Art and Ecology Now

| 16th September 2014
Front cover of 'Art and Ecology Now'. Image: Thames & Hudson.
Front cover of 'Art and Ecology Now'. Image: Thames & Hudson.
This intriguing new book is a bold attempt to strike a new direction for ecological art, writes Martin Spray - not to communicate environmental issues, but to create new connections with the world around us and imbue our lives with 'artfulness'.
This is a new purpose for art, a new mission for artists, it is often experimental and dabbles in science, and tries to communicate and disturb without disillusioning.

Herbert Read - critic, poet, anarchist, and cofounder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts - famously saw the artist as (in German) ein Ruttler, an upsetter of the established order.

And art, thought George Braque - artist, colleague of Picasso - "is meant to disturb. Science reassures". Many (though by no means all) of those of us who wish mankind to live more lightly on Earth are convinced that no such thing will happen without a fairly seismic upsetting of the established order that frustrates our lives.

Some of us think that this is more likely to occur if artists are involved.

Part of the upset would be a less complacent reception of what science tells us about our environment, and how we are turning it into what we imagine is the Best of all Possible Worlds. Science, of course, tells us things we'd rather not hear as well as nice things, but much of humanity either does not get the message, or depots it safely in some mental oubliette.

Art, we say, can maybe help foster a remembering of the message by those who get it but wish they didn't, and of enlightening at least some of those who don't.

Here is a sample of comments about its significance:

  • "The arts offer different insights into [our relationship with the natural world] and touch people in ways that conventional education and advocacy can rarely do."
  • "Art can do things that information can't. [It] takes our mind to new places, reaches our heart and draws on our gut feelings."
  • "[It] can do more than science to deepen our understanding of the natural world."
  • "No argument: art is the highest form of human expression and can change people's lives."
  • "[It] has always been a crucial means whereby we established our place spiritually in the macrocosm."
  • "The mainstream environment sector needs more [such] voices to challenge perceptions, awaken sensibilities and embrace in a more serious way the dimensions of inspiration, deeper cultural questioning, creativity and imagination."
  • "The artist can help us fall in love with the Earth again."

All or much of this may well be true. I hope it is, and believe so; but I have yet to see really convincing evidence. I hesitate for several reasons.

Art and ecology - a happy fusion?

In the words of Stephanie Ross - writer on aesthetics, philosophy of art, and gardens - "Why assume that all environmental art is produced by environmentalists and Greenpeace sympathisers?" It isn't. There is, though, a tendency to assume it, even when in other parts of their lives some artists live on Earth far from lightly.

One of the most celebrated 'land artists' of the l970s, Christo Javacheff made 'Running fence' of 2,050 pieces of white nylon fabric, 18 ft. high by 68 ft. long, on cables between steel poles; and Michael Heizer, a little before, had 1,500 x 50 x 30 ft. of Nevada mesa dug out to make a trench, 'Double negative'.

This is a new purpose for art, a new mission for artists, it is often experimental and dabbles in science, and tries to communicate and disturb without disillusioning.

A lot of people out there say or imply that their work "relates to ecology" (or whatever), but when I try to be objective about it,... I can't tell. Much of it seems to need words to tell me the message it carries about some aspect of man's environmental relationship. Not all; but much.

Some of this may be because it is (let's say) not very skilfully done; some may be because of misunderstanding; some, certainly, because I lack the convention by which to 'read' the work.

But some, I am sure, is because the link between the artwork and the thing - the message - the artist wants me to 'read' is just too tenuous to work. There is no click! in my brain, and I don't get the message. Or, there is a confusion of more than one message, not foreseen by the artist, and I get the wrong one....

This is not a denial of the artists' integrity as environmentalists - which is what I think they usually are. But it is a recognition (as I think) of the growing complexity of the situation. As with art with other intentions, environmental art evolves. The later 1960s brought many changes - or, rather, tried to - including to this corner of the world of art.

The field has grown rapidly in recent years, becoming mainstream, says Brown, in the last five. He sees environmental art as bringing with it such important questions as whether art should (or can) be a refuge from real life, and whether artists should seek to change what they find, or just report it. 'Interventions', 'reclamation art' and 'remediation art' are are steps towards making changes.

Developing artfulness in life

Art & ecology now is a look at the conscience and drive that underlie recent artists' efforts. Andrew Brown follows the usual route, and traces a development from the land art movement of the 1960s, and the emergence of a form now usually called 'eco-art'.

As Dave Pritchard - organiser of the Arts and Environment Network of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management - says of the new efforts,

"this is not about 'using art' merely as a medium to 'communicate' about something else. It is about adopting a more 'artful approach' that connects us in a different way with the world we are in, and fans the sparks of that greater creativity we need as a society for the challenges we face."

Although there is an abundance of examples, quotes by the artists, and commentary in Art & ecology now, how much, and how well, it does this, to me is still not clear.

There is an additional problem, shared with much other contemporary art. It does not necessarily seek to be beautiful. Indeed, it may have no concerns for beauty. It thus risks being discounted by the public it intends to influence. It is either not seen as art, or it is seen as poor art.

I am not alone in still thinking of art as a generator of beauty. It is not so much that I am put off by an artwork's grubbiness per se, more that I am not over-stimulated by something that seems done with a quality I could produce myself.

In fact, there is sometimes no tangible 'product': no 'artwork'. A clear example would be the 'performance' of a walk from A to B, with not even a line on a map for the record. (This is well called 'art from nothing'. But perhaps you regard it as beyond the pale that has been built around 'art'. A new word seems to be needed here.)


Brown asks if art has discovered a new sense of purpose. Influenced by environmentalism and ecological science, it probably has. It has tapped new sources of energy, and to a certain extent has gained new audiences.

To an extent, however, I expect it is, as it were, 'talking to itself ', but not entirely, and this seems normal. It is of interest to, if not always understood by, a spectrum of public different from that of only a few decades ago. The spectrum of eco-art's public probably mirrors that of artists' motivations, and Brown has devised a scheme for this.

"We move from artists who use conventional aesthetic means to make us look and look again at the way we treat the planet [...] to those who create art that by its very enactment or experience has a positive effect on the environment and our behaviour." The book's examples are presented in six groups:

  • Re/view - "artists are motivated by an impulse [...] to represent the world as they see it. They consciously adopt the role of witness."
  • Re/form - "the physical environment provides the raw matter from which to make art. [Artists] prefer to engage with the stuff of nature directly."
  • Re/search - this is "one stage further: [a] wish to go deeper to understand the elements of nature."
  • Re/use - "artists whose primary concern is the way we use and abuse the Earth's resources" and ascribe value to the natural world; second, artists who "respond to our throwaway culture."
  • Re/create - "develops the search for solutions to environmental problems."
  • Re/act - "[Artists] actively set out to transform the world and change it for the better."

begins with Canadian Benoit Aguin looking at China's 'dust bowl', followed by China's Yao Lu, whose paintings from a distance look traditional, but when viewed closely are seen to be diggings and mounds of rubble, all covered with netting through which sticks our detritus.

For Finnish Tea Mäkipää, in collaboration with Icelander Halldór Úlfarsson, a tilted cabin floating in a lake and emitting sounds of normal family life draws attention to global warming.

Re/form includes a simple circular swirl of logs by British Chris Drury, and 'Hiding in the city' by the Chinese 'Invisible Man' Liu Bolin, whose black-painted hair, face and hands, and black-painted clothes, photographed in front of a pile of coal, reflect the damage from industrialisation and mining.

In the Re/search chapter, American Brandon Ballengée presents specimen jars of 26,162 marine creatures from the Gulf of Mexico, many showing abnormalities.

Rather more abstract, British Alison Turnbull's 'Specimens' is a print of over a hundred coloured rectangles (mostly) and data representing the Natural History Museum's collection of butterflies from the Galápagos Islands.

Re/use is a more complex section. Cases here provide "the most critical and judgemental view of our relationship with the physical world". It begins with Japan's Naoya Hatakeyama's photos of quarry detonations, and ends with American Matt Costello demonstrating the 'hidden' water needed in the making of objects and the growing and preparation of our food.

In other examples, Burkinese Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo makes documentary art "to shine a light on Africans' daily existence", in a way that is realistic but both aesthetic and ethical; Mexican Alejandro Durán arranges and photographs selected plastic garbage on the Yucatán shore; and American Chris Jordan photographs arrays of such things as glass fragments and circuit boards.

Re/create has a sense of experimentation about it. Danish N55 spells it out: "What we are doing in our work is to try to find ways of living with as small concentrations of power as possible"; as does American Simparch: "[E]xperimenting with building, engineering and design using commonplace materials has been part of the work from the beginning". With Re/create, we are clearly moving into territory where collaborations of artists with scientists and technologists can be productive - but we are also in territory where it is increasingly difficult to see the works as 'art'.

The artists sampled in Re/act "actively set out to transform the world and change it for the better". Brown enthuses: "Even if the results are relatively small [....] these artists offer a model for the future".

American Eve Mosher wants to change the world by marking where a line 10 feet above sea-level occurs, in Brooklyn and Manhattan, showing a likely flood level. She talked with locals about its significance, and gave out information on climate change.

The international group Free Soil wants to influence by deepening the ecological knowledge of consumers - for example, by documenting the journey of oranges from tree to market.

Also concerned with food, Australian group Artist as Family made a "poetic space", a permaculture garden that supplies "uncapitalized food" to a nearby soup kitchen. It reduces, says the group, the community's dependence on supermarkets, shows that art can be a resource, champions biodiversity, and blurs the distinction between art and Nature.

Deeper reality or embarrassing hype?

Such a claim is fairly typical of many eco-art projects. If one sees how small an impact these projects tend to have, and how dubious some claims are, one could be forgiven for suggesting that this modern form of environmental art may not be megalomaniac like 'Running fence' or 'Double negative', but is embarrassingly hyped.

And yet ... this is a new purpose for art, a new mission for artists, it is often experimental and dabbles in science, and tries to communicate both the general context and the results of a particular 'experiment' without recourse to scientific jargon. And it tries to disturb without disillusioning.

It may also have tried to tackle an environmental problem with a more artful approach than usual - and I think we know how cautious we should be about relying on only a rational, objective, approach.



The book: Art and Ecology Now is by Andrew Brown, and is published by Thames & Hudson, 2014. 255 pages, 343 illustrations, board-covered paperback, £29.95. ISBN 978-0-500-23916.

Martin Spray is an editor and writer for Ecos - A review of conservation. He retired early from the University of Gloucestershire, England, because of Parkinson's disease. He taught aspects of ecology, landscape architecture, environmental philosophy, and professional ethics, and has contributed to a wide variety of conservation, landscape, gardening and education magazines and journals.

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