Art, Culture and… Climate Change?

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970, mud, salt crystals and basalt rocks, 4.6 x 460m. Location: Great Salt Lake Utah. Image courtesy of the artist, photographer Hikmet Sidney Loe and Artists of Utah.
Andy Goldsworthy, Woven branch circular arch, 1986. Location: Langholm, Dumfriesshire. Image courtesy of the artist and Andy Goldsworthy Digital Catalogue.
Chris Jordan, E-waste New Orleans, 2005, 111.76 x 144.78cm, from Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption (2003-2005). Image courtesy of the artist.
Chris Jordan, Crushed cars #2 Tacoma, 2004, 111.76 x 157.47cm, from Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption (2003-2005). Image courtesy of the artist.
Chris Jordan, Cell phones Orlando, 2004, 111.76 x 208.28cm, from Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption (2003-2005). Image courtesy of the artist.
Red Rebel Brigade and Jamie Hewlett x Projection Rebellion, Extinction Rebellion’s logo and text projected onto Tate Modern, London, 2019. Image courtesy of Extinction Rebellion.
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ART AND SUSTAINABILITY

The art world is known for promoting liberal values of inclusion and diversity, whilst presenting inspiring creations that will stand the test of time and influence generations to come. Given this, how much longer can the industry ignore the colossal environmental impacts of its travelling exhibitions, fairs and collectors jetting across the globe? Some artists already serve as longstanding environmental activists, seeking to bring about much needed change with their work. The question comes down to whether or not the art world is ready to accept its erroneous ways and implement sustainable alternatives to propel the industry down a brighter, greener path.

TEXT: Carina Fischer
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970, mud, salt crystals and basalt rocks, 4.6 x 460m. Location: Great Salt Lake Utah. Image courtesy of the artist, photographer Hikmet Sidney Loe and Artists of Utah.

 

Many may wonder what relevance climate change carries in the art world, or why the two would be associated at all. Yet, the intricate links between art and the environment have found them intertwined long before art was an established trade. It is only in recent times, however, that this relationship has become more publicly apparent due to the increasing urgency of climate change and the resulting media coverage it has received. The chains of biodiversity within our ecosystems are all delicately linked to one another, and rising temperatures have created a domino effect of rapid destruction. With more extreme weather conditions and shifting rainfall patterns, we are seeing areas with heavy drought and unstoppable fires, while other areas are experiencing with rapid flooding amidst rising sea levels. Many artists have connected the dots on our troublesome habits as well as the resulting impact towards the environment, and are using their voices and platforms to speak out and make a stand.

From a historical sense, the relationship between art and the environment has been documented for centuries. Works highlighting the beauty of the natural environment were plentiful throughout art history, prevalent from the Renaissance through to the Baroque period; at the turn of the 20th century it was inspiration for the Impressionists, and continued to inspire later movements, with the infatuation with art, painting and the environment only continuing to spiral with time. Further developments between art and the environment occurred during the Land art movement, popularised in the 1960s and 70s. Also referred to as Earth art or Earthworks, Land art is created in symbiosis with and out of its environment, forming structures made of natural substances including stones, leaves, branches, and so on. Arguably the most recognisable work from the Land art movement is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), a 1,500-foot-long structure arranged into a coil using 6,650 tons of basalt rocks. This piece was subject to the environment itself, and due to rising water levels, was submerged for 30 years shortly after its creation. As was the norm in Land art, the work was created in a vast, remote body of space in Great Salt Lake, Utah, an area that is not particularly accessible to the average viewer and questioned the notion of art as something created with the intention of being viewed. Additionally, Smithson sought damaged sites to create his works, often resulting in symbolic pieces signifying rejuvenation and the creation of beauty from something derelict or otherwise uninteresting.

 

Andy Goldsworthy, Woven branch circular arch, 1986. Location: Langholm, Dumfriesshire. Image courtesy of the artist and Andy Goldsworthy Digital Catalogue.

 

Another pivotal figure from the Land art movement was Andy Goldsworthy. Using found materials, Goldsworthy creates ephemeral pieces that merge with its surrounding environments and erode over time, withered down by uncontrollable factors like the weather. The process is documented with photographs, depicting the process by which the created structures eventually return back to nature. Similar to Smithson, Goldsworthy’s site-specific works lack accessibility and have limited lifespans, challenging the concept of art as a commodity that ought to be viewed, bought and sold.

The dialogue of art and the environment has shifted from highlighting the beauty in nature to spotlighting the calamitous effects of climate change created at the hands of humankind. The value of Land art in bringing awareness to the importance of environmental preservation is not to be ignored. Yet, while these artworks convey their message from a place of harmony and natural beauty, environmental activism within art has become increasingly dark, showcasing the stark realities of a future destroyed by climate change and the devastating effects that are already underway.

 

Chris Jordan, E-waste New Orleans, 2005, 111.76 x 144.78cm, from Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption (2003-2005). Image courtesy of the artist.
Chris Jordan, Crushed cars #2 Tacoma, 2004, 111.76 x 157.47cm, from Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption (2003-2005). Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Art enables its viewers to create a deeper connection and understanding with the issues at hand through varying visual and integrating mediums. In his series “Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption” (2003–05), photographer Chris Jordan documented eye-opening images of the immense accumulation of various disposed parts, including cell phones, cars, cigarette butts, circuit boards, and many other items. Jordan referred to his discoveries as the evidence of a “slow-motion apocalypse.” We see vast and unsustainable levels of waste, and yet the culprits—ourselves—remain anonymous and unscathed. The crime of wastefulness is too meagre to punish an individual for, yet is devastating when viewed as a collective whole. Jordan hopes for his works to fill his viewers with a sense of responsibility and self-inquiry, stating “It may not be the most comfortable terrain, but I have heard it said that in risking self-awareness, at least we know that we are awake.”

A slightly more abstract yet equally impactful work is Jenny Kendler’s Birds Watching (2018), a 40-foot sculpture modelled out of bird’s eyes. When light is shone on the sculpture, the reflective, glowing eyes of mostly endangered birds stare dauntingly back. Kendler reverses the norm of birdwatching, creating a reminder of the responsibility we have to protect creatures that are unable to communicate with us and can only watch as events unfold.

 

Chris Jordan, Cell phones Orlando, 2004, 111.76 x 208.28cm, from Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption (2003-2005). Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Although the recent surge in environmental art is commendable, simply spreading awareness is no longer enough. The art industry prides itself in the inspiring values it offers to humanity, which appears ironic given the art world’s huge carbon footprint and disregard for the issue of climate change and sustainability from a logistical standpoint. Although there is little information available regarding carbon footprints for galleries, fairs and the like, such events emit vast amounts of carbon emissions. Fritz Dietl of Dietl International, one of the largest specialists in artwork shipping, shared that 1,000 metric tons of CO2 were emitted for the half of the fair grounds that Dietl International was charged with organising at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2019. This does not include the tens of thousands of wealthy collectors that have flown in via hugely polluting private jets, and the hundreds of private cars, taxis and Ubers transporting attendees across the city to events or other happenings. All of this for a brief 5-day stint before the artwork is then shipped back out to new homes across the globe.

With hundreds more similar events that take place across the globe each year, emissions inevitably pile up. How will the art industry work to counteract their contributions to the climate crisis? Green alternatives are certainly needed, but an entire overhaul of the current shipping industry would be an expensive endeavour, and one that the industry can’t afford to make until collectors demand it. Yet, the art world carries so much weight in its means to be a more inclusive and uplifting towards society. With the power to educate, astound and inspire, the influence of the art world is resounding and undisputable, and comes at a time where action is increasingly necessary.

As artists take the lead in opening up space for discourse as they direct the conversation, organisations can further propel the movement through actions and regulations, in turn bringing the conversation to collectors and other parties involved. Extinction Rebellion is the perfect example of an organisation that has cemented their movement and garnered widespread attention from the media through clever visual tactics that speak to their audience, and sleek, impressionable imagery. This environmental activist group recently turned their sights to the art world, targeting Tate Modern and projecting the words ‘Time’s up, act now’ on the exterior walls of the museum while staging an art performance piece. Additionally Dietl International has been fervently encouraging green initiatives, having themselves offset over 644 tonnes of CO2 following the 2019 Art Basel Miami Beach.

 

Red Rebel Brigade and Jamie Hewlett x Projection Rebellion, Extinction Rebellion’s logo and text projected onto Tate Modern, London, 2019. Image courtesy of Extinction Rebellion.

 

While nothing can be done to change the actions of the past, individuals within the art community have begun to take responsibility for their actions, as prominent industry figures and organisations speak up to raise the standards. With such changes underway, it is our hope that art should remain a beacon of inspiration and possibility, as values slowly align with practice to pave a path for a greener and more sustainable future.

 


 

Carina Fischer is a writer, photographer and content creator, curious about pushing the boundaries between art, photography and fashion. She is also passionate about environmental sustainability, ethics and inclusion, which she frequently incorporates into her work. See more of her work at www.carina-fischer.com.

 

 

 
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