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By Lola Rose Wood
ick off December by avoiding the festive frenzy and fill up on culture instead. Below, The Stack breaks down four must-see exhibitions that you can visit now...
"The one for the environmentally conscious"
AMAZÔNIA, Sebastião Salgado
The Science Museum, £10
With 17.2% of the Amazon rainforest already lost to deforestation, there’s never been a better time to empathise with its inhabitants and be moved by its sublime beauty – moved enough, one hopes, to try and save it. Set to a musical composition inspired by authentic sounds of the Amazon, the gentle snapping of twigs and distant trumpeting of elephants can sound forebodingly similar to the crackle of forest fire and groaning of felled trees.
From satellite images which give a God’s-eye view of the rainforest to intimate portraits of its native peoples’ daily lives, Salgado’s decision to display everything in black and white is striking. The vast gallery space could have been a lush forest of greens and blues, instead it is starkly monochrome. However, this encourages viewers to focus on form rather than colour, shining a light on the Amazon’s rivers, rather than primarily its trees.
In monochrome, the Jutaí River shines like a silver tapeworm in the dark belly of the Amazon; the Rio Negro River cuts through vegetation like a live wire. In black and white, heavy rain on an igapò looks like Jackson Pollock paint splatter, more pointillist oil painting than photograph.
Salgado’s message is clear – the Amazon’s waterways and ‘flying rivers’ of clouds are not only awe-inspiring views, they are fundamental to life on earth. If the Amazon’s life-sustaining water cycle, which currently projects hundreds of litres of water per day into the atmosphere, were to disappear, the world we know would disappear with it.
"The one to view tech from a new perspective"
180 The Strand, Oct 3 - Dec 18, £13 - £18
Could you emotionally engage with a (possibly sentient) artificial entity? Could you feel sorry for a neural network? LUX has gathered a dozen pioneering digital artists to test just such boundaries between humans and machines. It is almost impossible not to anthropomorphize the swarm of geometric shapes – nothing more than 2-D triangles – into a playful shoal of fish or a clever flock of birds. Whilst not as ‘interactive’ as it claims ('Algorithmic Swarm’ looks strikingly like a flashy screensaver) the works are indeed ‘immersive’.
Don’t be put off by the first unimaginative display of digital flowers – they are more a sponsored advert for LG’s new flexible OLED screens than they are at the ‘vanguard’ of digital art. That said, the hardware is often as impressive as the art it displays: as the film ‘Haja’s Garden’ comes to a close, the huge screen on which it is displayed suddenly turns transparent, becoming an ethereal window into a gravelled ‘garden’ of ‘power plants’ that you can actually enter.
Pick AI generated flowers that protect against hate speech, soothe social media addiction or cancel out being cancelled. Listen to the sound of fire walking like a man. Watch human bodies morph into seahorses, scorpions and spiders. No longer flesh and blood, Cecilia Bengolea’s 3-D scanned body melts like holographic gold, bubbles like blown glass and re-moulds like jelly as it blurs the lines between human and animal, body and machine.
You can even time travel: ‘Entering the future is a human health hazard’, warns the neural network able to predict 0.25 seconds into the future. But don’t let the health risk stop you – in spite of all the product placement, most of the works are truly mesmerising.
"The thought provoking one"
Sun at Night, Shilpa Gupta
The Curve (Barbican), Thu 7 Oct 2021—Sun 6 Feb 2022, FREE
Shilpa Gupta’s ‘Sun at Night’ is a multilingual exploration of censorship, confinement and resistance. The sweeping curve of the gallery’s white walls are pinned with the type-writer printed words of writers imprisoned for speaking out. Irina Ratushinskaya’s poems earned her 7 years in a Soviet hard labour camp in 1983. Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident, was imprisoned for 11 years for defending his people’s human rights. Gupta’s artistic response to such state-silencing is a reminder of just how startlingly recent such ‘history’ is.
Gupta’s pin-sized sculptures and simple line drawings are so understated it is easy to walk past them – that is exactly her point: words alone are small, but together they pack a powerful punch. The teetering tower of sharpened pencil leads is a two-inch testament to literary resistance.
The audio-visual climax of the exhibition, ‘ForInYourTongueICannotFit’, is like standing in a graveyard where the voices of the dead still speak. Dozens of voices speak in dozens of tongues, first singly and then together, whispered words spreading in waves to become an undeniable roar.
The room itself is a sea of metal spikes – each one piercing through a white sheet of paper printed with illicit words. A microphone hangs above each bayoneted page like a corpse swinging from a rope. Dim light-bulbs dangle above, casting shadows which turn the sharp spikes into hour-hands and each page into a clock face. The bulbs are suns that never set: keeping the sundial of each spike frozen at a single moment – the moment of the poem’s death? Or re-birth? An unsolvable paradox, hinted at by the exhibition's oxymoronic title.
"The one for a sense of serenity"
Tranquility, Wellcome Collection
15 July 2021—9 January 2022, FREE
What brings you tranquility and what brings you joy? The Wellcome Collection asks visitors to reflect, taking viewers on a centuries-long journey in search of ‘happiness’ – an overloaded term the exhibition pointedly avoids.
Fulfillment takes many forms, from Buddha’s journey of enlightenment to the Taoist concept of yin and yang, through rooms crammed full of David Shrigley’s cynically optimistic drawings, all the way to darned socks. Who knew finding true tranquility was as simple as knitting rainbow coloured patches into your Slazenger socks! Joking aside, there is obviously something therapeutic in the practice of mending; traditional Japanese techniques like Kintsugi, Sashiko and Boro are on the rise for a reason.
Chrystel Lebas’s multisensory forest, set to the sounds of birdsong, burbling rivers and even the evocative petrichor scent of a forest after rain, is as uncomfortably ironic as it is soothing. Despite celebrating the practice of ‘forest bathing’, it begs the question, is there anything more out of touch with nature than a bunch of Londoner’s traipsing around a fake-forest of photographs in the middle of Euston?
I can’t help feeling this hour could have been better spent in an actual forest, Epping Forest, perhaps. But who am I kidding? It’s impossible to find a square centimetre of silence in this city – for now, this exhibit is as good as it gets.
Reconnect with the city and avoid the shops by heading to one of these exhibitions instead.
By Lola Rose Wood