A thousand words for the weather; Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2022 – review | Art
IIn the sunlit sleepiness of London’s Senate Library, four stories above the grassy quadrangle, treetops float past an open window. Is it a breeze, a zephyr, an intemperate gust? A slight shiver moves through the air. Where does it come from, how can we measure it or catch it by the tail in words? Such efforts we make to be precise, scientific, onomatopoeic, in our description of this phenomenon: the ever-changing atmosphere of time.
Two artists have focused on this universal enterprise in Artangel’s captivating new project, A thousand words for the weather. Jessica J Lee is a writer, Claudia Molitor sound artist. Together they created a multilingual dictionary of weather words and sounds. It is embodied in several different forms through the library. A shimmy of weather words in different languages, white on white, appear like falling snow on a screen in the highest attic. Historical images of the weather appear in display cases in the marble hallways. There’s even an echo chamber of words and images in a miniature library for someone known as a carrel.
Above all, there is a soundscape. It’s fascinating and subtle. He hovers in personal, tactfully contained headphones that are available on every floor of the library. It lingers in the stairwells like interior time. At 1 p.m., it broadcasts everywhere through loudspeakers: a sound lunch every day.
It all starts with a resounding shudder of a note, maybe piano keys, maybe tubular bells. It’s almost impossible to detect which instrument you’re hearing, although at one point I was sure it was an accordion with ghostly indications of some sort of gust. Not that the soundscape is any kind of direct transcription, or even illustration. It’s its own kind of climate analogy.
It goes through rushing arpeggios and prolonged roars, pauses, circles and something between sizzle and downpour. The words eventually emerge, synthesizing with the sound. Some are in English, but soon they are in other languages - windy, suction cup, rüzgarli, sturmisch; the more attentive your ear, the more you begin to wonder what is most appropriate, most descriptive, which sends the mind straight to visions of time in the hallways.
An 18th century comet with a human face, Daniel Defoe’s account of the London hurricane of 1703, a meticulous but powerless attempt to map the horrific Calcutta cyclone of 1864, which killed more than 60,000 people, thanks to cloud observation and barometric pressure alone. Here are humanity’s desperate yet heroic efforts over the centuries to understand time or even to hold it back. Classification is poetry as much as science, from the cloud types of cirrus, cumulus and stratus named by Luke Howard in 1802, to the drawings of Robert Fitzroy in The weather book of 1863, where the skies blaze with glory expressed all in black and white. Most poignant is a Victorian cleric’s book of weather signs which promises the parishes of Montgomeryshire that “the prevailing wind during the summer will be that which blows on the 21st of March”.
The soundscape eventually transforms into a polyphony of female voices, moving softly through the words against the musical instruments. The variations seem endless, and always unpredictable, just like the infinity of time. Artangel, always so sensitive to the place, placed this order in the large tower of the library, with its high windows and its clouds, the time always intensely apparent. The wind in winter is obviously deafening. It is the perfect place to contemplate this universal phenomenon that we live with in perpetuity and yet find so difficult to define, control or even grasp.
Savage weather, especially the climate crisis, equates to a theme at the royal academy Summer Exposure, its chief coordinator the sculptor Alison Wilding. It looks like a big mistake. The annual show, now reinstated in its post-pandemic June spot, is democratic, global and free at its best. This edition puts limits on the subject.
Trees are ideal, of course. The opening gallery is full of representations: sprawling oaks that look like lungs, violently beaten hawthorns, blackened trunks, threatened forests. Douglas White has a charred palm made from flat tires. The general horticultural and landscape art quota seems almost political in the context of endangered nature, but I doubt that’s why sales were so good for a cute print of Charles Darwin’s greenhouse .
There is a gallery of skies and clouds, many of which are ravaged by pollution. The best of these is John Gerrard’s cinematic installation of a mast emitting a banner of black smoke. A chainsaw hangs from the ceiling near an abstract sculpture carved from burnt wood, and we’re back to the trees.
Insect Protein: The words flicker above an insect on an LED panel. The world is screwed, shouts another. For lighter relief, try a life-size Adam and Eve made of plastic flowers, a painted polar bear giving us a resentful finger or Grayson Perry’s selection of black and white prints presented on a screaming yellow wall, against which they must struggle to breathe. In another room, all the works are mostly blue, as if chosen entirely by color.
This is no way to treat art or artists, although a telling aspect of this edition is the license to fame. Anselm Kiefer paints history; Tracey Emin paints nudes; Isaac Julien exhibits a gigantic photograph of a Renaissance altarpiece of Saint Sebastian. Gillian Wearing has a pale little watercolor by Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The treasure hunt has produced very little this year – Richard Long’s magnificent text commemorating a springtime walk through Dartmoor, for example, or Nathan HuxtableThe Goyaesque painting of refugees abandoned in a sea of sand, titled Mordante When the boat arrives In. But otherwise there is a high degree of uniformity. Originality had to compete for wall space with cheap slogans, pieties and gags – Free Ukraine, Free Lebanon, Free Wifi! Not that that’s stopped shoppers from seeking impressions of nature’s beauty as if the world is about to end. Normal service, it seems, has resumed.
Star ratings (out of five)
A thousand words for the weather ★★★★
Summer exhibition 2022 ★★