Can artists save the world?
Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley and others respond to climate change
A large, parasite-like form has appeared on the façade of 6 Burlington Gardens, London. It is the installation CO2morrow, by the artists Marcos Lutyens and Alessandro Marianantoni, for the exhibition "Earth: Art of a Changing World", which has just opened at the Royal Academy of Arts. The show presents the creative responses of 35 international artists to the pressing issue of climate change, just days before the big summit in Copenhagen is due to start.
CO2morrow's spectacular shape is the result of a cutting-edge technological innovation from California. It is made from recyclable carbon fibre and is based on a new carbon-scrubbing molecule. Commissioned by the National Trust for this exhibition, it shows, using a light display, fluctuating levels of CO2 in the atmosphere at specific national heritage sites.
"These molecules have the power to capture and retain carbon dioxide," Marianantoni tells me. "They are being produced in tonnes, with the main aim to be positioned on the top of power stations' chimneys. Scientists are currently working on a version for cars."
Like the whole RA exhibition, it raises fundamental questions about the responsibilities of artists in contemporary society and the relationship between art and technology.
"New technology is part of an artist's palette, as oil paints were during the Renaissance," explains Lutyens. "In a world where it is harnessed by corporations and by the military, it is important for artists to harness that same tool and use it for good."
The combination of science and art "helps to draw people's attention", continues the artist, "providing a wider view of what's going on. For example, the hi-tech sensors used in this installation to collect data extend our nervous system into the world around us. Without this kind of access, we would be blinder."
The artists exhibiting in this seminal show are, in the words of the co-curator David Buckland, "going to the edge before us". From Antony Gormley, with his striking crowd of clay figures staring at the viewer, to Mona Hatoum's threatening, cage-like steel globe; from the evocative island project by Antti Laitinen to the poignant journey to the Arctic reported by Sophie Calle, each issues his or her personal warning.
"There is no plan B for failure at Copenhagen, only plan A, and A stands for action," the UN's top climate official, Yvo de Boer, said recently. Six hundred digital clocks hanging on the wall of the RA, hauntingly ticking, help us to internalise the message.
How then to respond to these threats? Some artists have found their answer in a return to emotions. "My message is about love, nature and respect for nature," says Tracey Emin, commenting on her embroidered piece with figures of birds, flowers and insects. "For this work, I was inspired by a story that my father told me. At my father's wedding, my grandfather told his son's bride: 'Draw yourself a cross and in that cross put a volcano, a tidal wave, an avalanche and a hurricane. Now go and throw yourself at anyone.' "
Asked about their hopes for the coming climate conference, some artists are optimistic. But, as Emin remarks, "It is absolutely down to individual people to try to change something. After this show, I'll go home and I'll do stuff -- I'll turn my lights off and so on."
Leaving the Royal Academy, I hope that passers-by will raise their heads and wonder at that strange object nesting on the building's façade. Cycling, I feel I'm doing at least something to join the effort. And echoing in my ears is a line of a song from a video installation in the show: "What if we got it wrong?"