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date: 26 November 2022

Art and climate changefree

Art and climate changefree

  • Julie Reiss

1. Introduction.

In 1962 the American scientist Rachel Carson published the book Silent Spring, exposing the widespread toxic effects of pesticides and ushering in the environmental movement in the United States. Eight years later, in 1970, the first Earth Day was observed. It was a national call to action against air and water pollution and the destruction of nature through excessive resource extraction. This growing concern about ecological damage coincided with the rise of Earthworks, also called Land art, artistic projects deliberately scaled larger than a gallery could exhibit. The vast open lands of the American West allowed for the creation of large-scale sited projects such as Michael Heizer’s Double Negative in 1969 in Nevada and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in 1970 in Utah. While the public initially regarded Earthworks as the art world’s participation in the environmental movement, conservation and stewardship were not the goals of these large-scale interventions, which often involved the use of bulldozers and other machinery to permanently alter the landscape. However, while not intended as ecological statements, these permanent outdoor works made from natural materials and integrated into the landscape provide a starting point for surveying artists’ response to environmental issues and the climate crisis. Increasingly there has been a rise in the visibility of global contemporary art that addresses environmental concerns as art has become a recognized vehicle for communication around global climate change and its consequences. There have been more major exhibitions of this work, for example Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artists’ Interpretations and Solutions, Queens Museum, New York, 1992; eARTh: Art in a Changing World, Royal Academy, London, 2009; and Indicators: Artists on Climate Change, Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, NY, 2018. Environmental advocacy organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have established artist-in-residence programs, recognizing the potential for art to connect with the public in a different way from pure data. Greenpeace has partnered with artists around the world in support of art that raises environmental awareness, recently inaugurating #CreateArtForEarth, an open call on social media for art addressing climate justice. By 2000, when geologist Paul Crutzen proposed the geological term Anthropocene for the current era in which human beings are recognized as the driving force behind planetary changes, many artists were consciously addressing environmental destruction and the economic and political systems that have led to it. This article will primarily address such developments since 1970, with the goal of showing the wide and evolving range of approaches in the United States and in global contemporary art.

2. Environmental stewardship.

In the wake of Earthworks, there were a number of commissions for land reclamation projects in the United States. Artists responded to calls for proposals for “green remediation” projects or initiated them themselves (see Environmental art). Simultaneously, ecofeminist artists wove together the twin strands of the women’s movement and the environmental movement, directly addressing environmental problems in their artistic projects, many which happened in venues outside of art institutions. Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape, proposed in 1965 and planted in 1978, reintroduced the native flora of Manhattan Island on a small plot on a New York City street, where it has continued to grow and thrive. Environmentally themed work flourished inside art institutions as well. Hans Haacke’s Rhinewater Water Purification Plant, exhibited at the Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, Germany, in 1972, included a list of the names of the top industrial culprits responsible for dumping 11 billion gallons of untreated wastewater into the Rhine. By the early 1980s, practitioners such as Agnes Denes and Joseph Beuys (whose 1978 manifesto anticipated the platform of the Green Party in Germany) were bringing communities together around environmental actions such as tree-planting (Beuys, 7000 Oaks, Documenta 1982) and wheat-planting (Denes, Wheatfield—A Confrontation, 1982, New York). In the 1980s, Helen Mayer Harrison (1927–2018) and Newton Harrison (b 1932) began a series of Green remediation projects that sought to repair damaged landscapes through the channels of art. Mel Chin continued this vein of work in the 1990s. Sometimes referred to as eco-art, these actions in Europe and the United States were not often part of the mainstream narratives of the art world.

(i) Ecofeminism.

In the United States, the Women’s movement and the Environmental movement emerged simultaneously in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many women artists saw analogies between the exploitation of the earth and the exploitation of women by patriarchy, leading to the creation of art known as ecofeminism. For example, Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969, addressed maintenance from the individual domestic level to protecting the Earth’s waters from pollution; her concern for both maintenance and the urban environment led to her becoming the official artist-in-residence of the New York City Department of Sanitation in 1978. Focusing on a spiritual connection with the earth, Cuban American Ana Mendieta created ritual performances in which she merged her body with primary natural elements including blood, fire, earth, and water, as in her Silhueta Series: Arbol de la Vida (Tree of Life) (1976), in which she photographed herself completely covered with mud, arms raised as she leaned against a tree trunk, blending into it. In The Earth Ambulance (1982), Helene Aylon (1931–2020) brought earth collected on a cross-country trip at Strategic Air Command sites around the United States to the United Nations headquarters in New York. With the help of other women along the way, the earth was put into pillowcases which were then carried on old army stretchers to the front of the UN and emptied into clear boxes on June 12, 1982, during disarmament talks. Betsy Damon (b 1940) made a paper cast of a dry riverbed, Memory of Clean Water (1985), casting the riverbed of Castle Creek in Utah to preserve its shape before the river was dammed.

(ii) Land reclamation projects and practical implementations.

Artists have also initiated workable solutions to ecological problems. Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison collaborated with biologists, ecologists, architects, and communities to find practical solutions for environmental issues. Their project titled Art Park Spoils Pile Reclamation (1976/1978– ), in Niagara County, NY, encouraged local people to dump their garden leavings on a waste site that eventually sprouted again and became a verdant field. In 1979, King County, WA, sponsored a competition, Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture, inviting artists to submit designs for making a waste site more attractive. Robert Morris’s Untitled (Johnson Pit #30, King County) (1979) was executed as the winning proposal. Ocean Landmark Project (1978–1980) by Betty Beaumont (b 1946) involved casting 17,000 coal fly-ash blocks that were deposited on the continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean where they are now a lush eco-system for fish. Mel Chin created Revival Field in 1990, teaming with scientists to clean up Pig’s Eye Landfill, a Superfund site in Minnesota, testing out which plants would absorb the most toxins from the tainted earth. The latter exhibition was in two parts: the site itself and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, where the plans were displayed, linking the art institution to the project. Patricia Johanson designed The Draw at Sugar House in Salt Lake City, UT (2003– ), to divert rain water away from a highway into a creek. Her urban-based projects strive to work within cities to bring awareness of the ecosystems that feed them and to remind people of their interconnection with nature.

3. Legal, political, and financial strategies.

Contemporary artists have enlisted legal, financial, and political means for protecting the environment. Amy Balkin (b 1967) bought pollution rights in order to withhold emissions in her Public Smog project (2004– ) and has an ongoing campaign to add the Earth’s atmosphere to UNESCO’s World Heritage list to preserve it for current and future generations. In the name of Earth Justice, Aviva Rahmani (b 1945) has tested the legal system by painting non-toxic blue pigment on trees in several different ecologically threatened sites in her Blued Trees project. The blued trees become part of a larger collaborative “symphony” and may be subject to legal protection as art works, thus halting damage to their sites. In 2005 Lauren Bon (b 1962) initiated an ongoing collaborative project designed to restore awareness and sustainability to the waters that feed Los Angeles. Called Bending the River Back into the City, the project aims to treat water and release it back into the city of Los Angeles.

4. Raising awareness.

Artists have used their prominence in the art world to try to raise viewer awareness of the consequences of global climate change. In Ice Watch (2014), Olafur Eliasson (b 1967) brought pieces of a glacier from Iceland to the City Hall Square in Copenhagen to mark the publication of the UN’s IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report on Climate Change. He recreated Ice Watch in 2015 at the Place du Panthéon in Paris on the occasion of the UN Climate Conference, COP21. Justin Brice Guariglia (b 1974) has collaborated with philosopher Timothy Morton (b 1968) on The Hyperobject: Philosophy and Ecology at the End of the World to create brief urgent messages that aim to make the threat of climate change more comprehensible. Guariglia’s Climate Signals comprised ten solar-powered flashing signs, placed in public places around New York City in 2018, containing phrases in English and in Spanish such as “No Icebergs Ahead” and “Fossil Fueling Inequality.”

5. International platforms.

Australian-born twin sisters Margaret Wertheim and Christine Wertheim (b 1958) started the Crochet Coral Reef in 2005 out of concern for the destruction of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef due to climate change and rubbish in the ocean. They crocheted life-like coral forms out of colorful wool embedded with detritus and displayed them in terrariums, simulating reefs and simultaneously pointing to the prevalence of plastic in the ocean and the intrusion of humans in nature. The project is still ongoing and has grown into a worldwide participatory endeavor: the Wertheim sisters have worked with communities across the globe who have made satellite reefs, so the “coral” proliferates and multiplies.

Environmentally themed art has become an important component of international exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale. This was widely observed in 2013 when the Maldives and the Tuvalu Islands participated in the biennale for the first time and selected art that drew attention to their low-lying geography and the threat of being among the first to suffer the direct consequences of rising sea levels. The title of the Maldives pavilion was Portable Nation: Disappearance as a Work in Progress—Approaches to Ecological Romanticism, and it contained art by global contemporary artists who shared concern for the looming impact of rising sea levels.

6. Materials.

Artists have become more concerned about the impact of their materials on the environment. Concern for the toxicity and environmental supply chain of chemicals in art supplies has given rise to an increase in artists’ use of recycled and repurposed materials, leading to collectives such as Project Vortex, an international sourcing network for artists who utilize used plastic in their work, keeping it out of the waste stream. There is a postcolonial aspect to the use of rubbish as well. Ghanaian artist El Anatsui creates elaborate woven “tapestries” out of the discarded bottle caps from liquor bottles imported to Nigeria from the West. Zimbabwean artist Moffat Takadiwa (b 1983) takes old computer keys, used toothbrushes, and other rubbish dumped in Africa from the West and turns the objects into large wall hangings that are shown in international exhibition venues, confronting American and European viewers with the scale of the residue of their high-impact lifestyles. There has also been a rise in art fairs focusing entirely on art made from upcycled, repurposed, and recycled materials.

The medium of photography has played a particularly large role in artistic responses to the environmental crisis, functioning as both documentation and as art. Aerial photography by Edward Burtynsky (b 1955), for instance, has provided viewers with visual evidence of the vast devastation wrought on Earth by human activity around the globe. His photography is part of his multidisciplinary Anthropocene Project, which includes the film, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2018). Starting in 2002, Subhankar Banerjee (b 1967) photographed migrating caribou, the landscape, and indigenous communities of Alaska and the Northwest Territories of Canada. His photographs counteracted the prevailing fiction that nothing lived in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and thus no harm would be done by opening up the region for oil drilling. His photographs were exhibited nationally and published in a book that was introduced on the US Senate floor in 2003, leading to a vote against a bill to start drilling, temporarily forestalling it. The landmark photographic series, Flint Is Family (2016) by LaToya Ruby Frazier (b 1982) focuses on the impact of the crisis of toxic drinking water on the daily lives of three generations of women in Flint, MI.

Since the 1980s Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman have been exploring ideas of nature and our futures through their respective studio practices. Dion has focused on nature within the framework of Western culture, exploring concepts of nature that emerged from Enlightenment thinking. His witty drawings, constructions, and archives of objects play on the authority of conventional modes of display encountered in natural history museums. Rockman’s large-scale paintings contain a high degree of scientifically accurate detail in a dystopian landscape. His painting Manifest Destiny (2004; Washington, DC, Smithsonian Amer. A. Mus.) imagines Brooklyn, New York, under water in the aftermath of a flood. The title refers to the near-mystical justification used by Americans for westward expansion, and also refers to our destiny as we head towards catastrophic environmental repercussions of a capitalist economy.

7. Public engagement and activism.

Maya Lin, well known for her designs for the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, and the Civil Rights Memorial in Atlanta, GA, created the What Is Missing? project in 2012, referring to it as her last memorial. Through an interactive website, the project invites the public to share memories of something in nature that is now lost, including loss of species and habitat degradation as well as personal recollections. Her related science-based artworks, such as A River Is a Drawing (2018), based on extensive research on the Hudson River, are a call to action to protect environments. Mary Miss’s organization, CALL (City as Living Laboratory), partners with communities, engineers, and landscape architects around the United States, producing works such as her project Watermarks: An Atlas of Water for the City of Minneapolis (2014– ). Its goal is to use visual aids and community engagement to raise awareness of the fluctuating water levels in the city, leading to individual actions that would prevent water levels in the city’s three rivers from excessive rising during rainstorms. For socially engaged artist Mary Mattingly (b 1978), community education is central to a practice that includes projects such as Swale (2016– ), a floating edible landscape that makes fresh food publicly available on a barge that sails around New York City. In New York City it is illegal to plant food on city-owned land, but there are no prohibitions on growing it on the waters around the city.

In art, as in the culture at large, climate justice has increasingly risen to the forefront of discussions around climate change. Focus is shifting to the political, social, and economic inequities that contribute to the disproportionate impact of climate change on historically marginalized or underserved communitites. Allison Janae Hamilton (b 1984) explores how the aftermath of hurricanes impacts different communities differently in The Peo-ple Cried Mer-cy in the Storm (2018). The installation references two hurricanes, including the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane in Florida in which thousands of black migrant workers living in low-lying areas were killed and buried in mass graves.

In the Name of Civilization, by Vincent J. F. Huang (b 1971), from the 2013 Venice Biennale, takes the form of gas pumps displaying data that shows how the nations producing the smallest carbon footprint are disproportionally suffering from the actions of nations producing the largest carbon footprints. Environmental art intersects with art about climate refugees and migration, as in the work of Cambodian American artist Sopheap Pich (b 1971), whose abstract grids incorporate sustainable materials from areas in Cambodia that have been decimated by illegal logging, causing the displacement of indigenous peoples.

8. Flora and fauna.

Artists have given voice and visibility to non-human species impacted by climate change through their art, addressing loss of species and the impact of habitat degradation on biodiversity. The need to decenter the human and make room for other species to thrive has led artists to counter anthropocentrism in their work. Pierre Huyghe has incorporated live creatures into artworks that are themselves functioning ecosystems. In Untitled (2013), a hermit crab was presented in an oversized aquarium. The hermit crab was living in a shell designed by Huyghe, indicating that the boundaries between nature and culture are evaporating and humans increasingly control nature. Walton Ford (b 1960) has created a corpus of large-scale illustrations that at first glance recall the nature illustrations of James Audubon. On closer look, Ford’s animals are hybrids or interact with each other in ways impossible in the wild.


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