Ties to the Earth

In August 2021, an IPCC report sounded “code red for humanity” – confirming that human activity is changing the climate in unprecedented and sometimes irreversible ways. As the crisis escalates, it’s never been more crucial to reflect on our relationship with the planet.

Exploring representations of and responses to ideas of “the earth” from a diverse range of perspectives and media, Earthbound: Contemporary Landscape from the Roberts Institute of Art features work by Etel Adnan, Mirosław Bałka, Phyllida Barlow, Yto Barrada, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Theaster Gates and Richard Long. We spoke to The Roberts Institute of Art‘s Ned McConnell, curator of the exhibition, about how the earth takes shape in our imagination.

A: Can you explain the concept of Earthbound to our readers?
The earth is many things. Its vastness is often difficult to grasp, yet it is fundamental to our lives. It is our home and provides us with sustenance; it drives and is exploited by our labour and our economies. We are dependent on it for our survival; over the past year, many of us have found a renewed connection with it that has sustained us and brought us comfort.

Earthbound reflects a desire to connect with our planet on an everyday scale. I think of the earth as being so ubiquitous that it is invisible: you don’t realise you’re inhabiting, just like you don’t realise you’re breathing. The exhibition explores this concept through works from the David and Indrė Roberts Collection, alongside pieces from Sheffield’s own visual art collection. It aims to reveal some of the connections that we have to the earth through our labour, our domesticity, our cities and landscapes, as well as our imagination.

A: How do the themes of Earthbound reflect on the history of Sheffield’s landscapes?
Sheffield has such an interesting relationship to landscape. For instance, there are traces of ancient societies in the engravings and bas-reliefs nearby at Cresswell Crags, which represent the most northerly cave art in Europe. However, there is also a more contemporary thread to be pulled at that goes from an industrial past with the 18th-century steel industry through to the slum clearances and social housing of the 1950s and 1960s, that indicate how the landscape has shaped life in the city.

A: Can you name some works in the show you’re excited by and explain why?
NM: I’m obviously excited by all the works in the show. The David and Indrė Roberts Collection is hugely diverse so it’s brilliant to be able to present all these particular works in the show to a wider audience. However, Etel Adnan’s work Untitled, 2000, which was made from her home in Sausalito of a view from her window, one which she has painted many times, is very poignant. It coalesces a lot of thought processes in this exhibition, such as ideas of the home, a deep intellectual and spiritual connection developed through spending time with the earth, and the landscape as an imaginary space.

A: There is a huge, unwieldy history of landscape-responsive art spanning millennia, continents and genres. How did you respond to this tradition?
NM: This is not a survey show, nor is it about landscape art per se. There is a long history of work in this area, so here we wanted to explore some threads that I recognised in the David and Indrė Roberts Collection that are perhaps not usually thought of in terms of landscape art. The human imagination plays such a big role in defining what a landscape is. Landscape has become as much a genre as a concept related to the planet on which we are living. When thinking about the planet, it is all too easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of its interconnectedness. This show attempts to bring some specificity to a variety of connections we have with Earth.

A: How do you feel current conversations around ecological crisis and the pandemic have changed the way we relate to the Earth?
The pandemic has laid bare the effect on mental health that being confined to an enclosed space can have. It’s important to say that pre-pandemic there was already a social movement to bring more awareness and action on the current ecological crisis. I think the world needs to look more intersectionally at the pandemic and better articulate the interconnectedness of the political, economic and environmental crises that are currently unfolding to find ways to make the world a more equal place, particularly outside of the global north.

A: What do you feel are some of the current key themes and formal trends in art which respond to and work with landscapes and environments?
There has been a notable shift, alongside the current revisionist agenda of many big institutions, to look at the ways in which historically marginalised figures found new ways of living and understanding the world. For example, artists such as Sriwhana Spong or Johanna Hedva, to name only two, have developed practices that avoid the “mother earth” narratives developed in the 1960s counter-cultural movements that were then appropriated by consumer culture. Both artists instead respond to figures from the past that formed an unusual but coherent connection to the world around them.

Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, until 31 October. Find out more about Earthbound: Contemporary Landscape from the Roberts Institute of Art here.


Words: Greg Thomas

Image Credits:
1. Yto Barrada, Wallpaper -Tangier, 2001. Courtesy the Roberts Institute of Art and the David and Indrė Roberts Collection. ©Yto Barrada
2. Spencer Finch, West (Sunset in My Motel Room, Monument Valley, January 26, 2007, 5:36-6:06 PM), 2007. Courtesy the Roberts Institute of Art and the David and Indrė Roberts Collection.