LONDON — “Care is a form of resistance.” This statement, borrowed from artist Otobong Nkanga, is a simple and potentially powerful premise for an exhibition exploring the climate crisis. Dear Earth at London’s Hayward Gallery attempts to demonstrate that caring for the world around us is the most important way in which we can protect the environment. The show demonstrates that radical care is intersectional and takes many forms. The work addresses not only ecological issues but a nexus of interconnected sociopolitical concerns ranging from Andrea Bowers’s ecofeminist act of tying herself to an oak tree due to be cut down to Imani Jacqueline Brown’s video and textual installation exposing damning research into “Cancer Alley,” the petrochemical corridor of oil wells and refineries in Louisiana.
These acts of caring, the exhibition suggests, are undertaken not because of a sense of grim determination, duty, or fear, but because the natural world is a source of pleasure and delight. This idea is encapsulated by a featured quote from botanist, writer, and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer: “I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”
Even though the world is damaged by human actions, it still contains myriad wonderful things that deserve our attention, as well as a legion of horrors that must not go overlooked. Dear Earth effectively juxtaposes these two sides of the environmental movement. For example, in specially commissioned paintings by Daiara Tukano, of the Yepa Mahsã people, graphic patterns weave together trees, animals, and people, joyfully depicting the networked animacy of the living forest, while “Grid (Palimi-u)” (2021), a film by Richard Mosse screened nearby, documents emotional speeches by Yanomami people condemning the shocking impacts of illegal mining and deforestation.
Dear Earth is particularly interesting where it draws out the ways in which capitalist-extractivist systems are interwoven with ecosystems and how we habitually think about the nonhuman world. Hito Steyerl’s “Green Screen” (2023), for example, uses an LED screen built from empty glass bottles to highlight the connection between the climate crisis and the hidden carbon footprint of the technology many of us use every day. Throughout the exhibition, the scale shifts from the microscopic to the macroscopic, from personal to planetary; radical change, these artists seem to say, must be achieved on every level. However, the show doesn’t make clear how this might happen. Will art drive this change if it is primarily seen by audiences who are already concerned about the environment? Do we simply hope for the best?
The answers to these questions are too complex to be elucidated by a single exhibition; here the focus is on opening channels to new ways of thinking rather than on practical solutions. The show effectively elucidates a broad range of issues around the climate crisis and powerfully illustrates the central premise that care can be a form of resistance. However, it stops disappointingly short of a radical call to action.
Today, in discussions of the climate crisis, hope is almost invariably used as a narrative device to provide a satisfying conclusion to a messy problem, a mood lifter at the end of a series of gloomy pronouncements. Dear Earth deftly avoids this in favor of something more open ended; the exhibition can be viewed in any order — there is no concluding display or summary text. Instead, it emphasizes throughout interconnectedness and intersectionality, how problems link up with one another, and how acts of joy and care help us resist the impulse to give up on the world.
Dear Earth: Art and Hope in a Time of Crisis continues at Hayward Gallery (London, England) through September 3. The exhibition was curated by Chief Curator Rachel Thomas with Assistant Curator Marie-Charlotte Carrier and Curatorial Assistant Debbie Meniru.