News of the dramatic remapping of the Arctic ice in the upcoming 10th edition of the National Geographic Atlas of the World is only one of the many alarm bells clanging out the message that we live on a changing planet. With that urgency has come an upsurge in environmentally minded art, and a new book brings 95 of these creators together in a compendium of ecologically responsive work.
Art & Ecology Now by Andrew Brown, released last month by Thames & Hudson, offers a survey of what’s happening in environmentally conscious art. Acknowledging the groundwork laid by both 1960s land artists and 19th-century landscape painters, it acts as a yearbook for current practitioners who are engaging with climate change in either a directly activist or more conceptual way.
Included are Yao Lu’s photographs, which give Chinese mounds of construction rubble and landfills draped in protective netting a harrowing, Song dynasty–style beauty. “Champs d’Ozone,” by Paris-based HeHe, digitally overlays live images of the city skyline and colors representing invisible pollutants. Some projects are subtly haunting, such as Alejandro Durán’s ongoing Washed Up, which captures the vibrant bits of plastic that appear on the shores of a nature reserve in Mexico, and Basia Irland’s collaboration with botanists to embed seeds in ice books, which are then floated down rivers to encourage new growth. Others are more deliberate and practical, such as Simon Starling’s “Tabernas Desert Run,” for which he crossed the growing Tabernas Desert in Spain on a bicycle powered by a fuel cell using compressed bottled hydrogen and oxygen from the atmosphere.
As Brown argues in the introduction, “Once an area of interest for a relatively small group of people, art that addresses environmental issues has in the last five years become part of the artistic mainstream.” He adds that “there has been a growing tendency in contemporary art to consider the natural world not only as a source of inspiration or subject to represent, but also as a realm to influence directly — a sphere of action to transform and improve through creative means.”
He has a point. Just in New York City at the moment and on the horizon there’s a small crowd of exhibitions with an ecological tinge, and they include several artists represented in Art & Ecology Now. Tattfoo Tan’s Sustainable. Organic. Stewardship. (S.O.S.), which addresses hands-on gardening through mobile projects and other initiatives, is in the Culture Lounge at the St. George Ferry Terminal on Staten Island. At Smack Mellon, FOODshed features artists who work with sustainable agriculture. Back to Eden at the Museum of Biblical Art examines our changing relationship with the natural world, and The Fifth Season at James Cohan Gallery explores the rhythms of natural systems, as well as how they’re being disrupted. As Daniel Larkin pointed out in Hyperallergic, a prevailing theme at this month’s Bushwick Open Studios was the environment, and that included Ellie Irons’s ongoing Invasive Pigments garden at Silent Barn, for which she cultivates plants from the city’s altered ecosystem.
Unlike artists of the past who concentrated on the environment and gave it an imposing, often dangerous majesty (think Caspar David Friedrich’s 1823–24 “The Sea of Ice,” in which a ship is obliterated beneath shards of the frozen ocean, or Thomas Moran’s sweeping early-20th-century paintings of the American West), nature in contemporary art is most often something on the brink of disappearing.
At April’s Slide Slam at the American Museum of Natural History, artist Mark Dion discussed how the taxidermy polar bear in museum dioramas has similarly changed over the decades, from a fierce beast to something posed quietly on a fragile bit of ice. Ecology is definitely facing a precarious moment, and contemporary art is expressing that vulnerability and potential devastation. There may not be the ultimate solutions in art to climate change, deforestation, urban sprawl, and biodiversity collapse, but hopefully there is at least some added clamor and imagination to the growing alarm.
Art & Ecology Now by Andrew Brown is available from Thames & Hudson.