6 February 2022
Earth to Humans
Gaia, the show stopping replica of planet Earth by British artist Luke Jerram has - fittingly - travelled all over the world. It has mesmerised audiences in Taipei, Liverpool, London, the Gold Coast, Rome, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Belfast, and just last month, Dubai.
In each city, the setting offered a different experience: in some, Gaia was installed outdoors, among nature or wedged between buildings. In others, it was indoors, in museums, cathedrals, research centres, or in the case of Glasgow, at the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference, looming large over delegates’ heads - a reminder as to why they were all there in the first place.
In Dubai, Gaia spun slowly inside Concrete - the behemoth multi-disciplinary space by architect Rem Koolhaas’ OMA - for two days during Alserkal’s annual Quoz Arts Fest. With one set of four of Concrete’s translucent doors open to allow passers-by to see the blue planet in its entirety, its installation was spectacular, haunting. Gazing at it from just outside in The Yard, it drew you in. Once inside, the Concrete space was open for earthlings to walk around Gaia to marvel at the miracle of our planet.
Dr Mashhoor Ahmad al-Wardat giving his talk "From Gaia to Gaia"
Jerram based Gaia on precise imagery from NASA’s Visible Earth series, and was inspired by the 1968 photograph taken by astronaut Willian Anders while aboard the Apollo 8; Earthrise, which marked the first time humans saw their home peeking out from beyond the lunar surface, has often been called the most influential environmental photograph ever taken. The blues, greens, browns, and swirling whites were so stunning and so unexpected, people realised the beauty of our planet and that it should be taken care of.
The ‘overview’ effect, or the experience that astronauts get when they look down at the Earth from space for the first time, has been known to inspire them to protect the fragility of our planet.
Through Gaia, gravity-bound humans can see the earth as only astronauts would, something which the cavernous interior of Concrete lent itself nicely to.
Gaia is 1.8 million times smaller than the real thing, with each centimetre of the luminescent sculpture representing 18 kilometres of the Earth’s surface. By standing 211 metres away from the artwork, people could see the Earth as it would appear if they were on the moon. But even from up close, Gaia did not fail. Images of our home planet - and Jerram’s own take on it - are stark reminders of the urgent need for us to change our behaviours towards the environment before it is too late.
After all, that is what Gaia was created to do - to get people thinking about climate change, conservation, and our responsibility towards our home planet. Jerram is well-regarded for his installations that drive the message of sustainability and caring for our environment. His works are loud and clear, and he uses art as a tool to communicate science’s most pressing concerns - in this case, combatting the disastrous effects of climate change. Whether he succeeds is a different story - and that may be due in part to the context in which his works, Gaia in this case, are installed.
Gaia amid the crowd of Quoz Arts Fest
At Quoz Arts Fest, Gaia seemed lonely in a crowd, overburdened with noise and people - much like the real Earth feels at times. Bands played on the main stage outside Concrete, drowning out the artwork’s surround sound composition by BAFTA Award-winning composer Dan Jones. People walked in and out of Concrete and stopped for selfies with this magnificent artwork, hashtagging their way through the experience. Gaia was also designed to be a venue around which organisations could program cultural activities. At Quoz Arts Fest, it was the setting for a themed dinner by culinary platform INKED, and a silent disco spinning session by fitness gurus Crank.
Just around the corner from Concrete, Zayed University’s College of Arts and Creative Enterprises quietly presented In Suspension inside Warehouse 50. The exhibition, supported by logistics giant DP World, explores our connection to the Earth through works by Ayesha Hadhir, Maitha Al Omaira, Noura Alghafri, Reem Al Mubarak, Sarah Al Nuaimi, and Shamsa Al Mansoori.
a part of the exhibition "In Suspension" by Zayed University, supported by DP World
Sparse yet soothing, In Suspension offered a ‘glocal’ take on nature from personal, environmental, geographical, or ecological perspectives. Noura Alghafri’s Pale Black Dot (2021), a series of photographs of microscopic displays showcased in lightboxes and accompanied by a framed preserved fly, was inspired by the 1990 Pale Blue Dot photo taken by the Voyager 1 Space Probe. In that photo, requested by astronomer and author Carl Sagan as Voyager 1 was leaving the solar system, the Earth’s size is less than a pixel, appearing as a tiny dot against the vastness of space. Alghafri’s Pale Black Dot is a commentary on our insignificance in comparison to the universe, much like a fly’s size pales in comparison to ours.
Maitha Al Omaira’s Hiding Stars (2021) is a poignant, perhaps accidental, take on eco-anxiety, a relatively new - yet predicted - condition where therapists the world over are seeing an increasing number of people suffering anxiety and grief over our climate issues. The site-specific video projection sees Al Omaira project pages from her journal onto trees and plants. “To emancipate myself from these emotions felt like the only way I can find peace and happiness. [...] I scanned the pages that I’ve written at my lowest and projected them [...] to create the connection with earth and give life to the new version of myself - to be born anew” writes the artist.
Quietly or loudly, the messages of the crucial impact of sustainability and the catastrophic effects of climate change must be communicated. Far from relegating it to a tick-in-the-box exercise, Alserkal and its community are undoubtedly pushing the sustainability message. Examples include the formation of the Sustainability Working Group, announced by Alserkal Executive Director Vilma Jurkute last year, whereby a collection of community members implement projects such as solar power, recycling, and the pedestrianisation of the cultural district, shifting to economies of repair, an annual tree-planting initiative, eliminating single use plastics in Alserkal Avenue this year, Kave’s year-round upcycling and zero waste efforts, and the reopening of crowd favourite A4 Space with a sustainable twist.
With Gaia and In Suspension, the movement continues.