Strung across the summer have been numerous acts of climate protest within institutional gallery spaces. From the Uffizi in Florence to the Royal Academy of Arts and National Gallery in London, activists have demanded climate appraisal and action from institutions and audiences alike. At the Louvre in Paris, such a reckoning was demanded of artists themselves, when an activist, disguised as an elderly woman in a wheelchair, smeared cake across the glass case protecting Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. “Artists tell you to think of the Earth,” the protester could be heard yelling, “there are people destroying the Earth.”
Reclaim the Earth, the recent group show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which closed on September 4, is indirectly situated among such interventions and can thus be approached as a response to them. As described in the exhibition essay by curator Daria de Beauvais, the show is “a wake-up call, as much as a rallying cry” to “leave behind the model of a capitalist and extractive society so as to put humans back into their right place; not above, but among, not individuals separated from their environment, but ‘relational entities.’”
The exhibition, composed of works by fourteen renowned international artists – including Huma Bhabha, Yhonnie Scarce, asinnajaq, Abbas Akhavan, Thu-Van Tran, and the Karrabing Film Collective – is situated around a central curatorial premise: that in order to challenge “relations of domination and subordination” with nature, we must first break from the idea of humans as differentiated from their environment, and of nature as a static, passive backdrop. Placing emphasis upon “connection, kinship, and alliance,” Reclaim the Earth proposes that we think instead about relations underpinning ecologies of “minerals, plants, humans and animals,” to reclaim, as it were, a more immersive, engaged, and thus responsive (and, so, responsible) experience in the world.
The organizing theme of the climate crisis vis-à-vis alternative ways of thinking the nature-culture problematic is both captivating and ambitious. The artists involved in this show bring an appreciated nuance to these vital concerns: instead of a clear-cut substitution of hierarchy for ecology, or domination for relation, we are invited – through storytelling, myth, and material practice – to meditate on the implications of violence and renewal, consumption and preservation, as necessary dynamics in how nature itself is.
The show itself is grand in scale, with room-sized sculptures and installations; notable are Solange Pessoa’s Catedral (1990-2003), Amakaba and Olaniyi Studio’s Nono: Soil Temple (2022), and Huma Bhabha’s striking The Past is a Foreign Country (2019). These works certainly push against the confines of the white cube, to the point that experiencing them is stifling in a space crowded with multiple large installations. Despite the proximity among the many works in this show, however, there is little dialogue between them, and so we’re left with the impression that many of them exist in a world of their own.
Offering a more covert intervention is Kate Newby’s you wish, you wish (2022), which is visible only between midnight and noon, when the museum is closed. Newby’s installation of five stained-glass panes in the monumental entrance of the Palais de Tokyo is, first and foremost, a gesture of repair, replacing various sections of the door that had been previously damaged. What is so fascinating here is that the natural transparency of the glass is convoluted by the artist’s handprints or by holes that have been drilled into the bricks. This throws into question their functionality as a device separating the inside from the outside, while also positing that any gesture of restoration may never be entirely complete.
Along with the selected artists, Reclaim the Earth has a scientific committee composed of curator, researcher, and artist Léuli Eshrāghi and sociologist and activist Ariel Salleh. The nature of, and labour undertaken by, the committee is not made explicit, which is a shame considering the exhibition’s investments: although the show is staunch in its resistance to exclusively Eurocentric approaches to representation, it’s not clear where science – conceived as a product of the European Enlightenment project – stands. Providing a hint, Ariel Salleh, quoted in the exhibition essay, sees that “bringing ecology, feminism, socialism and Indigenous politics together means giving up the Eurocentric lens for a genuinely global one.” If the role of a scientific committee is to promote a renewed “global lens” (rather than to serve as a mode of verification and validation), it’s unclear what the difference is between a scientific committee and, say, a curatorial advisory board. In the context of this exhibition, how is “science” defined? And, what exactly is gained by holding onto a concept of science?
The decision to include a scientific committee introduces the expectation of scientific engagement with the exhibition and, by extension, with the works themselves. This is not necessarily problematic if the purpose of such a discourse is to challenge, through art, a universal science or mode of reasoning: it engages with a work on its own terms, according to its own logic, in order to make possible or conceive of new ways of knowing and being in-and-with the world. However, one could argue that this is what art already does – science was never necessarily a vector for art to begin with, so the more pressing question is then, why, in this case, is a scientific committee relevant? These questions are not addressed.
As the role of the scientific committee remains elusive, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that by taking science for granted, Reclaim the Earth hasunderestimated its audience. Although the participating artists offer engaging insights into the complex relations informing different stories with nature, from a curatorial standpoint the exhibition’s method lacks the reflexivity that is promised in its mandate.
The French translation of this article is also published in
the 268 issue of Vie des arts – Autumn 2022 and can be consulted here.
Reclaim the Earth
Artists: ABBAS AKHAVAN, AMAKABA X OLANIYI STUDIO, ASINNAJAQ, HUMA BHABHA, SEBASTIÁN CALFUQUEO, MEGAN COPE, D HARDING, KARRABING FILM COLLECTIVE, KATE NEWBY, DANIELA ORTIZ, SOLANGE PESSOA, YHONNIE SCARCE, THU-VAN TRAN, JUDY WATSON
Curator: Daria de Beauvais
Palais de Tokyo, Paris
April 15th – September 4th, 2022
 Shanti Escalante-de Mattei (2022), “Environmental Activists Have Glued Themselves to More Paintings in U.K. – Frame Damaged’’, ARTnews, July 5, https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/environmental-activists-have-glued-themselves-to-more-paintings-in-u-k-frame-damaged-1234633260/.
 Dorian Batycka (2022), “In a Bizarre Stunt, a Wigged Man Smeared Cake All Over the Mona Lisa to Encourage People to ‘Think of the Earth,’” Artnet, May 30, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/mona-lisa-defaced-wth-cake-2123483.
 Daria de Beauvais, “Reclaim the Earth,” Palais 33 (April 2022), https://palaisdetokyo.com/en/produit/magazine-palais-33/.
 Barbara Glowczewski, Réveiller les esprits de la terre (Belleveau: Dehors, 2021), p. 266, quoted in translation in exhibition presentation text, https://palaisdetokyo.com/en/exposition/reclamer-la-terre/.
 Ariel Salleh (2017), Ecofeminism as Politics: Nature, Marx, and the Postmodern Project (London: Zed Books, 1997), quoted in exhibition presentation text, https://palaisdetokyo.com/en/exposition/reclamer-la-terre/.