The relevance of sustainability for contemporary art can be approached from two distinct angles. On the one hand, we may consider the role of art in highlighting environmental issues, expressing criticism towards unsustainable factors in society, and offering imaginative ideas for how to achieve sustainability. The other approach is to turn eco-criticism back towards the art world itself, to examine the environmental impact of the production of art works, the functioning of art institutions, or, for example, the phenomenon of international art biennials that have mushroomed around the world in recent decades.
In addition to traditional media of painting and sculpture, contemporary artists as part of their artistic practice make use of a wide range of new technologies such as videos, films and internet, or choose to combine them in complex installations in order to best convey ideas about the issues they are addressing. Furthermore, some artists opt for non-object based practices such as performances, ephemeral actions and interventions in public space, which despite their minimal form may have strong resonances among the art public. The issue of sustainability in contemporary art, which is founded on the propositions of freedom of subject matter as well as freedom of artistic form, implies the opportunity for artists to question the role of art in society and express environmental concern in their works, while at the same time it makes them aware of ecological, social and ethical dimensions of their practice.
Painting beautiful landscapes and depicting the wonders of the natural world has always been a favoured subject for artists, while art was traditionally praised for its power to mirror nature. Artistic engagement with environmental issues is however a relatively recent phenomenon, although notably it was the Fontainebleau School of painters centred around the artist Theodor Rousseau who in 1848 initiated one of the first environmental campaigns in France. They started a petition for the legal protection of the Fontainebleau Forest near Paris, which was threatened by urbanisation and industrial development.
During the course of the twentieth century, modernist art was oriented towards extracting natural features from their context and dwelling on their formal properties, such as colour, shape and rhythm, with the radical separation of the artwork from everyday life. Artistic practice here corresponds to industrial society’s experience of nature in terms of alienation, separation and distance. In parallel with the development of modern ecology in the 1960s and 70s, art also underwent transformations, from the modernist ideal of abstract art envisaged for the purified atmosphere of a white cube gallery to a new questioning of the role of art and its position in society. As a consequence, artists began to look outwards to the public sphere, experiment with art designed for natural settings, consider the political implications of art, and in some cases also respond through their work to the endangered state of the natural environment.
Land Art and Conceptual Art
Among the new art movements that emerged in the 1960s, Land Art and Conceptual Art both have a strong relevance to sustainability and have been influential for recent contemporary approaches to ecology in art. Land Art was instrumental in bringing art out of the gallery and placing it in a natural setting, with pioneers such as American artist Robert Smithson choosing deserts and other remote locations for their large scale interventions in the natural environment. However, those artists typically saw the landscape as a huge canvas, on which they used ‘a bulldozer instead of a paintbrush’ to create Earth Works that regularly showed no concern for the environmental impact on the chosen location. For example, to create his famous Spiral Jetty in 1970, Smithson employed two trucks, a tractor, and a large bulldozer to shift 6,783 tonnes of earth to create a spiral shape in the Great Salt Lake. The little concern he showed for ecology in his work even led to environmental protests, which successfully prevented him from carrying out another of his earth works, by blocking the border crossing of trucks carrying broken glass destined for a remote Canadian island.
Moving beyond the confines of the gallery setting did not of course always mean heading out into nature, and many influential art works from the period engaged with the urban environment. One such public art project with a strong ecological dimension was Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape, which took place in the heart of New York and was conceived as a living monument to the forest that once covered Manhattan Island. After extensive research into the native plants, geology and history of the area, Sonfist created a small park with native trees, shrubs, wild grasses and flowers to represent the Manhattan landscape as was enjoyed by Native Americans before the arrival of European settlers. From this it is clear that when considering issues of sustainability in art, it is not so much a matter of the creation of artworks outdoors, which was the main preoccupation of Land Art, but art’s ability to express powerful ideas about, for example, the loss of biodiversity through urbanisation.
Emerging in the same period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Conceptual Art abandoned art objects and sought dematerialised ways to express artistic ideas. Conceptual artists often used a text or an ephemeral action that very often left no trace in the world except for its documentation, but nevertheless had the potential to make a strong artistic impression. Many of today’s practising artists recycle the strategies of the early conceptual artists to stress the centrality of the concept or idea that their project aims to transmit. They often conduct in depth artistic research into a certain subject or issue, and in that way gather alternative knowledge which distinguishes itself from the knowledge that field experts or scientists offer. In terms of sustainability, the following artistic projects illustrate the potential of contemporary art to generate innovative perspectives on environmental questions.
Ursula Biemann: The Black Sea Files
Swiss artist Ursula Biemann’s ten-part video work, the Black Sea Files, tells the story of the giant pipeline that connects the oilfields of Azerbaijan to the global oil market, passing through the mountainous Caucuses before ending up at a Turkish seaport. Based on in depth artistic research into the politics of the oil industry in the region and combining information gathered using the methods of anthropologists, embedded journalists and even secret intelligence agents, the work gives voice to the ordinary people whose lives have been transformed by the construction of the pipeline in 2005. Through interviews with the Azeri and Georgian farmers who live along its route, the artist reflects on the urban and rural transformations brought by the oil industry to the region and the connection between local development and trends in the global economy.
Helen and Newton Meyer Harrison: Endangered Meadows
Among the first artists to directly tackle environmental issues in their work, over a long artistic career American artists Helen and Newton Meyer Harrison have kept their promise ‘only to do work that benefits the ecosystem.’ Their project Endangered Meadows involved transplanting a 400 year old meadow, which was due to be destroyed through urban development, to the roof garden of an art museum in Bonn, Germany. The exhibition lasted for two years from June 1996, after which their meadow was transplanted to the Great Rhine Park of Bonn, with seeds from the ‘Mother Meadow’ used to generate other bio-diverse green areas throughout the city’s parks, adding a further dimension of self-sustainability to the work. Europe’s traditional meadows are for the artists an example of sustainable collaboration between humans and the rest of the ecosystem, while their work draws attention to the threat posed to them by over-grazing and mechanized agriculture. By taking the example of an ordinary meadow, rather than choosing a protected site of natural beauty, the Harrisons draw attention to the fact that we are allowing these equally amazing and biologically-diverse environments to quietly disappear from our everyday lives.
Krisztina Leko: Cream and Cheese
Croatian artist Kristina Leko has explored the issue of the survival of traditional methods of making and selling cheese and cream in a wide-ranging and influential community art project. The focus of her work is on the traditional occupation of the milkmaid, who sells her own homemade cheese and cream at the market, seen as the meeting point of rural and urban culture. Her artistic research involved interviewing more than 500 milkmaids, filming and photographing them, and collecting their stories, recipes and opinions, which are documented on the sirivrhnje.org website. Along with an exhibition, the project also developed into a campaign to protect cheese and cream as an ‘indigenous product and custom’ from new regulations and competition from multi-nationals. Thanks to her artistic project, the issue of the future of Croatia’s traditional ‘cheese and cream’ become a touchstone of the debate over globalisation and the costs and benefits of European integration in the country.
Janek Simon: Make Your Own Digital Watch
While the preceding works had wider social implications, the work of Polish artist Janek Simon is concerned more with individual well being. His work has a strong DIY ethic that empowers us to understand and take personal responsibility for the technological world that surrounds our everyday lives. His artistic practice is often based on internet research into, for example, how to build a digital watch, bringing a skill that is usually confined to industrial machines back into the sphere of individual human activity. Making an implicit statement about the need for diversity, he also once took apart a Volkswagen camper van and completely rebuilt it using parts of different colours. Another of his works that points to the loss of the ability to make our own things and dependence on buying finished products is a series of homemade toys made from cheap and recycled everyday materials. The designs for these remade toys were based on the DIY toys of the artist’s childhood in socialist Poland during the 1980s.
Tomas Saraceno: Airport City
Also dealing with the possibilities of technology, but from a more high tech and futuristic perspective, Argentinean artist Tomas Saraceno is fascinated with the possibility of human life in the skies. His work Airport City is a vision of an airborne platform made up of floating cells that would be environmentally friendly, solar powered, and designed to improve our quality of life. His utopian floating world would ignore international boundaries and be equipped with flying gardens, and make use of cutting edge technologies such as ‘Aerogel’, an ultra light gas used in spacecraft to enable them to fly on solar energy. Straddling the boundary between the real and the imaginary, his work pushes the limits of utopian architecture and scientific experimentation for the solution of human problems.
As can be seen from the preceding examples, contemporary artists approach issues of sustainability in a variety of ways. Art projects may act as a source of information about environmental problems and initiate the search for enduring solutions, while in other cases the autonomous position of art enables artists to criticise government policies and the behaviour of big business. Artists are often finely tuned to the problem of ‘green wash’ and show awareness of the danger that environmentalism can become a new form of consumerism, criticising the persistence of a growth model in the economy and society. The imaginative solutions proposed by artists often involve creating one’s own means to achieve goals and inventing what is needed rather than depending on readymade products. Furthermore, artist projects sometimes face forwards, looking in innovative ways at the future forms of the lived environment, or alternatively gaze back into the past to uncover old knowledge and traditional skills that are relevant to achieving sustainable lifestyles.
Sustainability of the art world
The topic of sustainability and contemporary art can also be approached from the alternative perspective of considering the impact of artworks on the environment, rather than simply asking whether or not they carry an ecological message. What is decisive in considering an artwork’s relation to sustainability turns out not to be its content in terms of ideas, but rather its form, or physical presence in the world.
In order to consider the environmental impact of an artwork, a logical first step would be to establish criteria to measure it. Environmental science provides a number of tools and techniques with relevance to the contemporary artwork, from the ecological footprint to life-cycle analysis, measures that are designed to indicate the sustainability of an action, object, community, or state. In common with other public projects, the construction of new art museums, artistic interventions in the urban or rural environment and even the organisation of art fairs and biennials, are also subject to regular environmental impact assessment by government agencies.
The starting point of any attempt to calculate, for example, the environmental impact of a major artwork such as a museum installation, is to consider the ecological footprint of the materials in its production. Art institutions could if they wished carry out a life cycle analysis of all the elements that make up the artwork, including the impact of its production, transport, installation and disposal after the exhibition closes. Additional factors to be considered include energy use through lighting, heating or cooling, or other mechanical elements of the work, with calculations based on the length of the exhibition and the daily consumption of power. The net could even be widened to include for example the carbon footprint of any travel by the artist or curator in the months leading up to the exhibition, or the environmental impact of the catalogue, publicity materials, or even branded merchandise created for the museum shop. It is though not always a simple matter to decide where the ecological footprint of the individual artwork stops and that of the art institution begins, or where to draw the line in the inclusion of ever more extended environmental impacts that can be ultimately traced back to a particular artwork.
Further complications in calculating the environmental impact of artworks follow from the specific characteristics of contemporary art that make it different from other products and human activities. While traditionally we are used to perceiving an artwork through certain numbers, such as its dimensions, date of production or monetary value, there would surely be resistance to any attempt to add an extra numerical tag to express its environmental impact. Contemporary art is in any case frequently hard to measure, as even an artwork’s size can be fluid, with ‘dimensions variable’ a standard description on exhibition labels. Contemporary art is a slippery territory, with artists constantly finding ways to outwit attempts to categorise or pin down their work, so that any attempt to measure an artwork’s social or ecological impact is likely to be seen as endangering the precious autonomy of art.
It may in practice be more useful to focus on the ecological footprint of art institutions than of individual artworks. Artists themselves have taken the lead in drawing attention to the negative environmental impact that museums can have and the large amount of energy they consume in order to maintain perfect conditions for the viewing and preservation of precious artworks. Danish artist Tue Greenfort’s project for the 2007 Sharjah Biennial, for example, involved the host museum agreeing to turn down the air-conditioning in the building by 2 degrees for the duration of the show, making a point about both the ecological footprint of art institutions and the wider need to reduce carbon emissions to reverse global warming. In addition to their direct environmental impact, more philosophical questions can also be raised about the problem of the stockpiling of artworks for eternity in ever-growing museum collections.
Considering the sustainability of an artwork may also mean looking at the social and ethical dimensions of art projects, rather than just their narrow environmental impact. This is especially the case with public art projects in which the artist works with a specific community where care needs to be taken over issues of, for example, collective authorship and respect for privacy, as well as more general questions about how human subjects are used in an artwork. The issue of the treatment of animals may also be of relevance in particular cases, with an expanded notion of ecological citizenship also inferring respect for the rights of other species.
The ecological dimension of the artwork was until recently rarely considered by mainstream artists or museums, although today the issue of the environmental impact of artworks and the art institutions that house them is increasingly hard to ignore. Where artists deal in their work with issues of sustainability, they are often implicitly or explicitly critical of our collective addiction to the idea of inexorable growth. Artistic engagement with sustainability on the one hand reaffirms the observation that ecology is a subversive science because it has implications for all aspects of human activity. On the other, the deep ecology credo of ‘making do with enough’ turns out to be useful advice for discovering sustainable forms of artistic practice.
Maja and Reuben Fowkes
Ursula Biemann, Black Sea Files, video 2005
Dolac Market, stills, Cheese and Cream 2002/03
Janek Simon, Home Made Electronic Watch, 2005