Environmental art is a range of artistic practices encompassing both historical approaches to nature in art and more recent ecological and politically motivated types of works. Environmental art has evolved away from formal concerns, worked out with earth as a sculptural material, towards a deeper relationship to systems, processes and phenomena in relationship to social concerns. Integrated social and ecological approaches developed as an ethical, restorative stance emerged in the 1990s. Over the past ten years environmental art has become a focal point of exhibitions around the world as the social and cultural aspects of climate change come to the forefront.
In a growing world, the number of artists who create, focusing on systems and interactions within our environment, are ecological, geographic, political, cultural and biological. Many of the works in this art are composed of two-dimensional and three-dimensional elements, in which visual and vocal effects may be integrated into which to show how humanity should be anchored and connected to the natural world socially, philosophically, economically and spiritually.
The term “environmental art” often encompasses “ecological” concerns but is not specific to them. It primarily celebrates an artist’s connection with nature using natural materials. The concept is best understood in relationship to historic earth/Land art and the evolving field of ecological art. The field is interdisciplinary in the fact that environmental artists embrace ideas from science and philosophy. The practice encompasses traditional media, new media and critical social forms of production. The work embraces a full range of landscape/environmental conditions from the rural, to the suburban and urban as well as urban/rural industrial.
Most of the artists present the detachment of humanity from the environment and try to correct it through four main motives leading to change:
Raising awareness of the fragility of nature and the need to protect it.
Explore various natural phenomena to follow changes and express them in art.
Collect materials from nature from different parts of the world and distribute them.
To prevent deterioration of the environmental situation on the ground in restoring the damaged landscape and returning to its natural state.
It can be argued that environmental art began with the Paleolithic cave paintings of our ancestors. While no landscapes have (yet) been found, the cave paintings represented other aspects of nature important to early humans such as animals and human figures. “They are prehistoric observations of nature. In one-way or another, nature for centuries remained the preferential theme of creative art.” More modern examples of environmental art stem from landscape painting and representation. When artists painted onsite they developed a deep connection with the surrounding environment and its weather and brought these close observations into their canvases. John Constable’s sky paintings “most closely represent the sky in nature”. Monet’s London Series also exemplifies the artist’s connection with the environment. “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life, the air and the light, which vary continually for me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere that gives subjects their true value.”
The foundations of environmental art began with the Romantic Art movement (1800-1850). In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, this movement was called the “Neo-Romantic” movement. The main works of art included worshiping the beauty of nature, including images of destruction and pollution in order to emphasize injustice and environmental inequality.
The Romantics worshiped the greatness and beauty of nature and believed that humanity should be attached to it and not detached from it. The artists sought to awaken mankind to return to nature and focused mainly on painting, music and sculpture in order to expose the injustice of human detachment from nature in order to shock and awaken humanity to action.
With the birth of minimalist art, especially in the United States, many artists felt that the boundaries of the gallery or museum display no longer met their demands. The minimalist sculpture dealt with the limits of the display by installations and other artistic activities, and out of the boundaries of institutional space was an obvious move for many of them. Toward the end of the 1960s, a trend of documentation and aesthetic and critical thinking about the art of the land began.
The growth of the environmental art movement began mainly from 1900 with the new trend called “Land Art”. This artistic movement developed in America in 1960, when a number of sculptures and painters such as Robert Smithson (1973-1938) with his famous work Whirlpool Pier (1970) caused irreversible and significant damage to the landscape in which he worked. The work was built of basalt and earth and Smithson, who used a bulldozer to scratch and cut the landscape, directly affected the lake.
In 1912 Boccioni already theorized in his Technical Manifesto of Futurist sculpture that there could be no renewal except through the sculpture of the environment, capable of modeling the atmosphere that surrounds it.
Other precedents of the Environmental Art are traceable in the historical avant-gardes: the environment of the Proun of constructivist El Lissitskij is an exhibition space created for the great exhibition of Berlin in 1923 in which architectural elements, painters and models are inextricably linked; while the Merzbau of the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters is a progressive accumulation of everyday objects made in the artist’s studio in Hannover for ten years, during which he becomes an organic testimony of the artist’s life.
The involvement of the real space began to be a significant aspect of the works of art from the late ’50s, and then continue to affect the main artistic currents (Neo-Dadaism, Programmed Art, Minimalism, Processual Art, Arte Povera, Conceptual Art) for all the ’60s, up to the beginning of the’ 70s. Initially the Environmental Art was much more related to sculpture, (in particular as Site-Specific Art, Land Art and Arte Povera -) considering the growing criticism of traditional sculpture and practices that were seen as increasingly obsolete and potentially in disharmony with the natural environment.
Contemporary painters, such as Diane Burko represent natural phenomena—and its change over time—to convey ecological issues, drawing attention to climate change. Alexis Rockman’s landscapes depict a sardonic view of climate change and humankind’s interventions with other species by way of genetic engineering.
Hal Foster, contemporary US art critic, defines the works of environmental art as “site-specific sculptures that use material taken from the environment in order to create new forms or to redirect our perceptions of the context; programs that import new, unnatural objects into a natural scenario for similar purposes; individual activities on the landscape in which the time factor plays a decisive role; collaborative and socially aware interventions “. This quotation shows how the term “environmental art” refers to artistic processes and results that are very different from one another, but at the basis of which there is the overcoming of the conception of autonomy of the work of art with respect to the context in which it is placed.
Despite the initial desire of environmental art to combat the “art system”, by eliminating the artistic object itself and, more generally, the commodification of the work of art, it became essential to exhibit the works in the galleries and museums for the recognition of their status as works of art and to be able to collect the financial capital necessary for their realization. This need led many artists to conceive the work for the purposes of its photographic and filmic reproduction, as in the cases of Richard Long and Robert Smithson, which now have both a documentary value and a market value.
The growth of environmental art as a “movement” began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In its early phases it was most associated with sculpture—especially Site-specific art, Land art and Arte povera—having arisen out of mounting criticism of traditional sculptural forms and practices that were increasingly seen as outmoded and potentially out of harmony with the natural environment.
In October 1968, Robert Smithson organized an exhibition at Dwan Gallery in New York titled “Earthworks.” The works in the show posed an explicit challenge to conventional notions of exhibition and sales, in that they were either too large or too unwieldy to be collected; most were represented only by photographs, further emphasizing their resistance to acquisition. For these artists escaping the confines of the gallery and modernist theory was achieved by leaving the cities and going out into the desert.
”They were not depiciting the landscape, but engaging it; their art was not simply of the landscape, but in it as well.” This shift in the late 1960s and 1970s represents an avant garde notion of sculpture, the landscape and our relationship with it. The work challenged the conventional means to create sculpture, but also defied more elite modes of art dissemination and exhibition, such as the Dawn Gallery show mentioned earlier. This shift opened up a new space and in doing so expanded the ways in which work was documented and conceptualized.
In Europe, artists such as Nils Udo, Jean-Max Albert, Piotr Kowalski, among others, had been creating environmental art since the 1960s.
“No one knows exactly when the ghost ships began appearing near the mouth of the creek, but local residents remember playing on them in the 1950’s when they were still floating. Some of them are said to be old whaling ships whose owners did not want to pay to have them properly disposed of. They would haul them to the Creek and burn them down to the waterline. The Army Corps of Engineers has identified abandoned ships in other parts of the city, but not here. The creek sludge is so toxic that disturbing the wrecks would release a torrent of dangerous chemicals into the water and air.” – Elizabeth Albert, wall text from the exhibition, “Silent Beaches, Untold Stories, New York City’s Forgotten Waterfront”
In 1978 Barry Thomas and friends illegally occupied a vacant CBD lot in Wellington New Zealand. He dumped a truck load of topsoil then planted 180 cabbage seedlings in the shape of the word “Cabbage” for his ‘vacant lot of cabbages. The site was then inundated with contributing artists’ work – the whole event lasted 6 months and ended with a week long festival celebrating native trees and forests. In 2012, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa—the country’s largest cultural institution—purchased all of the cabbage patch archives citing it as ‘an important part of our artistic and social history’.
While this earlier work was mostly done in the deserts of the American west, the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s saw works moving into the public landscape. Artists like Robert Morris began engaging county departments and public arts commissions to create works in public spaces such as an abandoned gravel pit. Herbert Bayer used a similar approach and was selected to create his Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks in 1982. The project served functions such as erosion control, a place to serve as a reservoir during high rain periods, and a 2.5 acre park during dry seasons. Lucy Lippard’s groundbreaking book, on the parallel between contemporary land art and prehistoric sites, examined the ways in which these prehistoric cultures, forms and images have “overlaid” onto the work of contemporary artists working with the land and natural systems.
The expanding term of environmental art also encompasses the scope of the urban landscape. Agnes Denes created a work in downtown Manhattan Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982) in which she planted a field of wheat on the two-acre site of a landfill covered with urban detritus and rubble. The site is now Battery Park City and the World Financial Center: morphing from ecologic power to economic power.
Electric art: In 1999, the bulgarian artist Elena Paroucheva cread a new concept for the electricity pylons ot power lines.
Alan Sonfist introduced the key environmentalist idea of bringing nature back into the urban environment with his first historical Time Landscape sculpture, proposed to New York City in 1965, and visible to this day at the corner of Houston and LaGuardia in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Today Sonfist is joining forces with the broad enthusiasm for environmental and green issues among public authorities and private citizens to propose a network of such sites across the metropolitan area, which will raise consciousness of the key role that nature will play in the challenges of the 21st century. The sacredness of nature and the natural environment is often evident in the work of Environmental Artists.
Just as the earthworks in the deserts of the west grew out of notions of landscape painting, the growth of public art stimulated artists to engage the urban landscape as another environment and also as a platform to engage ideas and concepts about the environment to a larger audience. “Many environmental artists now desire not merely an audience for their work but a public, with whom they can correspond about the meaning and purpose of their art.” Andrea Polli’s installation Particle Falls made particulate matter in the air visible in a way that passersby could see. For HighWaterLine Eve Mosher and others walked through neighborhoods in at-risk cities such as New York City and Miami, marking the projected flood damage which could occur as a result of climate change and talking with residents about what they were doing.
Superstorm Sandy initiated numerous artists responses to New York City’s forgotten waterfront and historical waterways. The exhibition, Silent Beaches, Untold Stories: New York City’s Forgotten Waterfront, curated by St. John’s University professor, Elizabeth Alpert, presented a range of artists approaches to the urban environment and complex ecological systems of New York City.
Ecological art a.k.a. EcoArt is an artistic practice or discipline proposing paradigms sustainable with the life forms and resources of our planet. It is composed of artists, scientists, philosophers and activists who are devoted to the practices of ecological art. Historical precedents include Earthworks, Land Art, and landscape painting/photography. EcoArt is distinguished by a focus on systems and interrelationships within our environment: the ecological, geographic, political, biological and cultural. Ecoart creates awareness, stimulates dialogue, changes human behavior towards other species, and encourages the long-term respect for the natural systems we coexist with. It manifests as socially engaged, activist, community-based restorative or interventionist art. Ecological artist, Aviva Rahmani believes that “Ecological Art is an art practice, often in collaboration with scientists, city planners, architects and others, that results in direct intervention in environmental degradation. Often, the artist is the lead agent in that practice.” There are numerous approaches to EcoArt including but not limited to:
Representational Artworks – revealing information and conditions primarily through image-making and object-making with the intention of stimulating dialogue.
Remediation Projects that reclaim or restore polluted and disrupted environments – these artists often work with environmental scientists, landscape architects and urban planners
Activist Projects that engage, inform, energize and activate change of behaviors and/or public policy.
Social Sculptures – socially engaged, time-based artwork that involves communities in monitoring their landscapes and taking a participatory role in sustainable practices and lifestyles.
EcoPoetic approaches that initiate a re-envisioning and re-enchantment with the natural world, inspiring healing and co-existence with other species.
Direct Encounters – artworks that bring into play natural phenomena such as water, weather, sunlight, plants, etc.
Didactic or Pedagogical Works that share information about environmental injustice and ecological problems such as water and soil pollution and health hazards.
Lived-and-relational Aesthetics involving sustainable, off-the-grid, permaculture existences.
EcoArt definition: There is discussion and debate among Ecological Artists, if Ecological Art or EcoArt, should be considered a discrete discipline within the Arts, distinct from Environmental Art. A current definition of Ecological Art, drafted collectively by the EcoArtNetwork is “Ecological Art is an art practice that embraces an ethic of social justice in both its content and form/materials. EcoArt is created to inspire caring and respect, stimulate dialogue, and encourage the long-term flourishing of the social and natural environments in which we live. It commonly manifests as socially engaged, activist, community-based restorative or interventionist art. “Artists considered to be working within this field subscribe generally to one or more of the following principles:
Focus on the web of interrelationships in our environment—on the physical, biological, cultural, political, and historical aspects of ecological systems.
Create works that employ natural materials or engage with environmental forces such as wind, water, or sunlight.
Reclaim, restore, and remediate damaged environments.
Inform the public about ecological dynamics and the environmental problems we face.
Revise ecological relationships, creatively proposing new possibilities for coexistence, sustainability, and healing.
Within environmental art, a crucial distinction can be made between environmental artists who do not consider the possible damage to the environment that their artwork may incur, and those whose intent is to cause no harm to nature. For example, despite its aesthetic merits, the American artist Robert Smithson’s celebrated sculpture Spiral Jetty (1969) inflicted permanent damage upon the landscape he worked with, using a bulldozer to scrape and cut the land, with the spiral itself impinging upon the lake. Similarly, criticism was raised against the European sculptor Christo when he temporarily wrapped the coastline at Little Bay, south of Sydney, Australia, in 1969. Conservationists’ comments attracted international attention in environmental circles and led contemporary artists in the region to rethink the inclinations of land art and site-specific art.
Sustainable art is produced with consideration for the wider impact of the work and its reception in relationship to its environments (social, economic, biophysical, historical, and cultural). Some artists choose to minimize their potential impact, while other works involve restoring the immediate landscape to a natural state.
British sculptor Richard Long has for several decades made temporary outdoor sculptural work by rearranging natural materials found on site, such as rocks, mud and branches, which will therefore have no lingering detrimental effect. Chris Drury instituted a work entitled “Medicine Wheel” which was the fruit and result of a daily meditative walk, once a day, for a calendar year. The deliverable of this work was a mandala of mosaicked found objects: nature art as process art. Crop artist Stan Herd shows similar connection with and respect for the land.
Leading environmental artists such as the Dutch sculptor Herman de Vries, the Australian sculptor John Davis and the British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy similarly leave the landscape they have worked with unharmed; in some cases they have revegetated damaged land with appropriate indigenous flora in the process of making their work. In this way the work of art arises out of a sensitivity towards habitat. Perhaps the most celebrated instance of environmental art in the late 20th century was 7000 Oaks, an ecological action staged at Documenta during 1982 by Joseph Beuys, in which the artist and his assistants highlighted the condition of the local environment by planting 7000 oak trees throughout and around the city of Kassel.
Other artists, like eco-feminist artist Aviva Rahmani reflect on our human engagement with the natural world, and create ecologically informed artworks that focus on transformation or reclamation. In the last two decades significant environmentally concerned work has been made by Rosalie Gascoigne, who fashioned her serene sculptures from rubbish and junk she found discarded in rural areas. Similarly, Marina DeBris uses trash from the beach to create trashion, educating people about beach and ocean trash. Patrice Stellest created big installations with junk, but also incorporated pertinent items collected around the world and solar energy mechanisms. John Wolseley hikes through remote regions, gathering visual and scientific data, then incorporates visual and other information into complex wall-scale works on paper. Environmental art or Green art by Washington, DC based glass sculptors Erwin Timmers and Alison Sigethy incorporates some of the least recycled building materials; structural glass. EcoArt writer and theoretician Linda Weintraub coined the term, “cycle-logical” to describe the correlation between recycling and psychology. The 21st century notion of artists’ mindful engagement with their materials harkens back to paleolithic midden piles of discarded pottery and metals from ancient civilizations. Weintraub cites the work of MacArthur Fellow Sarah Sze who recycles, reuses, and refurbishes detritus from the waste stream into elegant sprawling installations. Her self-reflective work draws our attention to our own cluttered lives and connection to consumer culture. Brigitte Hitschler’s Energy field drew power for 400 red diodes from the to-be-reclaimed potash slag heap upon which they were installed, using art and science to reveal hidden material culture. Ecological artist and activist, Beverly Naidus, creates installations that address environmental crises, nuclear legacy issues, and creates works on paper that envision transformation. Her community-based permaculture project, Eden Reframed remediates degraded soil using phytoremediation and mushrooms resulting in a public place to grow and harvest medicinal plants and edible plants. Naidus is an educator having taught at the University of Washington, Tacoma for over ten years, where she created the Interdisciplinary Studio Arts in Community curriculum merging art with ecology and socially engaged practices. Naidus’s book, Arts for Change: Teaching Outside the Frame is a resource for teachers, activists and artists. Sculptor and installation artist Erika Wanenmacher was inspired by Tony Price in her development of works addressing creativity, mythology, and New Mexico’s nuclear presence. Various artists, including Daniele Del Nero, have worked in different ways using living mold as an artistic element.
Renewable energy sculpture is another recent development in environmental art. In response to the growing concern about global climate change, artists are designing explicit interventions at a functional level, merging aesthetical responses with the functional properties of energy generation or saving. Andrea Polli’s Queensbridge Wind Power Project is an example of experimental architecture, incorporating wind turbines into a bridge’s structure to recreate aspects of the original design as well as lighting the bridge and neighbouring areas. Ralf Sander’s public sculpture, the World Saving Machine, used solar energy to create snow and ice outside the Seoul Museum of Art in the hot Korean summer. Practitioners of this emerging area often work according to ecologically informed ethical and practical codes that conform to Ecodesign criteria.