‘Climate: In all its manifestations’… Our Review of the Royal Academy’s 253rd Summer Exhibition

Cristina Iglesias, Wet Labyrinth (with Spontaneous Landscape). Image courtesy of the reporter. 

Climate: ‘whether as a crisis or opportunity, or simply our everyday experience, it is an all-embracing subject,’ notes Alison Wilding, chairman of the Royal Academy’s prestigious Summer Exhibition. Aptly landing on the hottest week in London this year, press, buyers, and artists alike rushed towards air-con, ironically, to catch a first glance. Ceaselessly operating since  1769, an amalgamation of over 1400 works covered the neon-painted walls. 

Yinka Shonibare, Beekeeper (Girl). Image courtesy of the reporter.

Featuring artists from Tracy Emin, David Hockney and Joe Tilsen to recent Royal Academy Graduates like Clara Hastrup, the over ten exhibition rooms merge the new and the old. Standing as the world’s largest open-submission contemporary art fair, the Summer Exhibition proves an opportunity to shake the order associated with the grand heritage of Burlington House.  

Clara Hastrup, Diver. Image courtesy of the artist.

The theme gave way to the dynamicity of individuals’ relationship to climate, drawing upon notions of politics and technology to nostalgia and utopian day-dreams. From call-to-action protest posters, crystalised vagrant species, and contemporary placements of the crucifix, the manifestations of climate proved far from the conventional, sadly diluted visuals of melting ice caps. 

Ackroyd & Harvey, Vagrant Species (Gray Triggerfish Balistes capriscus) Vers. 1. Image courtesy of the artist. 

Intended to spur conversation surrounding the defining issue of our time, the curators choice of works ranging from satirical manifestations to upcycled creations proved disruptive rather than disheartening. 

Magda Archer, Oh Fluffy! Image courtesy of Jealous Gallery.

As one stepped back from the floor to ceiling covered walls of artists’ personal realisations of climate, I was left begging questions surrounding progress and responsibility. The viewer may similarly find themselves asking questions like, ‘Do we know whether we will fulfil the COP26 pledges for 2030?’ No. ‘Is there proof of a desired platform upon which to be a more vocal, passionate, even actionable collective?’ The preview today proved most certainly. 

As featured artist, Henry Hudson, commented “the exhibition represented an opportunity to take the bandage off the sore subject of climate change and create something of the perceived mess.” 

What this exhibition proves is that there are both visionaries and an audience ready to face the – what can seem as insurmountable – issue head on. 

Henry Hudson, The Shard. Image courtesy of the artist. 

Hudson’s first feature at the Summer Exhibition reflects a piece inspired by the striking reflection of The Shard onto the River Thames, which caught his eye during lockdown walks. The contrast of the man-made and organic matters inspired his choice of medium, working with natural pigments, beeswax, and sandpaper. He comments on how other artists opted for choiceful materials like synthetic flowers, reclaimed wood, and blown out tyres found across paint, print, and sculpture.

Bruce Ingram, Upturns. Image courtesy of the artist.
The Lecture Room, The Royal Academy of Arts. Image courtesy of the RA. 

Juxtaposed to the historical artists’ mass preceding the preview, Hudson argues, “The Summer Exhibition acts as an olive branch from the sometimes insular art world. Embracing the alternative and royal academicians alike proves its own form of climate awareness.” This snapshot, encompassing the diversity of thought and expression, fulfils the sometimes discarded, yet crucial element of social inclusivity crucial to an ecological understanding of climate. In forming a collective among its artists and attendees, a shared notion of environment and crisis travelled beyond the walls.  

Gallery IV, Buyer’s Preview Evening. Image courtesy of the reporter. 

If the highly anticipated annual fair now covered in red dots may act as a catalyst in addressing climate change, then I would argue this year’s choiceful focus proved a success. The digital catalogue can be found here for live bidding.

By Isabel Froemming

Isabel Froemming is a contributing fashion sustainability writer, model, and activist based in London. Her research focuses on transparent supply chains and gender equity in Indonesia. Isabel ran communications for Copenhagen Fashion Week for SS21 and prior to that acted as an editorial associate at sustainable e-tailer Rêve en Vert.