Sustaining life. Art in the climate emergency

Selected works from the EPO art collection, from 5 October 2023

© Rozbeh Asmani / Krištof Kintera, Photo: Christian Kain

When the 3 000 m2 basement in the headquarters of the European Patent Office (EPO) was refurbished, a project space was also created for special exhibitions of contemporary art. This 400 m2 area was formerly used for the printing of official documents. During its redevelopment, the ceiling, walls, floors and layout were preserved or re-exposed. Details such as the yellow cube-shaped sockets for the copying and printing machines, and the floor-to-ceiling wall tiles of the adjoining rooms, have been deliberately left in place and displayed as design elements. While the old walls provide clues about the space’s previous use, new exhibition panels offer maximum flexibility within the new layout. It was also vital that views of the surrounding greenery should not be lost after the conversion and so the long glass façade was retained too.

As part of the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the European Patent Convention, a topic was chosen for the opening exhibition that will figure prominently in the EPO's strategic focus over the next few years: sustainability. It is obvious that the world of art is not immune to the current challenges facing society, such as global warming, the destruction of ecosystems, heat waves and catastrophic floods, recycling, resource depletion and pollution. On the contrary, contemporary artists observe and explore these topics attentively, consciously reflecting them in the materials they use. Under the heading Sustaining life. Art in the climate emergency, more than 50 works by 37 artists from 20 countries have been selected to show how artists respond to some of the most pressing issues of our time. The exhibition is divided into four sections: Patterns of Production and Consumption; Nature and Environment; Mobility; and New Ways of Life. Most of the selected artworks are made of paper, metal or waste products.

Completed during the last 45 years, these works provide a vivid testimony to the seismographic intuition with which artists perceive and creatively explore our rapidly changing world. Art's aptitude for anticipating developments, often long before they become the subject of public debate or scientific research, is strikingly revealed here; this is an aptitude that artists share with inventors, whose acute powers of observation and ability to create new associations on the basis of the latest research are prerequisites for future innovation. The exhibition raises questions such as: How can we move forward? How can we repair our relationship with the planet? How can we achieve climate justice? Can we re-evaluate our habits, social structures and cultures to find new ways to acting and experiencing? What solutions and innovations can secure a sustainable future for our society? Can we rethink our values accordingly?

All the works chosen for the exhibition are from the EPO art collection, which was established in the late 1970s as part of an art-in-architecture programme, with works especially commissioned for the EPO’s new headquarters designed by Gerkan, Marg und Partner (gmp) and built on the banks of the Isar. Today, the collection comprises roughly 1 000 works of contemporary art, including 40 site-specific commissioned works, some of which are specially protected in accordance with the headquarters now being a listed building. As contemporary works are acquired on an ongoing basis, the collection continues to grow. The acquisition strategy prioritises artworks that address scientific questions, feature technology-oriented aesthetics and stimulate intellectual debate on interdisciplinary topics. There is a particular emphasis on works by international artists of the next generation, whose visionary spirit and ground-breaking ideas serve as a catalyst in allowing us to see the world from a different perspective and enrich discourse between people from a wide range of backgrounds, religions, nationalities and professions.

Founded with the aim of creating a stimulating and inspiring working environment for employees, who today number more than 6 000 across all EPO sites, the collection now encapsulates a great deal more than an aesthetic concept for foyers, conference rooms and canteens. By supporting young artists and maintaining the collection, the EPO as an international organisation sui generis not only reflects the cultural diversity and wealth of artistic production in the member states of the European Patent Organisation, but also underlines its commitment to sustainability for future generations by the very act of collecting and conserving art in the workplace. Like the legacy of our building’s renowned architects, gmp, this also makes a crucial contribution to the corporate culture of the EPO in the twenty-first century.