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Which Installation Artists Are Actually Green?

Inspired by the closing of Ai Weiwei’s “Sunflower Seeds” installation due to health hazards, I’ve been writing about how environmental impact is factored in to the evaluation of installation art. Does a work of art have to have a low carbon footprint to be great, or should we completely separate a piece from the cost of its production? Asking this question isn’t meant to argue that art has to be “green” to be good or that we should know the carbon footprint of every Damien Hirst box. Rather, the discussion is a way to analyze art-world greenwashing, artists who claim their practice is about taking notice of the environment but whose works actually hurt more than they help, and to ask if that is okay.

To start off the debate, I want to explore a few works of installation art that could be considered environmentally friendly and evaluate what impact they have, both environmental and artistic. Everyone has their own definition of “environmentally friendly” or “green”, and here I’ll be sticking to a pretty qualitative guideline: Where do the works’ materials come from? Where will they go? What lasting influence will the work have on the environment? Feel free to add your own criteria, or critique mine.

Andy Goldsworthy

Andy Goldsworthy, “Cairn, Kellogg, Iowa” (2005) (from iceandcoal.org)

Andy Goldsworthy is an installation artist who primarily works outdoors, creating most of his art out in the field, forming stones, leaves, branches and ice into organic sculptures. Whether it’s a rock structure as the cairn above, a string of chromatic leaves floating on a pond, or a meandering rock wall embedded with tree trunks, Goldsworthy hand-makes each of his pieces and allows the tyranny of nature to take its course- as beautiful as these works are, they are ephemeral, and exist permanently only in photographs. Though the artist does carry out in-gallery works and exhibitions, his defining oeuvre is outside. Inspired by a youth working on farms and a personal nomadism, “my remit is to work with nature as a whole,” Goldsworthy says. Here, the elements of nature remain unchanged, simply reorganized in beautiful ways. The artist provokes a re-thinking of the world without harming it.

Green Points: ephemerality, environment as medium

Richard Long

Richard Long, “A Line Made From Walking” (1967) (image from tate.org.uk)

Richard Long began an illustrious career with a piece that took walking as performance, with only a photo document as the end result (seen above). From there, the artist has explored humanity’s relationship with the natural world through the creation of impermanent monuments memorializing his treks, paintings made straight from the elements, and drawings on detritus gathered from man-made urban environments. Long commemorates trips by text written on gallery walls, photographs and posters. This is all  just the aftermath of the artistic act, though. The act itself is the movement through space, and the interaction, and intervention, with nature.

Green Points: ephemerality, small piles of rocks

Mel Chin

Mel Chin, “Revival Field II” (first planted 1992, photo 1995, Palmerton, PA) (image from collinsandgoto.com)

Mel Chin’s “Revival Fields” project takes toxic bodies of land and intervenes, using plants to cleanse the area of pollution and recreate usable earth. So-called hyperaccumulator plants actually serve to eat up the toxins in the dirt they’re planted in; as the plants grow and absorb the poisonous material, they are harvested and removed. The project’s “aesthetic is revealed in a revitalized earth,” rather than a discrete sculptural object. This immaterial aspect, in fact, has gotten Chin in hot water with some circles, who claim that the works aren’t art.

Green Points: actually cleanses land, no leftovers

Future Farmers

Future Farmers, “Rainwater Harvest/Greywater Feedback Loop” (2007) (image from futurefarmers.com)

Rather than an individual artist, Future Farmers is a design collective that works with artists to accomplish environmental projects. Part events, part installations, the collective’s works are provocative, and traffic in the kind of social group-forming and exchange projects well suited for art fairs and college campuses. A favorite is “Victory Gardens”, an ongoing project in San Francisco that transforms green spaces in public places into food-producing gardens. Other works make the process of rainwater recycling visible or create lab kits to help scientists sort algae strains.

Green Points: provoke thought about environmental design, but don’t shy away from making stuff

Ana Mendieta

Ana Mendieta, “Isla” (1981/1994) (image from homepage.mac.com/lukewhite)

Ana Mendieta used her performance pieces to question the relationship between the individual and the environment. Photographs document the performances, often composed of riffs on the artist’s silhouette created from mud, leaves and the materials at hand. To me, the pieces give form to the relentless conflict between self and world, and the organic and the inorganic. Mendieta uses her self as a foil for nature, and the viewer is dragged into the gap without the need for an overworked object.

Green Points: ephemeral performances, intimate connection with the environment

Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin's Getty Center garden (image from getty.edu)

Robert Irwin may straddle a whole bunch of media, from installation to wall-hung work to gardens, but his body of work is united by a concern for perception and the individuals’ lived experience of their environment. At the 1976 Venice Biennale, Irwin contributed a piece made simply by a length of string cordoning off a square of ground. The art is the viewed perception of that space, and the artist’s ability to highlight the patterns of light and shade on the ground. He also created the Getty Villa’s garden, composing a year-round sensual orchestra of plants blooming and resting.

Green Points: immaterial installations provoke perception, actually plants trees

In Sum

To me, these are “environmentally friendly” artists in that their work both provokes reconsidering of humanity’s relationship with the environment and is largely ephemeral, or natural in itself. The installations last long enough to make an artistic impact, without damaging the environment. Is this actually green art, or is there a better set of requirements?

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