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Lucy + Jorge Orta at the new wing of Attenborough Arts Centre, opened by Sir David Attenborough

February 7, 2016

ArtsMixed Media | by Harry Seymour


British born Lucy Orta, and her Argentinian husband Jorge Orta are artists with a huge social conscience. Their multidisciplinary works that combine sculpture, sound, printmaking, fashion, photography, installation and performance to engage in the critical issues surrounding the ecology of our planet. They tackle environmental issues such as the lack of clean water, human migration, climate change, recycling, organ donation and the changing attitudes towards the nature of our planet.

Lucy Orta and Sir David Attenborough at Attenborough Arts Centre. Photo courtesy of David Wilson Clark.
Lucy Orta and Sir David Attenborough at Attenborough Arts Centre. Photo courtesy of David Wilson Clark.

In 2007, the artists were awarded the Green Leaf Prize for their work surrounding sustainability, which was awarded to them by the United Nations Environmental Programme. Their work has been displayed at the Barbicvan, Natural History Museum, Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Venice Biennale, MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome and Shanghai Biennale, London Museum Ontario and Yorkshire Sculpture Park to name a few. Their work is heavily researched and driven by a very real sense of responsibility – it examines heavy issues that are often overlooked in the narcissistic world of contemporary art.

Lucy + Jorge Orta at Attenborough Arts Centre. Photo courtesy Paul Hands.
Lucy + Jorge Orta at Attenborough Arts Centre. Photo courtesy Paul Hands.

That’s why they’re the perfect curatorial choice to be the inaugural show at a new wing of the Attenborough Arts Centre in Leicester. The centre, which is the largest contemporary arts space in the city, complete with a sculpture garden, studios and café, was originally known as the Richard Attenborough Centre for Arts and Disability. It was opened as the result of inquest by Lord Richard Attenborough in the 1990’s in to how much access to arts disabled people have. When Attenborough saw the results outside London were so shockingly low, he decided to open a centre for their promotion in the town where he grew up. Opened in 1997 by Lord Richard Attenborough and HRH Diana Princess of Wales. The centre championed the arts for people with and without disabilities, through engaging exhibitions, workshops, classes, community outreach projects and events. Lord Attenborough remained the centre’s patron until his death when the role was taken up by his son, the theater director Michael Attenborough CBE. In attendance to open the new £1.5 million exhibition space, adding another 530 square metres, was both Michael Attenborough, and his uncle the famous naturalist Sir David Attenborough.

Lucy + Jorge Orta at Attenborough Arts Centre
Lucy + Jorge Orta at Attenborough Arts Centre

Sir David’s work seems to harmonize with Lucy and Jorge Orta’s show perfectly – both are passionate about protecting out planet – emphasis is very much on the now in which we must act, for future generations. Their show brings together some of their pieces from the last two decades, including their social sculptures – they appear at first as life support systems; social sculptures made from assemblages of objects including flotation devices, first aid equipment and sleeping bags, yet they also have added items such as cuddly toys, raising issues of the hierarchy of needs – is compassion as important as physical support? “Ideas come and go between different bodies of work… They’re interconnected,” Lucy Orta told Candid. “It’s difficult to dissociate water scarcity from migration or climate change from species loss; food, health, the state of the planet.” And it seems Sir David agrees with her; “Science provides one language in which you can investigate things, which perhaps doesn’t make an immediate appeal to the emotions. But art does it the other way round.” Another work features miniature one man tents plugged in to a large water cylinder; it speaks of ideas of future ecosystems, life support through drinking water and how future societies may develop – the small scale of the tents emphasises the importance for future generations of children who face an intensity of these issues which will no doubt only grow.

Lucy + Jorge Orta at Attenborough Arts Centre. Photo courtesy of David Wilson Clark.
Lucy + Jorge Orta at Attenborough Arts Centre. Photo courtesy of David Wilson Clark.

Other works include a new multi-sensory installation entitled Symphony For The Absent Wildlife, commissioned by the University of Leicester. The pieces is made up of 20 musician’s spirits each dressed in tailcoat and sculpted mask made form reclaimed felt-wool blankets. The mask of each character represents an engendered woodland animal, holding a birdsong whistle – the noise of which plays throughout the room, building in to a concoction of counts that make the audience feel like they’re stepping in to a woodland fairytale. This work doesn’t feature the poignancy and urgency of the others – its dark cavernous setting opposes the stark and clinical rooms of the others, yet its message is no less important. All the works in the show reverberate with their importance – they are clear, instructive, critical and most importantly, hard hitting – it is hard to walk away without feeling the need to not only engage, but also act on what you’ve seen. It’s socially purposeful.

The Attenborough Arts Centre is a crucial step in the right direction for arts engagement. The space contains a second exhibition by the local artist and teacher Dr Maria Collingham, whose seasonal landscapes are extremely emotive, delicate and whimsical – it’s clear the centre engages with a variety of types of artist all throughout their careers. It is a refreshing move away from the elitist constructs often perceived of the art world. The centre offers theatre, dance, comedy and art workshops for children and adults, engaging in social outreach to bring people from all walks of life together – a packed programme proves the dedication of the centre and its staff, and the centre is an inspiration of what can be achieved through the power of art.

By Toby Mellors

Lucy + Jorge Orta at Attenborough Arts Centre, Lucy + Jorge Orta at the new wing of Attenborough Arts Centre, opened by Sir David Attenborough, until 24 April 2016. Visit their website for a full 2016 schedule of exhibitions and events.