“Sediment Spirit: The Activation of Art in the Anthropocene” is the latest exhibit of the Sainsbury Centre curated by John Kenneth Paranada, the first Curator of Art and Climate Change at any UK museum. The exhibit brings together local and international artwork which respond to the climate crisis.
“Sediments Spirit” is one such exhibit that invites audiences to view the Earth as a living and responsive being that people play an active part in sustaining. Ken’s process of selecting works for the exhibition involved extensive visits to artists’ studios and in-depth archival research. The key selection criterion was how the artworks addressed the question: “How do we adapt to a changing world?” This led to the creation of ‘Sediment Spirit,’ a concept that unites a wide-ranging group of local and international artists from multiple generations.
“The artists featured in this exhibition are like modern-day canaries in the coal mine. They alert us to a potentially dire future while inspiring hope and urging us towards more sustainable ways of living,” says Ken about the artists he chose to include in the exhibit.
Photo by Andy Crouch
The exhibition includes historical perspectives on climate-related art, such as works from the 1960s when Land art and ecologically concerned art first emerged in galleries. For example, Roelof Louw’s “Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges)” in the East End Gallery. This interactive sculpture, made from a pyramid of oranges, invites audience participation and reflects on the cultural significance of food and imports, revealing stories about empires, colonisation, and conquest.
In the Lower Galleries, Mario Merz’s “Lingotto,” crafted from birch twigs, steel, and beeswax, represents the Arte Povera movement from late 60s Italy. This movement used everyday and natural materials to critique the impersonal nature of industrialization and consumer capitalism.
Photo by Andy Crouch
A new role for art and climate
Ken has been a curator in different institutions in different countries for many years, and his previous work is not too far from what he is doing now. His past curatorial projects focused on exploring the emerging artistic forms in the Anthropocene – the period when human activity first began to significantly impact the Earth in terms of altering ecosystems and climates and in the future will be visible in the geological history of the planet. What is the difference of his role now compared to before?
“My goal now is to activate art to engage and influence the public and policymakers in proactive future planning. My strategy is to leverage the emotive and cognitive power of art and material culture. The aim is to see if this approach can sway public opinion and influence policymakers towards more informed decisions in addressing the challenges posed by the climate crisis.” Ken said.
“To achieve this, I curate exhibitions emphasising artistic interpretations that rekindle our recognition of Earth as a sacred living entity. This endeavour necessitates engaging in rigorous debate to discover new pathways forward. It’s about cultivating a community that is eager to ask critical questions and pursue the resulting insights and solutions. I see my role as a conduit to this interdisciplinary ecological consciousness,” Ken added.
A conversation of artworks
Notably, some of the pieces for Sediments Spirit were intentionally placed to converse with other pieces in the Sainsbury Centre.
In the Living Area, Claudia Martinez Garay’s installation transforms part of the gallery into an archaeological exploration, reawakening the rich history of Peru’s Moche civilization and its Andean symbols and myths. This section forms a striking juxtaposition with Henry Moore’s “Mother and Child,” a piece emblematic of modernist sculpture.
Photo by Andy Crouch
Elsewhere, Paul Cocksedge’s “Coalescence” utilises over a thousand pieces of coal, the amount needed to power a 40W light bulb. This striking piece sets up an intriguing conversation with Alberto Giacometti’s work. This interplay explores the impact of industrialisation and the daunting task of transitioning to green energy, with coal symbolising the fuel that powered the industrial revolution. Additionally, “Blackout,” a painting made from anthracite coal dust equivalent to the energy required for a 4W bulb, complements this narrative. Sourced from one of the final coal mines in South Wales, these pieces bring to the forefront the complex dynamics of energy production and consumption, prompting visitors to reflect on these significant environmental and political challenges.
Photo By Andy Crouch
“The curatorial choreography of “Sediment Spirit” plays a crucial role, embodying the Sainsbury Centre’s ethos of representing global art from all eras equally. Artworks are not compartmentalised by time, culture, or style; instead, they are distributed throughout the museum’s galleries in a manner that creates a dynamic, kaleidoscopic landscape with continuously evolving patterns and themes,” Ken said.
Impact for the viewers
As his first exhibit for the Sainsbury Centre in his role of Curator of Art and Climate Change, Ken shares what he hopes the impact would be to the viewers.
“I aim to engage the public with Sediment Spirit, offering them fresh and nuanced perspectives and learning experiences. Art’s impact may be gradual, yet it holds the power to present a visual interface for what a better future might look like. This future depends on influencing policymakers and institutions and the public play an integral role in applying pressure to national and international bodies.
“I hope this exhibition will enable audiences to develop skills in understanding deep time and the anthropocene and build resilience and adaptability, with which we can respond effectively to future climate change challenges,” Ken said.
“By recognising and addressing these issues now – and our complex role within them – we have the power to change the course of our future. Unless the next climate crisis involves an errant meteorite, the fault for screwing up the planet will not lie with the stars, but within our own actions,” Ken concludes.
Sediments Spirit runs until March 31, 2024.