its visitors like twin scrutineers. Although not very emotionally dynamic, they serve to humanise the narrative. The rest is a selection of old and new works in a variety of media by Shaney Barton, Peter Hanmer, Tania Kovats, Alexia Manzoni Porath, Jenny Purrett, Megan Randall, Jo De Ruiter, Lauren Saunders and Sarah Strachan.
Kovats (recently reviewed in Corridor8 here) has contributed a ceramic work evoking glacier melt, but also her eye-opening ‘newspapers’ on the Thames and Exe rivers from 2017. Peter Hanmer’s fantasy tableau with animal skeletons recalls works by Cedric Laquieze and Tessa Farmer, but it has more conceptual complexity and darker political overtones than those, rewarding a closer look.
Jenny Purrett’s ephemeral, life-size charcoal drawing of a tree spanning two adjacent walls, while conceptually straightforward, is profound in its teaching of the importance of studying the material world; noticing and experiencing detail whilst thinking about timeframes and concerns for the future. The endlessly inventive Megan Randall has provided probably the most creative and passion-filled response to the brief. Hovering accessibly between whimsy and gravity, her wall-hung ‘quilt’ of imprinted toast slices tells a researched story of food waste, while alluding to ways in which communities come together at times of tragedy.
One constant tension in the world of ecological and climate-related arts practices is the debate (to put it crudely) between attitudes of ‘grief-counselling’ and attitudes of hopefulness. Perhaps there are elements of both in this exhibition; and the hope expressed by the very youngest contributors should not go unnoticed. Either way, this exhibition instructs us that we can all at least be more ‘thoughtful’.
Thoughtful Planet 3 is on until 13 November.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.