BY Aliya Say in UK Reviews | 13 JAN 22
Featured in
Issue 226

‘Our Silver City, 2094’ Envisions Nottingham’s Uncertain Future

At Nottingham Contemporary the group show – billed as an ‘exhibition-as-sci-fi-novel’ – presents a speculative reality shaped by environmental crisis

BY Aliya Say in UK Reviews | 13 JAN 22

In November 2021, Nottingham Contemporary opened ‘Our Silver City 2094’– an exhibition that presents a vision of how Nottingham could be transformed by the end of the century, following decades of climatic calamity, social upheaval and technological collapse. The show – billed as an ‘exhibition-as-sci-fi-novel, or vice versa’ – is accompanied by an enthralling and deeply moving new novella by Liz Jensen. At times, the works on display create a meaningful dialogue with the book’s themes of displacement and violence, resurrection and community, the rebirth of spirituality and a connectedness to nature. Elsewhere, they scatter in many directions, befuddlingly, like animals threatened by a flood or a forest fire – one of two of the many potential threats to come, both fictional and way too real.

The exhibition’s curators – Céline Condorelli, Femke Herregraven and Grace Ndiritu – developed its content using a speculative methodology devised by Prem Krishnamurthy. ‘Silver City’ is a complex, multidimensional project, and while I applaud the scale and ambition, I do question whether the show’s claim to envision new worlds readily translates into a truly transformative experience for the audience. The works on display – billed as spanning ‘the last 400 million years’ – travel across time and space in a way that no visitor could follow. And though inspired by visions of the future from novelists Octavia E. Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin, in addition to Liza Jensen’s, the show seems to forget to dream. It does however deliver several strong, sensitive individual contributions. 

Urth 2016 Ben Rivers
Ben Rivers, Urth, 2016, 16mm film, 20 mins. Courtesy: © the artist, Kate MacGarry Gallery and Nottingham Contemporary

Organized across four gallery spaces, the show examines the future of Nottingham from four thematic vantage points: Change, Understanding, Inner Knowledge and Wisdom. We are first welcomed to the precarious future by Companion Species, Emergency Weave (2015), an ominous wall sculpture by Eline McGeorge that interweaves inkjet prints of human faces, animals and a tree with cut strips of silver-toned emergency blankets. In the next room, the audio in Urth (2016), a film by Ben Rivers, presents the disconcerting and delusory final log entry of a female scientist, apparently the last surviving human in an unspecified future era; she is managing a fragile process of elemental and chemical homeostasis to ensure the continuation of life on Earth. As the film progresses, we realize the woman is confined within an artificial biome – a nod to Biosphere 2, a real scientific complex in Arizona where Rivers filmed the work.

The Temple 2021 Grace Ndiritu
Grace Ndiritu, The Temple, 2021, installation featuring works by Anni Albers, Chiara Camoni, Armando D. Cosmos, Charlotte Johannesson, The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, Vivian Lynn, Elisabeth Wild, Andrea Zittel and artefacts from Nottingham City Museums. Courtesy: © Nottingham Contemporary; photograph: Stuart Whipps

The Temple (2021), a wooden installation conceived by Grace Ndiritu, invites us to step on a soft carpet and examine a fantastic array of paintings, woven tapestries and sculptures by artists such as Anni Albers, Charlotte Johannesson and Elisabeth Wild (an offer that is all the more enjoyable for its lack of captions). The show’s inclination towards self-importance is counteracted by the playful humour of Chiara Camoni’s Canopic Jar (the Owl with the Tail) (2020), a stoneware owl with a fluffy, coloured tail that transforms the pompous bird into a sort of a whimsical mongrel. 

Companion Species Emergency Weave 2015 Eline McGeorge
Eline McGeorge, Companion Species, Emergency Weave (2015), emergency blankets, inkjet prints, canvas stretcher, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist, Hollybush Gardens, London and Nottingham Contemporary; photograph: Stuart Whipps

Many exhibitions that are focused on ecological issues appear to hope to discover a renewed purpose for art via insular soul-searching (2019’s 16th Istanbul Biennial, ‘The Seventh Continent’, comes to mind). Yet claims of reimagining the future and world-building do not always transgress the confines of the art world’s own universe and its circumscribed aspirations. The exhibition serves as a perfect reminder that a plurality of transpersonal responses is required to fully address the environmental crisis. Still, as a project that above all celebrates collaboration, it feels less a unified proposition than a cacophony of individual voices. I am left wondering how an exhibition can achieve collective resonance with the same power and invitation to dream as the output of writers and visionaries that inspire projects such the ‘Silver City’. 

Our Silver City, 2094 is on display at Nottingham Contemporary until 18 April 2022

Main image: Femke Herregraven, Wet Spells, 2021, installation view. Courtesy: © Nottingham Contemporary; photograph: Stuart Whipps

Aliya Say is an art writer, strategist and researcher based in London. She is writing her PhD on botanical abstraction in the work of twentieth-century artist-mystics, and the parallels between vegetal ontology and mystical states.