The Glossary’s review of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2022
The Royal Academy’s multi-room art extravaganza returns to the capital and this year it takes the global climate crisis as its central theme. With thought-provoking works by the likes of Gavin Turk, Tracey Emin and Allen Jones that raise questions about the environment and the world we live in, it’s a must-see this summer. Fresh from the preview of the show, arts writer Eloise Hendy reveals the key pieces to look out for.
It’s only ten in the morning when I walk into the Royal Academy’s forecourt, but it’s already reached 23 degrees in the shade. Temperatures are set to soar to over 30°C the weekend before the Summer Exhibition opens to the public, and I can sense a frisson of anticipation and anxiety in the air, carried along in the fumes from vehicles surging down Piccadilly. But maybe these are the perfect conditions to approach this year’s Summer Exhibition. After being forced into the autumn months for two years due to Covid, the world’s largest open submission contemporary art show is back in midsummer for its 253rd outing. And, this year, a different global crisis takes centre stage — 2022’s exhibition, co-ordinated by Royal Academician Alison Wilding, is based around the theme ‘Climate’.
“When I agreed to be the coordinator and was asked to come up with a theme, I thought, well, actually, there’s only one theme I thought would be possible,” Wilding tells The Glossary. But, she also recognised that the theme would be, as she puts it, “quite challenging.”
Feeling the heatwave and the capital’s pollution prickling into my skin, there can be no doubt the theme is urgent and necessary. The real question, however, is whether this self-described “annual bonanza of fun, colour and spectacle” can effectively grapple with the most serious existential threat facing humanity today. As artist-designed flags flutter near the Ritz, and drinks are laid on in the Academy’s iconic courtyard, can the exhibition be anything more than a nod to the contemporary moment, and to a topic deemed buzzworthy?
A patch of greenery meets me in the forecourt. Tall metallic walls resembling ancient tree trunks or a latticework of copperised roots form a central structure; intersecting reflective surfaces and the sound of trickling water give the disorienting impression of being at a hall of mirrors in a rainforest. Which, for an unexpected oasis a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus, feels oddly appropriate. This isn’t quite the city, but it’s not quite nature either — Spanish artist Christina Iglesias’ installation seems to announce that we’re now immersed in some third space, where nature and humanity are entangled and intertwined. For good or ill though, I wonder, as I walk up the stairs and into the opening gallery, selected and hung by sculptor Bill Woodrow. Or, as the Academy itself puts it, do we find ourselves at a point of “crisis or opportunity”?
Entering the first rooms, I am convinced the exhibition has managed to do the impossible, and capture the complexity of both – the entanglement and expansiveness of ‘Climate’ in the contemporary moment. In Woodrow’s opening room, for example, the images of trees and landscapes that have long been familiar staples of the Summer Exhibition are radically transformed. Now, lone trees stand stark and buffeted by the elements; fallen trees accompany apocalyptic pictures of wildfires, wastelands, and a striking work by Woodrow himself of three ceramic heads hanging from a battered street sign reading only ‘BLOOD.’
The landscape isn’t a space of refuge here, it is truly sublime – mighty, irrepressible and terrifying. The next two rooms, curated collaboratively by Rana Begum and Niall McLaughlin, are also full of outstanding collisions and transformations. Architecture and visual art are thrown together, which, in less deft curatorial hands, could cause a confused ruckus. Here, however, intricate blueprints and models seem to suggest alternative ways of living, and the paintings, photographs and sculptures seem like supporting sketches for strange, new utopian worlds.
Huge intersecting towers of construction materials reach into the gallery’s ornate cornicing like the innards of a monument; as if a new building is forming in the Royal Academy’s belly. Tiny universes teem together on tables, tiny people populating these imagined, potentially better realms. A set of rocks in a stacked wire letter tray by Ever Grainger, like geological strata and also like incoming mail. A simple conceit, but one which forces the viewer to reassess conventional ideas of speed and pressure – these rock layers are urgent.
The Summer Exhibition is a commercial one, and pieces range in price from £50 to £550,000. The beauty of the show lies in its lack of labelling — works by Royal Academicians, Honorary Academicians and Invited Artists sit alongside works submitted by the public. While one could spend their time rooting out works by Frank Bowling, Tracey Emin, or Anselm Kiefer, the sheer scale of the show works against it becoming a treasure hunt for celebrity. There are simply too many other things to look at! Wilding and a committee of fellow Academicians had the task of whittling down this year’s submissions. A whopping 1,462 works are on display – nearly 100 more than last year.
As in the opening rooms, often the great array of works overwhelm in a way that feels impressive, cohesive and challenging, much like staring nature and the changing climate square in the face. Painted primary yellow, Grayson Perry’s galleries provide a welcome burst of colour – a pop of sunshine, sandcastles and Solero ice creams bursting through the more traditional, muted palettes of the other rooms. There is a mischievousness here, encapsulated in a piece Wilding picks out as one of her favourites: “There’s a small painting that I thought was quite iconic in the show, which is a painting of a polar bear giving the finger.”
Though, as the exhibition continues beyond this lemon thrill, the stand out pieces for me are the strange, uncanny, unplaceable ones, which seem to speak to the weirdness of the Anthropocene. In David Mach’s room, which he describes as feeling like a “gothic abattoir,” a giant bust of a man’s head that is almost photorealistic, if it wasn’t warped and stretched into impossible proportions, like a digital photo glitch. John Gerrard’s film work Western Flag (Spindletop, Texas) showing a flagpole continuously emitting an oily fug of smoke. A knotted bundle of black forms enveloping an antique seat. A lump of coal? An otherworldly creature? Resting or consuming?
The question I can’t quite overcome is what exactly the exhibition in general, and indeed many of the galleries in particular, think ‘Climate’ really means. Is a beach scene, or a melting ice cream, or a Turner-esque storm cloud climate, or simply weather? In such a wide-ranging show, it can sometimes be hard to see the wood from the trees. Yet, with 15,000 pieces on display, Alison Wilding stresses that she doesn’t think “it’s possible to get a message across in the Summer Exhibition.” Indeed, she insists she “wouldn’t be interested in getting a message over.”
Ultimately, perhaps this speaks to general understandings of ‘Climate’ better than a more cohesive, or stridently political exhibition would. Perhaps it speaks to the complex entanglement of confusion, conspiracy, denial, and desperate hope discussions of climate crisis prompt. As Wilding puts it to me, “there are all kinds of darknesses and light to the show.” In her view, the exhibition is not “just climate change and the nightmare of it, it’s also how people remember climate.” I left the exhibition and walked out into the sunshine and heat, and the streets of central London were full of a heady mix of smiles and fevered grimaces. A bout of good weather is an easy enough concept to grasp. A shifting, precarious, gradual yet irreversible climate breakdown? Much harder.