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Evaluating Installation Art, Should Environmental Cost be Considered?

Commenter and young artist Warren Thomas King posted this comment on our Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds Prove Hazardous article earlier this week:

Installation artists = BP.

They don’t care about the human cost or environmental impact of their work. A few benevolent souls like Futurefarmers and Mel Chin have a lower impact, but there seem to be many more Matthew Barneys who pump 10 tons of petroleum jelly into the museum.

The comment provokes an issue rarely discussed within the art world, even given the burgeoning environmentalist movement that many artists consider themselves part of. What is the human cost or environmental impact of a work of art? What’s the carbon footprint of manufacturing a fiberglass Jeff Koons versus the making of an Andy Goldsworthy? As opposed to, say, water bottles, the cost of making a work of art rarely factors into how the work is analyzed. It is not for art critics to ask how many trucks were used to make Spiral Jetty. But why not?

Christ and Jeanne Claude's “Over the River” project (image from christojeanneclaude.net)

The kind of massive installation projects that often draw the most eyes and media attention today are the biggest, the most expensive, and the most extreme. An installation’s complexity often contributes to its final cost, but it’s the same complexity that makes the work profitable in terms of publicity and influence, if not artistic quality. If we chart out the two sides of this installation artist versus environmental cost conflict, a lot of the biggest names seem to focus on the art over its impact.

Christo and Jeanne Claude’s “Over the River” project, proposed for the Arkansas River in Colorado, is hotly debated for the problems it will cause for the local biosphere. From overuse of a small highway to worries about the project’s influence on life in the river itself, “Over the River” is far from environmentally friendly. And yet the duo’s work is in some ways about the same environment it towers over, provoking greater awareness of shifting light, shifting weather and seasons.

“Seven public hearings, ten permit applications, [and] $400,000 in environmental tests” were necessary to prepare for Christo and Jeanne Claude’s 1983 “Surrounded Islands” in Florida, a project that wrapped small islands in skirts of bright fabric. One wonders, could the artists have provoked thoughts about the environment without exerting such a powerful influence to dominate it?

Olafur Eliasson’s 2008 “New York City Waterfalls” installation was likewise environmentally questionable. Composed of massive steel rigging towers placed in bodies of water around the city, Eliasson’s structures presented crashing falls of salt water that ended up being more environmentally damaging than artistically pleasing. Plant life along the Brooklyn Promenade was particularly hurt by the spray of salt water; the Brooklyn Paper reported that the weeping birches planted at the River Cafe had failed to bloom in April 2009 due to Eliasson’s “Waterfalls”. Open hours for the “Waterfalls” piece were cut from 101 hours a week to 50 because of the unforeseen consequences.

Olafur Eliasson's “New York City Waterfalls” (2008) (image from wikipedia.org)

Earthwork artist Michael Heizer is creating “City” in the Nevada desert, a massive project that reforms the desert land into towering structures influenced by Mayan architecture. Light and space artist James Turrel has been busy for decades reforming an extinct volcano into a temple-like space for the shifting sky outside. At what point do the environmental shifts and changes in the natural order that these pieces require outweigh their artistic value?

At the same time, there are “environmental” artists who work within the natural environment without causing it harm. Futurefarmers is a design studio whose work serves to inspire re-invigorating of disused spaces. Phoebe Washburn is an installation artist whose works display the very complex process that “recycling” or re-forming actually takes, the difficulty of recreation. Richard Long famously took walks through grass-laden fields and posed the physical markings of his path as his work, the walk as the art. Andy Goldsworthy takes the environment and reshapes it in his own hands, creating sculptures from found rocks, icicles, the rain.

I guess the question I want to ask is if the environmental impact of a work of art is really part of its quality. Should we divide the environmental cost from the artistic value of a piece? Or are the two totally inseparable?

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