‘There was only one possible theme’: Alison Wilding on her climate crisis Summer Exhibition

Selecting the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is one of the biggest curating jobs in the world, but it is done by artists not professional curators. This year’s boss is Alison Wilding RA, not someone you might think of as a showy or grandstanding public figure but a deeply sensitive and thoughtful abstract sculptor, who has twice been shortlisted for the Turner prize. She has not picked out art at random but imposed a subject that’s far from the Summer Exhibition’s cosy suburban image. “I thought there was only one possible theme,” she says. “Climate.”

Dedicating this sprawling event, in which famous artists are hung next to first-time exhibitors in the grand salons of Burlington House, to the climate crisis did strike some of the more genteel Royal Academicians as a tad radical. “Some thought it could morph into a very dystopian exhibition,” she says. Obviously there is plenty to be dystopian about, but Wilding has been surprised by how much pleasure and joy she found. Alongside mourning the destruction of nature, the art here is full of reverence for Earth’s landscapes. “There is a celebratory aspect,” she says. The result, she thinks, has “dark corners, but also really beautiful areas as well”.

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Yet part of the challenge for artists is that so much contemporary art is itself technologically extravagant or industrially fabricated, from electricity-guzzling neons to installations that use chemicals, oil or dead animals. Wilding ruefully recognises that she and other sculptors need to look at their practice. “There are so many materials that seem out of bounds now – resin, all sorts of industrial processes. We’re fucked, actually,” she laughs grimly. But, in fact, the need to make art that is gentle to Earth is a fresh creative challenge: “Some people are trying to make their work completely sustainable.”

She has also considered the environmental impact of putting on such a big show. The biggest issue, she says, is the carbon footprint of bringing together art from all over the world: “Shipping is a massive problem.” Leading international artists always show here, including this year Switzerland’s Pipilotti Rist, who was recently made an honorary RA. For her part, Wilding says she strove to choose as many “local” artists as possible to keep down the emissions.

For this is the world’s biggest open-submission art show – and the numbers are staggering. I’ve always wondered if it really was the free for all it claims to be. Oh yes, confirms Wilding. “Literally anyone who pays the entry fee can apply. We looked at 15,000 submissions. There are, I think, 1,465 works in the show.”

And there’s the rub. Despite Wilding’s excellent intentions, giving energy and shape to this vast open exhibition is a fragile enterprise. Many works in the show look as though they are mechanically geared to fit into its theme – statues covered in flowers, a trad landscape with a mushroom cloud implausibly added – and en masse they melt into a bit of a slurry. For all its apparent edginess, climate is a theme that can encourage soppy, soft middle-class art. Still, Earth’s plight is urgent – and here are some of the works Wilding thinks point a way forward.

Hanging on the edge: five highlights

Conrad Shawcross’s gallery at the Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Conrad Shawcross’s gallery at the Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photograph: David Parry/Royal Academy of Arts

Room curated by Conrad Shawcross
Shawcross has made machines and sculptures about everything from Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine to the DNA spiral. So the scientific reality of the climate crisis is not lost on this intelligent artist, who has selected only carbon-neutral art. The days of hi-tech installations that add to our impact on the planet are coming to an end.

Alice Channer’s Megaflora at the Summer Exhibition.
Alice Channer’s Megaflora at the Summer Exhibition. Photograph: David Parry/Royal Academy of Arts

Alice Channer and Phillip King
“There’s a great work by Alice Channer [in the foreground],” says Wilding, that works in juxtaposition with sculptures by Phillip King, the former Royal Academy president who died in 2021. Channer’s sculptures combine humanly transformed ingredients, including tree trunks, to create unsettling images of the world slowly being smothered. King’s works, meanwhile, serve as poetic reminders that art has always been a heartfelt way to love the planet.

Cristina Iglesias (main picture)
As visitors to the Summer Exhibition enter the courtyard they’ll see green shoots freely growing in an installation by this Spanish sculptor. Pass through the greenery and you enter a labyrinth of mirrors and sculpted roots that makes you feel you are in some subterranean vegetable world. Iglesias is in a tradition of artists who have been meditating on the environment since the 1960s.

Uta Kögelsberger’s Cull at the Summer Exhibition.
Uta Kögelsberger’s Cull at the Summer Exhibition. Photograph: David Parry/Royal Academy of Arts

Uta Kögelsberger
In 2020, wildfires ravaged California. Particularly upsetting was the destruction of a tenth of the world population of giant sequoias, trees that can live thousands of years and reach colossal heights. The London-based Kögelsberger’s project on this catastrophe is not just observational, she is involved in replanting the lost forests. Her video of the blackened woods is an ashen warning.

Gavin Turk’s Looking Glass at the Summer Exhibition.
Gavin Turk’s Looking Glass at the Summer Exhibition. Photograph: David Parry/Royal Academy of Arts

Gavin Turk
Former Young British Artist Turk made his name with artworks that literally promoted his own name and face – including a blue plaque to himself and a statue that puts his features on Sid Vicious. But this apparent narcissist was always politically engaged and he is now a climate activist. His eerie, shimmering cube stuffed with the detritus of modern life lures you with beauty, to shock you with the truth.

The Summer Exhibition is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, to 21 August.