Fiddling While Earth Burns Exhibition Uses Visual Art to Encourage Climate-change Activism

A powerful new exhibition opens today in the Dyson Gallery, Battersea. Fiddling While Earth Burns is organised by the Climate Action Collective, a group of artists from across the RCA, with RCA Photography Senior Tutor Peter Kennard. 

Fiddling While Earth Burns brings together works that critically address pressing concerns about the potentially disastrous effects of current global environmental crises, raising important questions about the role the visual arts can play as a critically engaged and mobilising force that generates dialogue within growing public consciousness, in order to exert pressure on world leaders. The exhibition takes its title from an apparent absence of official action, a reflection on the ineffectual promises made by governments around the world with regards to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Peter Kennard explains: ‘In 1821, Shelley wrote, in A Defence of Poetry, that as writers and artists "we should imagine what we know". The work in this exhibition by the collective is an attempt to make visual work that imagines what we know about the danger to our planet from rising CO2 levels. We know it leads to extreme weather conditions, war, economic ruin and ultimately to the displacement of hundreds of millions of people. We know that governments and citizens have to stand up to the power of the fossil fuel corporations. We know we are burying our heads in the sand as we pump out the oil.’

Key research indicates that over the next 80 years, the world’s temperature could increase as much as 4.8°C, with the result of an ever-increasing world population being faced with rising sea levels and global food shortage. It's widely accepted that, if we are to avoid world catastrophe, concrete and effective plans, as well as widespread awareness and participation, are essential.

With this in mind – to raise awareness and incite change, from the individual to the collective, the personal to the political –Climate Action Collective has staged their exhibition in the lead up to the forthcoming COP21 in Paris (30 November to 12 December), at which world leaders will meet to address the rise in greenhouse gas emissions in order to impose preventative legal frameworks and restrictions. 

The show is additionally timely, as 29 November will see Climate March London take to the streets of the capital city in a call for solidarity, as people across the UK work together to realise the biggest public demonstration to date, representing a unified demand for meaningful government action.

Fiddling While Earth Burns includes a range of media, from video to photography, lithographs to soundworks. It also includes designs for protest placards that have drawn inspiration from Kennard’s well-known photomontage style, and which will be used in the London Climate Change March. 

‘KEEP THE COAL IN THE HOLE AND THE OIL IN THE SOIL’, exhorts a poster by Julia Parkinson. Eunho Ree’s work shows a disconsolate polar bear who lies on his stomach, clutching a Coca-Cola bottle, beneath which reads ‘I CAN’T LIVE ON COKE ALONE’. A disturbing, enigmatic image by Theo Ellison shows a world gone dark, as though all sources of light have been vanquished, and all bodies – land and water –have been covered over by a black viscosity. To a different effect, Myka Baum depicts the globe aflame, burning in hot yellow, orange, and red, above the stark statement: ‘BURN BABY BURN’.

Kennard, Britain’s most important political artist, currently has a major retrospective on display at the Imperial War Museum (IWM), London: Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist. Throughout his practice, his work has consistently challenged political issues and policy, both global and domestic. Kennard also has a history of collaborative work that involves awareness raising, including the encouragement of younger generations to be responsible for enacting positive change.

The RCA students responsible for the newly formed Climate Action Collective met at Kennard’s IWM show, and began to discuss what it might mean to both participate in and promote sustainable alternative ways of living, developing the Fiddling While Earth Burns exhibition through collaborative research and discussion as the first manifestation of their work. They plan to continue their activities and output in a variety of contexts following the exhibition, and hope to address how the College can participate in mindful environmental practices, and encourage other students to join them in their efforts both inside and outside of the RCA. 

Baum says, ‘Moving forward as the RCA Climate Action Collective, first – on the home front –  we intend to try to reduce the College’s carbon footprint by reducing the heating to make it more appropriate to prevailing weather conditions, and by greatly improving the College recycling procedures. We hope to continue making work that brings awareness to environmental issues and by so doing encourage climate awareness in students throughout the RCA.’ 

The exhibition is the third in a series for 2015/16, in which the School of Fine Art invites collaborating curators and curatorial agencies to present projects relating to the themes of the Visual Culture Lecture Series, Rise Up & Envision. The series seeks to provide a platform by which works of art are visibly activated by creative discourse, contributing to the vibrant surrounding community of contemporary practitioners – students, staff, and visiting guests alike.

Obsolescences, the first exhibition, was presented by A- - -Z, and explored on the critical and political impact of the adaptation of broadcast media with current art practice, as evinced in the films of Harun FarockiMartha Rosler and John Smith. The Pump was curated by Valentinas Klimašukas and Jennifer Teets in collaboration with Arts Catalyst, and with support from the Lithuanian Council for Culture and Flat Time House and brought together the work of Beth Collar, Antanas Gerlikas, John Latham, Michael E. Smith, and Michael Van den Abeele, and included a reading night ‘on the poetics of de-extinction in the economy of clicks’, based on writings by Klimašukas.


Fiddling While Earth Burns is open Saturday 28 November – Tuesday 8 December, Monday – Friday, 11am – 5pm and Saturday, 12–5pm, closed on Sunday.

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