The title and subtitle of the Royal Academy’s Eco-Visionaries point to a tension – a tension not only at the heart of this exhibition, but inherent to our collective creative engagement with the environment. While the title suggests the ingenuity that we need and hope to navigate us through the crisis, the subtitle – ‘confronting a planet in a state of emergency’ – offers a bleaker and more desperate perspective on our situation. This exhibition acknowledges both these perspectives in a sometimes difficult but necessary balance. Looking both forwards and backwards, it shows us where we have arrived and asks us where we may still go.

This is a slim showcase for a vast subject, spread over just three rooms and incorporating no more than a couple of dozen exhibits. But it is a rewarding one – in its breadth, in its ingenuity, and in the individual and combined ambition of the work it presents. Since it opened, some have argued that the exhibition fails to engage adequately with the increasing urgency of the crisis – at least two reviews have described the collection as ‘oblique’, and others have suggested that it merely preaches to the converted. But though it doesn’t deliver shock value or grand and emphatic statements, it does something subtler, and arguably more apposite.

Environmental art has existed as an identifiable movement for at least 50 years, and more broadly for centuries. But over the past few months, the issue has finally entered the mainstream – both in the news, and in our cultural spaces. This year’s Summer Exhibition at the RA demonstrated how both artists and curators are now desperate to engage more thoroughly and seriously with the subject than ever before, with environmental works and concerns dominating several of the exhibition’s galleries.

In Eco-Visionaries, the theme gets its own treatment, but the exhibits are no less varied than at the Academy’s summer showing. Some artists (Pinar Yoldas, Dunne & Raby) explore speculative future biologies where the boundary between organic and inorganic has become blurred; some (Malka Architecture, Ant Farm) capture visions of future architectural, social and industrial innovation; while others (Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, HeHe) encourage us to reflect with sadness and awe on what we have already lost.

The exhibition notes reference the so-called butterfly effect, where the relationship between cause and effect can be distant, disproportionate and unexpected. And each work points in its own way to the finely tuned balance of ecological systems and the unintended consequences of human action. But the exhibition itself also bears out this understanding. The works exist in a complex network, relating to their neighbours in unexpected and vital ways. They speak to, contradict and inform one another – not dialectically but multilectically – and are therefore best understood by examination of the whole. The exhibition is, in this sense, truly eco-logical. (For this reason, I suggest two walks through it – the first to appreciate it in its entirety, the second to explore the works individually.)

The effect of this multi-voiced approach is it to highlight the complexity of the challenge we face. Indeed, one work by Unknown Fields (We Power Our Future with the Breast Milk of Volcanoes) beautifully and hauntingly captures the damage to natural and indigenous landscapes caused by lithium mining in Bolivia – promoted by many as key to building a low-carbon economy. It is because this exhibition eschews any such simplicity that you aren’t going to leave it with any sense of resolution, far less any practical solutions. But that is not to say it doesn’t provide transformative perspectives.

The exhibition ends with Rimini Protokoll’s win > < win, an immersive work that offers a remarkable view of the strangeness of the human species – in particular, how short-lived and vulnerable we are in relation to our potential to cause harm. But it also goes perhaps further than any other towards toppling anthropocentrism. We humans are an ecological anomaly, but we don’t get any special status. We are encouraged to see ourselves as the show’s uncomfortable audience, not its headline act.

The inferred solutions or futures posed by this exhibition are as diverse as the work itself – ranging from optimistic green capitalism, to eco-anarchism, to downright nihilism. This is a problem, but it isn’t one of the exhibition’s own making. If you leave the Royal Academy with a greater sense of confusion as to the future, you are only reflecting our current political paralysis.

Which brings me back to that title. After an hour in these galleries, engaging with these works, the notion of the ‘eco-visionary’ seems not only to refer to these artists themselves, but to the statement of an idea: that human creativity has the potential to realise a future that serves both planet and people. And perhaps we are being exhorted – even equipped – to become eco-visionaries ourselves.

Eco-Visionaries runs at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 23 November 2019 — 23 February 2020.

Photo: © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry.