Dr Shmelev’s exhibition has two aims: to attract attention to the beauty of rare ecosystems, and to raise awareness about environmental concerns in economics. The main problem our world faces, Shmelev believes, is a lack of environmental awareness among economists. No-one seems to recognise that the “economy is embedded in wider biophysical processes”. His new book focuses on the problems that are created by the fact that “very few macroeconomic models include environmental concerns”. Stanislav wants economic planning that takes into account sustainability as well as inflation. He wants things to be built to last. He wants to employ local people to build and run recycling plants in developing countries. He wants to “reform economics”. Unfortunately the lack of explanatory material makes it unlikely that he will achieve any of this through this art exhibition. It does spruce up an otherwise grey corridor of the SSL, though.
The exhibition is half oil-painting, half photograph. The oils were painted on a trip to Rio for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Ipanema beach is displayed in all its vibrancy, rendered in strong, contrasting colours. This is by far the best bit of the exhibition, with palm fronds done with stunning brush work.
Shmelev explains how he paints from a combination of sketches and photographs. For him, like every artist since Delacroix and Renoir, photography is a sketchbook. He believes that the viewfinder is very useful to develop a sense of composition. “The two art forms reinforce each other,” he says. This is his justification for an otherwise incongruous transition between oil and photograph.
His works aim to “focus on the positive side” of economic problems by celebrating “pristine ecosystems”. But without titles, or any kind of labelling system, it would be easy to miss the significance of any of the photographs. It would be easy to mistake them for simply quite-good photos of palm trees, water, flowers and seeds. Actually, I was informed, this photo is of the rare ecosystem at the 100m high sand dunes in Bordeaux. I discovered that the solitary seed was found on a beach at Pulau Redang – an island off Malaysia that is an important conservation site.
Shmelev explained to me that the island was a metaphor for what he sees as the problems that face the environment. Under huge pressure from society, what should be a haven of coral, jungle and turtles is turning into a waste-strewn holiday destination with expensive hotels that burn oil for air conditioning.
After a thought-provoking hour chatting to Shmelev I walked past a group of bored students on my way out. I wonder whether any of these business and management students will be inspired by these pictures to go on to save the world. Doubtful.