Kelly Wacker Reviews ART & ECOLOGY NOW by Andrew Brown

January 1, 2015 0 Comments Book Review 802 Views

Andrew Brown, Art & Ecology Now, Thames & Hudson, 2014. pp. 256. Hardcover. $50.00.

Cover photo.

Cover photo from publisher’s website.

Art & Ecology Now is a timely contribution to the growing list of books on art and the environment.  Presenting the work of over 70 ecologically oriented artists and artist collectives working around the world, Andrew Brown presents an accessible, engaging, and well-illustrated compendium that is useful as an introduction to the topic but will also be of interest to more knowledgeable readers.

The introductory chapter begins with the acknowledgement that the places where contemporary art is experienced – museums, galleries, web, and print media – are presenting ecologically oriented art at a level that suggests that Eco-art is more that just a passing fad in the art world.  Brown provides a fast-paced flyover of the history of western art, from the prehistoric era to the present day, in an attempt to provide historical context for the work presented in the following chapters.  This is especially important for the lay reader who might otherwise wonder where the “art” is in the book given the conceptual nature of much of the work.  Brown focuses on the development of Land Art in the 1960s as having the most significant impact on contemporary developments by shifting art away from representing landscape to working with it, as he notes, “some of the most radical artists of the day saw engagement with the natural world as a defining tenet of their practice.”  Just exactly what engagement with the natural world means has changed significantly since that time.  Typically Land Art works were created in remote places, often in the vast American West, and special knowledge and a willingness to make the journey to experience them was required.

These projects commonly required earthmoving (and earth-destroying) equipment such as the best-known work from this movement, Spiral Jetty (1970), a 15-foot wide, 1,500-foot long rock path that coils into Utah’s Great Salt Lake and was designed by Robert Smithson to erode slowly over millennia on the scale of geologic time.  Similarly, Michael Heizer’s Double Negative(1972), a trench 30 feet wide, 50 feet deep, and 1,500 feet in length was created by removing, or, to use Heizer’s preferred term, “displacing” over 240,000 tons of rock in an environment already violated by decades of conventional and atomic bomb testing.  Heizer’s work was largely conceptual as he was seeking to create a work that was defined by its lack of physical presence – you become aware of it by what is not there.  Brown notes that we can critique this work today for what we see as its lack of ecological ethics, but he rightfully asserts that these artists “were leading the charge of a new avant-garde that would alter radically the way artists viewed and engaged with natural object and processes” and that they developed a consciousness “that art could be placed within the environment and be made from it, but also that the art could change the environment for ever.”  These Land Art artists paved the way for more ecologically oriented artists such as Mierle Ukeles, Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison, Patricia Johanson, and Mel Chin who became noteworthy through the 1980s and 1990s for creating work that reveals connections between people and the environment, and, in some works, such as Johanson’s Dallas Fair Park Lagoon (begun 1981) and Chin’s Revival Field(begun 1990) actually remediate disturbed natural environments.

With few exceptions the work presented in this book has been created since 2000 and it reflects the period of time in which fuller understanding of global climate change and concern about its effects was beginning to emerge from disinformation.  Joel Sterfield’s series of photographs,When It Changed (2006), reflects this transitional time and, as Brown explains, Sterfield attended the 11th United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Montréal questioning whether climate change was real and was shocked to discover that most of the twenty thousand delegates were beyond this false debate and were considering that it was about to become irreversible.  As a result he created a series of photographs of individuals that he presents as representing the moment when the gravity of the situation was most visible on their faces.  The photographs that Brown reproduces in the book are sobering and quietly powerful.

Sternfeld is typical of what we expect from a more traditional form of artistic practice – the artist as an outsider, as an observer commenting on a situation or representing something – a place, person, idea, or concept.  Brown is sensitive to the fact that while artists today may work in this mode, they also more often than not, work with other modalities and the structure of the book is reflective of this and is divided into chapters that follow a trajectory of artists from those who are largely observers to artists who are actively changing dynamic systems.  He admits to trying to create a kind of taxonomy and, given the diversity of styles and varied content presented, this is a logical and effective organizing principle.  Although the chapter titles repeated use of “re/” feels a bit like worn out postmodern wordplay, they do recall the recycling catch phrase “reduce, reuse, recyle” that is, perhaps, at the heart of every environmentalist.

Re/View presents artists that Brown describes as “consciously adopt[ing] the role of witness, observing the processes of nature and the activities of humankind from a position of relative detachment in order to provide testimony or evidence of their effects” and is heavy on documentary photography, such as Benoit Alquin’s series that documents the effects of dust storms that affect 100 million people in China and are caused by unsustainable farming practices.  But, he also includes other types of work such as Rúrí’s installation, Archive – Endangered Waters (2003), that allows viewers to see and hear waterfalls in Iceland that are created by glacial rivers.  Since the work was created nearly half of the waterfalls have ceased due to glaciers shrinking in response to the warming climate.

Re/Form presents artists using nature as the “raw matter from which to make art” and this chapter includes some better known artists such as Chris Drury, but presents work that differs from his signature camera obscura “star chambers.” Instead, Brown focuses on Drury’s Carbon Sink (2011), a spiraling form of partially burned trees killed by pine beetles, that was installed on the campus of the University of Wyoming but removed after local politicians and coal companies objected to the content of the work that made connections between the coal industry, global warming, and the pine beetle infestation currently devastating millions of acres of western forests.

Re/Search includes artists who go beyond just using nature as raw material.  As Brown notes, these artists “want to get beneath the surface of things and explore the inner workings of the natural world to learn how it functions and how we interact with it.”  Not surprisingly, this chapter includes artists who function like biologists, such as Brian Collier who conducted field studies and documented the ecology of green spaces along a his daily commute, a 50-mile stretch of Interstate 74 in Illinois, and artists who are also biologists, such as Brandon Ballengée, whose installation sculpture Collapse (2012), visually represents the collapse of the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and includes a 435-page Appendix that provides his scientific research and data used to create the sculpture.

Re/Use has a double mission, to present artists who reflect on the use and reuse of natural resources while also examining “the process by which we ascribe cultural or financial value to the natural world.”  Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s Land Mark (Foot Prints) (2001-2) is a good example of the kind of work that reflects the intersections of the natural, social, political, and economic worlds and it figuratively and quite literally, crosses boundaries.  This project included sculpture, photography, video, and public interactions.  The artists worked with civil-disobedience groups protesting the U.S. Navy’s use of the island of Vieques, a small Puerto Rican island, for naval exercises including bombing and biological and chemical weapons testing.  Allora and Calzadilla created rubber soled shoes used by the protestors who illegally occupied the island to disrupt testing exercises.  The shoes left imprints with image and messages that allowed them to communicate with the Navy but also, as Brown notes, to lay down their “landmark” on an island from which they had been forcibly removed.

Re/Create showcases artists who truly represent a new breed of artists who work within human and natural systems seeking to affect positive change. The artists in this chapter aim to remediate environmental problems and Brown describes them as “radical in intent and iconoclastic in method, they seek to challenge the status quo and disrupt conventional habits” (182) and projects such as the ones presented in this chapter go well beyond the traditional borders of art.  It is a heady and exciting mix including a project by Amy Franceshini’s collective, Futurefarmers, that seeks to produce energy from algae; multiple artists and collectives working on gardening-based projects, including Nils Norman’s playful rolling bio-deisel library, plant nursery, and education center contained within a converted bus; Natalie Jeremijenko’s delicateButterfly Bridge (2010), a butterfly crossing for a busy street; and the Superflex collectiveSupergas/The Land (2002) project to retro-engineer a Danish modern lamp to run on biogas produced from the dung of cows living on small subsistence farms.

Re/Act, the short final chapter presents artists Brown defines as “more like eco-activists operating within an art context and using creative means to achieve their environmental goals.”  The artists and collectives in this chapter share many qualities with those in the previous one, in fact, the FreeSoil collective is also one of Amy Franceshini’s projects, and the two perhaps could have been combined into a single chapter.  Notable artists and projects in this section include Eve Mosher’s HighWaterLine (2007), a project that marked the streets and pavement of Manhattan and Brooklyn with lines representing ten feet above sea level, the projected level of sea rise due to global warming, and Dirk Fleishmann’s myforestfarm (2008) a project in which he set up a micro-business, an organic carbon-neutral carbon offset reforestation program in the Philippines that aims to be sustainable in ten years.

Although Brown does not refer to it directly, many of the artists presented in this book, especially in the last two chapters, represent a trend in contemporary art that Nicolas Borriaud defined in 2002 as relational aesthetics, or works of art that go beyond the visual that are produced by artists, functioning as catalysts for change, working within communities.  In regards to Eco-Art, it is an artistic practice made possible by Land Art, but a far cry from the massive earthworks located in remote landscapes.  Writing about this type of art, especially on a global scale, is a challenge because there is no real movement or truly unifying style to define and analyze.   Given the plurality of contemporary art, in general, it is no wonder that compendium books like Phaidon’s popular New Perspectives series of art books, Vitamin P, Vitamin D, andVitamin Ph (for painting, drawing, and photography, respectively) have set a kind of standard that Art & Ecology Now reflects.

Content aside, the book itself is well designed for readability and it includes good quality full-color images in multiple scales and is appropriately printed on Forest Sustainability Certified (FSC) paper and bound in recycled paperboard.  The artists, books, articles, websites, and other sources listed under Further Reading is an excellent resource for readers whose interest has been piqued and are seeking to delve deeper into a given topic.

Brown does not provide a conclusion however, in the final sentence of his discussion of Tue Greenfort, the last artist presented in the book, he states that “through their actions artists can change the world step by step, little by little – just like any one of us,” and this seems a fitting and inspiring conclusion to this worthwhile book.

About the Author

Andrew Brown is a writer, editor, and publisher of art books in London and the former acting director of visual arts strategy at the Arts Council England.

About the Reviewer

Kelly Wacker is an art historian who studies Land Art, Eco-Art, and the intersections of art, art history, and natural history.  She also curates exhibitions, most recently,  The New Naturalists: Contemporary Artists in the Realm of Natural History and is currently working on a collaborative project, The Fox and Coyote Journals.  A member of the faculty at the University of Montevallo since 2002, she teaches courses on modern art, contemporary art, and environmental studies.

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