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‘Back to Earth’

  • Art
  • Serpentine North, Hyde Park
  • 1 out of 5 stars
Stelios Mastrokalos. Tabita Rezaire/AMAKABA and Yussef Agbo-Ola/OLANIYI STUDIO, IKUM: Drying Temple, 2022.  © Courtesy Serpentine.
Stelios Mastrokalos. Tabita Rezaire/AMAKABA and Yussef Agbo-Ola/OLANIYI STUDIO, IKUM: Drying Temple, 2022. © Courtesy Serpentine.

Time Out says

1 out of 5 stars

Environmental art seems to go one of two ways these days: either it’s shouty, futile, patronising sloganeering, or it’s new age, hemp-drenched installations that look like a healing crystals shop. Neither does much for the planet, and both are on display at ‘Back to Earth’, the Serpentine’s ecologically minded new exhibition.

The walls of the gallery are plastered with posters by various artists, saying things like ‘no borders, no carbon’, ‘make extinction extinct’ and, my favourite, ‘remember nature’. Good thing these posters are here, otherwise I would have spent today creating borders and forgetting nature. 

None of these posters mean anything, and any non-vacuous message they do have is aimed at an audience of tote-bag-carrying, reusable-coffee-cup-using gallery goers who are already on board. What’s the point of showing these on the walls of the Serpentine? They literally serve no purpose. 

The main attraction though is the installations. Tabita Rezaire and Yussef Agbo-Ola’s structure for drying medicinal plants is pungent and pretty, and Dineo Seshee Bopape and Katy’taya Catitu Tayassu’s big curving mounds of clay are hefty spaces for naturistic contemplation. They’re nice enough, but manage to be both esoteric and a bit forgettable at the same time.

A genuinely mind-blowing lack of self-awareness

Worst of all is Brian Eno’s installation. The legendary musician and producer has created a dimly lit room filled with flickering tea lights and ambient sounds. It’s like an incredibly shit Rainforest Cafe, or the worst chill out space in the worst nightclub you can imagine. It’s about nothing, and leaves you feeling nothing. 

The little suspended scent sculptures by Sissel Tolaas waft out pleasant enough odours, but is this what environmental art is? Aromatherapy and meditation rooms? 

You exit through ‘The End of Capitalism’ by Danish group Superflux and Studio Ghazaal Vajdani. And what is ‘The End of Capitalism’? It’s a shop. A shop filled with radical texts and fancy wallpaper and statements about making better consumer choices. But just because you’re selling tomato seeds and books about communism doesn’t mean it’s not fucking capitalism. It takes a genuinely mind-blowing lack of self-awareness to call a shop ‘The End of Capitalism’. Hours later, I'm still not over it.

The best thing on show isn’t in the gallery, but out in the park. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s AI-designed garden is optimised for pollinators, and you can use an app to figure out how to adapt any of your own outside space for the same purpose. But the garden itself isn’t the point, it’s the app that’s interesting, and that’s best used at home.

I don’t think it’s art’s job to ‘do’ anything, unless, like in this show, that’s its stated intention, in which case it better put its money where its mouth is. Instead, this feels like everyone patting themselves on the back for looking like they’re making a difference, while actually making none at all.

Written by
Eddy Frankel


Serpentine North
West Carriage Drive
Kensington Gardens
W2 2AR
Tube: Lancaster Gate/South Kensington

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