In the summer of 1982, Agnes Denes planted and harvested two acres of wheat on Battery Park landfill in Lower Manhattan. Photographs show a field of gold brushing up against the glass and concrete blocks of Wall Street and the World Trade Center, facing the Statue of Liberty. The glimmering landscape grew out of what the artist once described as the “longstanding concern and need to call attention to our misplaced priorities and deteriorating human values.” It was, she said, “an effrontery” that represented “food, energy, commerce, world trade, economics.”
Wheatfield – A Confrontation is one of several works on show at Dear Earth, the first exhibition that Rachel Thomas has curated at the Hayward Gallery, where she is Chief Curator. Featuring wildly different responses to the climate crisis by fifteen artists, the show encourages audiences to consider the relationship between art and activism, and to reconnect with the natural world. You could say that the project was a perfect fit for Rachel, who grew up in rural Wales and has lived and worked in cities such as Los Angeles, Dublin and now London. “When I was a child, my parents encouraged me to get outside and be among nature,” she says. “They encouraged my sense of questioning and curiosity.”
We’re chatting in the Hayward Gallery café, overlooking Waterloo Bridge, a concrete arm reaching up and over the Thames. After almost 20 years at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Rachel moved to the Southbank Centre’s iconic institution last spring. “I’ve always loved the Hayward,” she tells me over a pot of tea. “There is that sense of the pioneering, of conversations, an equality of exchange and the ambition of innovation.” That, she says, and the fact that the gallery spearheads shows that connect with what’s going on in the world, truly and deeply.
Rachel studied History of Art at the University of Bristol, with a particular focus on the Renaissance. She describes her work at the time as that of an archaeologist or a forensic scientist. Her days were spent unpacking carefully chosen symbols, colours, gestures, considering an artwork’s meaning. “Then I became more interested in what the artists had to say, and in how that connected with their audience,” she says.
Following Bristol, Rachel went on to postgraduate study at Los Angeles County Museum of Arts, sponsored by the Prince of Wales Trust, where she turned her attention to contemporary art. She relished working with living artists, understanding their world. “I began to think about how I could translate or support what they were doing,” she tells me. “How I could help to share something that makes people laugh, cry, feel inspired. Something that can transport you, or make you feel less alone. I think that sense of feeling that we’re not alone in the world is important.”
It’s also a part of the message behind Dear Earth: we’re all in this together. “We want to inspire hope, not doom and gloom,” says Rachel. “This show is about looking at the beauty of the world. Yes, we’re in this kind of apocalypse, and no, an exhibition can’t solve the problem. But it can offer grains of hope.”
Rachel’s curatorial practice focuses on feminism, post-colonialism, nature, the environment and spirituality in art. She spent six months researching for Dear Earth, speaking with scientists and academics, looking back at past exhibitions. From the start, she knew that hers wouldn’t provide facts and figures and tell people how and what to think. Instead, she wanted to curate “a constellation of worlds”, each imagined by a different artist.
A cosmic tapestry and hefty uprooted tree trunk by Otobong Nkanga bring vibrant life to the brutalist building, as do Andrea Bowers’ brightly coloured images on patched-together pieces of used cardboard, an homage to recently extinct Hawaiian flora and fauna. Cristina Iglesias invites us to come and sit a while inside a green cube, and watch running water flow over cast-metal rocks and roots beneath our feet. A film by Cornelia Parker shows a class of primary school children sharing how they feel about the future. And then there’s Agnes Denes again, with a tower of locally sourced grasses and flowers sprouting in the middle of the gallery.
“Artists are storytellers, they look at what’s going on in society and play that back to you,” says Rachel. “I think that’s what fascinates me most, the sense of communication. Art connects and unites us – it has a compassionate and inspiring role.” And it’s what she’s most excited about with her role at the Hayward Gallery. It was a big thing, packing up her life in Ireland and moving, together with her husband and their son, to London. Then again, as she says, “Why not? There’s a sense of adventure here. I wanted to share joy and wonder by creating new visual conversations, and the Hayward is the perfect place.”
Interview by Chloë Ashby.
Photographs by Lesley Lau.
Dear Earth is at the Hayward Gallery until 3 September.