Essays

How Can Ecological Artists Move Beyond Aesthetic Gestures?

If art is to be relevant to the environment, it needs to move beyond an art context to engage with the land itself.

Image via Peter Leth/Flickr

New evidence of a Southern Pacific Garbage patch has been found. Longtime combatant of oceanic plastic Captain Charles Moore has published new findings that further detail the concentrated amount of plastic in the South Pacific Garbage Patch near Chile and Peru, with his NGO Algalita, which is dedicated to finding solutions to plastic waste choking the oceans. The Southern Pacific Garbage patch is now believed to be larger than Mexico.

Humans are consuming roughly a million plastic bottles every single minute, and an astounding 91 percent of those will never be recycled. Instead, they’re casually discarded as quickly as they’re used, washing into rivers and making their way out to sea. What we are left with are humongous concentrations of microplastics and other jetsam in the oceans. Drifting with the currents, this refuse slowly collects in one of our ocean’s five gyres, spiraling below the surface, nearly invisible. It will continue to do so for centuries to come. At this rate, ocean plastic is set to outweigh fish by 2050.

Image via Brian Sterling/Flickr

News like this forces me to reflect on my place in the world. As both a professional arts writer and someone passionate about biodiversity, finding a relevancy between the two is difficult. Knowing that the US Environmental Protection Agency is currently working to disprove climate change is enough to make one feel utterly helpless. Even still, I still believe that there is value to bringing the tools of art and art criticism to the environment, if done right.

Critics, at our best, help people to look at, understand, criticize, and appreciate complex and abstract cultural products. Why don’t we turn our gaze to the world around us, especially a devastating cultural product like a garbage patch bigger than Texas? Writers and thinkers like Donna Haraway, Lucy Lippard, and Heather Davis are extraordinary examples. They bring the humanities — arts, social theory, cultural criticism — to bear on these issues, and therefore bring them to life for people like me.

Davis’s writings, especially on plastic and petrocapitalism, have forever changed the way I think about the pervasive material. Haraway’s fantastic book, Staying with the Trouble, is the latest in a long practice of exploring and pushing the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be human on this planet that is full of other life. Lippard’s book, Undermining, brings issues of land use in the western United States to life through creative nonfiction that blends art criticism, personal essay, and cultural theory. 

One of the most famous examples of land art — art existing within and using elements of the land — is Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970), which has obvious synchronicities with the great garbage gyres. Both are larger-than-life, human-made spirals in water that resist direct viewership through scale and distance. The study and discussion of these monumental trash vortexes could perhaps be moved forward by the language we use to discuss Smithson’s work, some of which he developed himself. However, I am assuredly not proposing that we call the trash gyres artworks, or place them within an art-historical context. That would distract from our reading of them and would complicate how we confront these environmental phenomena with action.        

Looking for years for land art that utilizes the environment as complexly as artists have long done with their subjects through paint (even using paint as a subject), I’ve come up largely disappointed. Land artworks are typically aesthetic interventions forced onto the environment by artists with little to no deep understanding (geologic, ecologic, botanic, etc.) of the materials they are using. Instead, artists who make these works favor aesthetic, surface-level intervention, which documents well for exhibition and (hopefully) sale later, upon return to an art-world setting, be it via a gallery or a coffee table book.

Where is the communion with the land’s complexity? Where are nuanced interventions that explore the amazingly complex qualities of dirt, beyond its color? The biggest fault in land art, to me, is its consistent inability to move beyond that art historical context, thereby turning environments into objects.

Image via Neajjean/Flickr

Smithson wrote well about land art, but not about land; the dirt, geological makeup, flora, fauna, watersheds, etc., that actually defined the sites and materials he activated. Understanding and parsing the nuanced ways humans experience space (phenomenology) is invaluable for thinking about our experience of the environment, but only as far as we extend those thoughts beyond an art context. If art is to be relevant to the environment, it cannot remain only in an art context or in dialogue with art history. The vast majority of writings about land art in the American West is focused entirely on its art-ness, whether through an aesthetic, art-historical, or human interest lens. Where is the geologic activity? Where are the Native Americans? Where are the watersheds? In order to be relevant to the issues plaguing our world today — such as the prevalence of plastics, or climate change — we need writing that contextualizes these artworks within a deep reading of the land itself. Lucy Lippard’s Undermining is a glowing counterexample to this bad trend. Undermining is as much an art book as it is a book on seeing, thinking about, and working within the American West.

Aesthetic interventions on landscapes rarely result in conceptual investigations. Art, it seems, is better at using natural materials as passive objects for aesthetic manipulation, with landscapes as ripe backgrounds. Of course, this is nothing new. Both natural materials and the landscape have long been treated as passive for economic gain, and that is the point.   

But there are artists — perhaps ecological artists is a better term — who are dealing with the complexities of an ecology beyond these types of hollow aesthetic gestures. Artists and doers in the environment such as Agnes Denes, with her tree-planting projects that are protected for hundreds of years and will eventually become old growth forests; Mel Chin’s “Revival Field” (1991), which utilizes sculptural elements to make a field that actually repairs soil toxicity; Ellie Irons, who brings our cultural construction of plants, notably “weeds,” into question; and Mary Mattingly, whose recent floating islands in NYC call into question, and proposes radical, utopian alternatives to, land-use, access to fresh food, and sustainability, even within the context of the largest city in the USA.

What separates these artists from typical land artists is that they deal with the site at various conceptual levels that are more appropriate for an outdoor setting. They are in a more humble dialogue with the land they utilize, thinking ecologically, sustainably, and long-term.

Agnes Denes, “Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule – 11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 Years (Triptych),” (1992–96, 2013), type-C print, 36 x 36 inches (copyright Agnes Denes; courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects)

Take Denes’s living artworks, such as “Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule – 11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 Years,” (1992–96): a hill, planted with 11,000 trees, each from one person, which will be protected for 400 years. The piece, which will turn into a virgin forest, employs a conceptual and legal framework that projects and protects its impact hundreds of years into the future. In doing so, “Tree Mountain” literally and conceptually confronts climate change, desertification, deforestation, legal structures of reclamation, and more. 

Denes’s work isn’t propaganda; it’s not a national park. “Tree Mountain” could be viewed as purely sculptural, but it also uses the tools and vocabulary of land preservation and reclamation to not only suggest, but also physically carry us forward, toward actually cleaner air. Like the other ecological artists I mentioned, Denes explores — and often make real steps toward — alternatives to our current disastrous ecological course.   

Image from Karine C./Flickr

Reading these works, like reading the garbage patch itself, which is immensely complicated and difficult to comprehend, requires a phenomenological reading of space, an ecological understanding of how the artworks intersect with the environment, and takes seriously creative and nonlinear implications (either those proposed by the artist, in the case of the artworks, or the garbage patch itself). Through such an approach — which is definitely that of a critic — we can find the words to describe, and therefore start to comprehend, such a gyrating concentration of humanity’s sludge. Situating it phenomenologically, we see how the patches’ tentacles stretch from abstract and invisible research, all the way through our waterways, back to our cities, and onto our tables, our local policies, etc.

We need a clear, factual, historical, but compelling story for these environmental catastrophes on the news. Undoubtedly that requires great creativity, and forward and abstract thinking, as much as description. For all of this to matter, it must be a story that disgusts, places correct blame, and, of course, elicits action. I believe art criticism can, and must, contribute to this end. 

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