There’s birdsong and the heady scent of grass, or perhaps chamomile, as you walk into the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. It’s like being in the park on a summer’s day. Which, since the park is just outside, might make you wonder why you visited in the first place. What can art possibly offer that nature can’t? Fortysomething Cameroon-born, Belgium-based artist Pascale Marthine Tayou isn’t offering any answers to that, but amid the sensory delights of his installation, he makes it plain that nature is one thing we’re royally good at fucking up.
‘Boomerang’ is a bit like a game of hide and seek – with troubling issues such as colonialism and exploitation (of labour and natural resources) there to be unearthed. As you approach a spidery tangle of petrol pipes (‘Octopus’), or a ceiling of cornershop bags trapped in branches (‘Plastic Tree’), or circuits of waste pipes and water bottles that line the walls, the closer you get to these political, social and environmental concerns.
Also on display are hand-written reports of oil and chemical spills. Yet the overall effect isn’t one of sermonising or admonishment. While holding up a mirror to our failings, Tayou happens to have made one of the most upbeat, engaging shows in town. He’s also one step ahead of you throughout, transforming himself from a conceptualist into a graffiti artist into a mirhtful magiciende la terre into a maker of faux-ethnographic material, all the while warning against the sterotypes attached to African art. The birdsong is piped into the space, by the way, while the aroma comes from a ball of hay hidden at the centre of ‘Africonda’, a vast towelling snake chasing its own tail. Sure, it’s a big silly serpent. But this Serpentine show has bite.