DAVOS, Switzerland — Does art change the world? The World Economic Forum would have you think so. The WEF is meant to bring important people together to create world change, but how can art participate in the cause? We are not doctors, scientists, politicians or deep-pocketed folks who can actually make real improvements for human kind. Art can add context, question norms, retell stories and speak out against political injustice — but change the world?
At least three artists are trying. Dutch artist and designer Claudy Jongstra has spent the last 15 years raising sheep, tending a garden and employing local women to make her art. She is a textile artist producing large installations for public spaces and is hailed by starchitects and designers worldwide for her work.
Claudy (working alongside her business partner, Marleen Engbersen) developed a system for making felt and pressing it into other wool fibers or silk. She wanted a specific wool that only 17th century Drente Heath sheep, now almost extinct, can provide. Claudy continues to breed these sheep and her art brings attention to their dwindling numbers. They also use no harmful chemicals in the dying process, but grow the dyes naturally in a large garden which provides all the rich colors for the wool. Claudy employs eight women from the local village and teaches them traditional weaving skills and her own process to get the work made. She works with them each day, without modern technology to interrupt their concentration. They have all become master craftspeople.
Once the pieces are finished, they are transported and installed into museums, public spaces (like libraries or court houses) and corporate buildings. Knowing the process of Claudy’s work is half the art; it is truly sustainable. Her work has an impact on the land and her local village — not large, but it’s something.
Using recycled garbage as materials is nothing new for many sculptors or installation artists, but Vik Muniz takes it to another level in his project “Pictures of Garbage” illustrated in the documentary “Wasteland.” Vik worked with the catadores (garbage pickers) and young people from the favelas to create portraits made from the garbage dumps. The project has raised over $250,000 with 100% of the proceeds benefiting the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho (ACAMJG) in Brazil. It has raised money to house the catadores, establish a business training program, a library and learning center.
Vik Muniz was included in a panel with artists JR, José Moreno Valle and Jürgen Griesbeck who have all worked with people on the street in various ways, helping to enrich communities and give them a larger voice.
Meanwhile, earlier in the week at the Münich conference DLD, Olafur Eliasson announced his new company, Little Sun. The goal is to bring cheap solar powered devices to areas of the world without electricity. His first product is a solar light designed as a yellow circle which can hang or be placed anywhere. This will bring inexpensive light to millions of people so they can lead more productive lives. On his drawing table are a few more solar products; a larger light, a cell phone charger, small battery and a radio. They are created with his own sense of art and design, but will be massively produced and cost a fraction of similar devices so they can be widely distributed. These are his plans, the outcome is yet unknown, but I suggest keeping your eye on Little Sun.
Jongstra, Muniz and Eliasson are financially successful and they have enough robust professional connections to build something real. For the 99% of the artists out there, creating change is a harder climb without an existing infrastructure. You need money, philanthropists, corporate sponsors, venture capitalists and your own strong brand to propel these ideas into motion.
Even though I will remain skeptical of how much good art can achieve in the world, these are three well-known artists playing a role in sustainability. The impact may be great or small, but it’s definitely better than nothing. And I suppose that is a place to start.