02 Dec 2020
Contemporary Environmental Art
UNFRAME explores the work of contemporary artists raising awareness of the current climate crisis.
In a time when the relationship between nature and humans increasingly fluctuates, our ability to connect to it through environmental contemporary art feels more important than ever. Since ancient times, land and earth art have been utilised to document, connect with and adapt to natural surroundings. Moving on from our article on the history of environmental art, we at Unframe will discuss the important and developing relationship between the artist and the natural world today. Often, these mentioned artists visibly dedicate themselves to the living world and, importantly, its future. Thereby, we propose and explore whether artists can have any real influence on the climate change crisis.
In this article, we will look at the contemporary land and earth art striving to promote awareness of the climate crisis we face. We will explore the work of Nils Udo, Agnes Denes, Olafur Eliasson, as well as, Unframe artists Rachel Duckhouse and Jaanika Peerna, to name just a few.
The Earth is the common thread that links ancient stone circles, cave paintings, 20th century land art and finally, environmentally engaged work today. As the world has seen the devastating emergence of wildfires, ecosystem collapse and sea levels rising, more and more, artists are faced with the inescapable results of our climate crisis. As a result, many contemporary artists have chosen to reflect on this and turn to activism. Artists are using their work, ultimately, as a platform with which to inform and imagine a sustainable future.
A Contemporary Relationship with Nature
In recent years, environmental issues have, generally, remained at the forefront of contemporary culture. Crucial figures like Greta Thunberg and Jane Fonda, and Extinction Rebellion, in particular, have demanded and rapidly received a place in mainstream culture, resulting in political action taken. In many ways, contemporary environmental artists use their art as a vessel for reflecting on ecological issues and, in short, the precarious future of our planet. The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the global action taken against existential threat, a compelling beacon of hope for humankind.
British artist Andy Goldsworthy creates temporary interventions using nature, almost always using natural material to remake, adapt and alter an existing setting. Through this process, consequently, he draws attention through the subtle rearrangement of leaves, twigs, ground, to name a few. He casts light upon, ultimately, understated but profound imagery. Although physically Goldsworthy’s sculptures rarely survive, they live on in his documentation of them, specifically, through photographs and film. Significantly, there is clear intention that the locations chosen hold personal significance for him, making them sensitive portrayals of the natural world.
His site-specific installations, importantly, depict an exploration of the passage of time, process and natural material. He creates his artworks out of leaves, ice, rock, stones, using materials that, in many ways, do not belong to him. He collaborates with nature rather by altering, adding to or taking away from. Most of all, he rearranges what is already there, all in all, a sensitive and respectful gesture to ‘mother nature’.
“It’s not about art. It’s just about life and the need to understand that a lot of things in life do not last.” Andy Goldsworthy
During the 1980s, Goldsworthy began to produce work informed by the Land artists of the 1960s and 1970s, specifically the prolific work of Robert Smithson. As time went on, he too became associated this movement, alongside artists such as Richard Long.
German artist Nils Udo is one of the most infamous and prolific Land and Earth artists. His environmental art ranges from leaf arrangements to large scale tree formations. His well known 2005 piece ‘The Nest’ is made with bamboo and pine, using 80 tonnes of locally sourced wood. The intricately phenomenal piece replicates a large scale bird’s nest, a symbolic gesture of rebirth and nurture. Importantly, the artist reshuffles the natural world as part of an enhanced landscape. All in all, each artwork stands on its own, yet also addresses a wider natural concept, one of movement and change.
“A basic idea is to achieve absolute purity. Nature performs a demonstration of itself. Every non-natural element is ruled out as impure. No other materials are used than those found in each natural space. The characteristics, the respective possibilities for processing, and the character of the natural space itself plays the major role in determining the shape of the work. By installing plantings or by integrating them into more complex installations, the work is literally implanted into nature. As a part of nature, the work lives and passes away in the rhythm of the seasons.” Nils Udo
“Sketching with flowers. Painting with clouds. Writing with water. Tracing the May wind, the path of a falling leaf.” Nils Udo
As with much of Rachel Duckhouse’s work, her landscape drawings touch on wider environmental concerns, such as rising water levels and the effects of global warming. Although, in contrast to the work of Nils Udo and Goldsworthy, her work uses natural phenomena in her creation of her contrastingly, controlled geometric drawings.
During her residency at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre, Scotland, often, Duckhouse would watch the tide levels from her studio window. Crucially, the rising levels were marked by a permanent light installation there, which was visible from her workspace. With a sensor, essentially, the lights turn on twice a day at high tide. Consequently, as the lights appear, they become an indication, and in many ways, a prediction of sea levels rising in the future. In addition, Rachel became very aware that the water levels were rising almost above her head, depicting a sense of what the future holds if the climate crisis is not seriously addressed.
Lines (57° 59′ N, 7° 16’W)
‘Lines (57° 59′ N, 7° 16’W)‘ is an interactive site-specific light installation by Pekka Niittyvirta and Timo Aho at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre.
Finnish artists Pekka Niittyvirta and Timo Aho use sensors in their environmentally engaged installation. The installation, importantly, interacts with the rising tide, it is activated by high tide. ‘Lines (57° 59′ N, 7° 16’W)‘ gives a visual insight into the future of sea levels, provoking dialogue on rising sea levels and coastal areas. In particular, this is relevant in the low lying island archipelago of Uist in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, and in particular to Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre in Lochmaddy where the installation is situated. All in all, the centre cannot develop on its existing site due to predicted storm surge sea levels.
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In ‘Caraidh at Lochmaddy i’, Rachel Duckhouse uses patterned drawings to show traditional fish traps made in the landscape. The drawing depicts stepping stones standing near the edge of the water to trap fish in tidal pools. At high tide submerged rocks are under water. Eventually, the rocks then form a natural barrier, trapping the fish when the tide returns to the sea at low tide. They reveal themselves fully at low tide. These stones have been used for this purpose in the Outer Hebrides for generations. However, their presence in the landscape now stands as testament to a traditional way of life, now lost.
The marks on the paper reflect the wind across the water and the movement of the water around the stones. The artist uses the geometric patterning on the paper to depict movement of both wind across water, and water around the stones.
Within the realms of the environmental art movement, including land and earth art, seemingly, there is a marked difference in process between the variety of artists included. Initially, those who do not consider damaging the environment with artistic interventions and secondly, those who do. Land artists were often subjected to criticism of their work, sparking a rethinking of the their practice and it’s consequences. Many land artists intervened with the natural surrounding with the intent of leaving it unharmed and unadapted, yet, often leaving an impact. Out of this, rose a sensitivity towards nature and the environment. More and more, artists’ environmental concerns on the climate crisis came to the forefront of their work, proposing new ways to co-exist with our environment respectfully. Accordingly, art making becomes a vessel for awareness and change.
Much of Estonian artist Jaanika Peerna’s recent work is a lament to glaciers and natural ice. In the same way, her ongoing project ‘Glacier Elegy’ forms the central core of her recent practice. And importantly, through this iconic work, we see a contemporary artist at her prime addressing the climate emergency.
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Jaanika Peerna’s ongoing ‘Glacier Elegy’ project consists of both large scale installations and participatory performances, where large scale drawings, made with her audience, are then melted away together with blocks of ice. Above all, the collective act reflects the collective grief, and also the collective responsibility. Within these performances, the ice operates simultaneously as a positive drawing tool and as an act of erasure. In particular as well, the performances are a reminder that it is our human actions that cause the destruction of glaciers. Hence, Peerna becomes one with nature, its active agent, a representative on the scene.
View Jaanika’s Glacier Elegy Brookyn performance…
“While I can never compete with nature, there is much I can learn from the workings of it in order to embody its force, which ends up making my works through me.” Jannika Peerna
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Jaanika portrays her thinking process on ice in her new works made in isolation. In her ‘March Solace Series’ , she portrays the layers of memory held within ice, this is a scientifically proven ideal. As the glaciers melt, the memory of our ecological time on earth is slowly lost. Simultaneously, this layering is echoed in her photographic drawings, which are made up of multiple processes.
American artist Agnes Denes was the first female land artist, she takes a concise and inherently political stance through her contemporary environmental art. Often, she describes her natural inventions as visual philosophy, in particular, using her land art she conveys political messages to provoke curiosity and questioning. In contrast, Denes uses living material in her environmental art rather than the inorganic interventions often created by her male peers of the land art movement.
Confronting the Urban
Rather than adaption or invention, in summary, Dene’s wheatfield confronts the urban environment using natural material as her invaluable tool. In this case, ‘Wheatfield – A Confrontation’ became her most prolific piece due to it’s commentary on rapid urbanisation at the time. Growing from a former landfill, consequently, her powerful artwork reinforced her devotion to the environment and the imminent implications of global warming. Denes purposefully planted the wheatfield directly in front of New York’s financial district, in contrast, with a symbolically exploitative area. All in all, she tactfully creates a deeply contrasting backdrop, in turn, this enhances the message.
The piece was planted on a two acre-long landfill, due to location, the land was worth $4.5 billion then. Crucially, Dene’s transformation of the desolate area shines a light on systemic, class and world issues at the time, which are still very relevant today. Dene’s wheatfield creates an experience in amongst viewers, additionally, it underlines the possibility of a newly respected natural climate in the future.
Using an equally conceptual form, artist Alan Sonfist creates public artworks named ‘Timed Landscapes’, connected to rebuilding New York City’s precolonial terrain. In many ways, Sonfist reclaims the city through his imagined attempts to bring nature back to the urban landscape. In this example, he ‘intervenes’ with the urban environment based in Manhattan, the work is planted on a 25ft by 40ft land plot. Sonfist planted native plants, flowers and tree saplings, in many ways, restoring the natural environment. Initially, the artwork’s design was inclusive of three natural stages of growth, these have now become decades of growth in Sonfist’s sensitive nod to the past and future of the city.
“When it was first planted, Time Landscape portrayed the three stages of forest growth from grasses to saplings to grown trees. The southern part of the plot represented the youngest stage and now has birch trees and beaked hazelnut shrubs, with a layer of wildflowers beneath. The center features a small grove of beech trees (grown from saplings transplanted from Sonfist’s favorite childhood park in the Bronx) and a woodland with red cedar, black cherry, and witch hazel above groundcover of mugwort, Virginia creeper, aster, pokeweed, and milkweed. The northern area is a mature woodland dominated by oaks, with scattered white ash and American elm trees. Among the numerous other species in this miniforest are oak, sassafras, sweetgum, and tulip trees, arrowwood and dogwood shrubs, bindweed and catbrier vines, and violets.” Alan Sonfist.
“As in war monuments that record the life and death of soldiers, the life and death of natural phenomena such as rivers, springs, and natural outcroppings need to be remembered,” Alan Sonfist
Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, mostly, creates sculptures and large scale installations. Often, he uses natural elements such as ice, air temperature, light and water. He portrays his obvious environmental concerns in these experiential pieces. Above all, he comments on our current climate crisis through his environmental artworks. Finally, Eliasson forces us to question the current state of the natural world. All in all, unlike the environmentally concerned artists discussed so far, Eliasson brings the natural world inside. In doing so, he unapologetically gives a stark reminder of the dangers of our warming planet.
Eliasson’s ‘The Weather Project’ gave viewers the experience of the visual warmth, importantly, of a large scale sun. He showed the piece in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2003. Initially, ‘The Weather Project’ represents the sun and the sky in the large expanse of the hall. In particular, throughout the day there is mist in the air accumulating into cloud formations. For the sun he uses hundreds of lamps, in particular, they emit a light that visually transforms the sun into a warm blur. At the time, he creates a euphoric sense conjured by the artwork in amongst viewers, people lie on the ground calmly.
“To take all the data, news, and scientific papers and turn it into something you can touch is, I think, incredibly effective.” Olafur Eliasson
In his project ‘Ice Watch’, in contrast, Eliasson left a powerfully stark reminder of the global climate crisis in ice. He uses 30 blocks of ice, important to note, taken from Greenland waters. Eventually, he placed these blocks in spaces across London and left them to slowly melt in the urban environment. As well as being a reminder of environmental concerns, the temporary installation becomes an important vessel to provoke action.
Moreover, contemporary artists are engaging themselves and their work to address issues within the natural world. In the same way, the relationship between humans and nature, crucially, is in a delicate state. All in all, the artists discussed and many more today feel driven to provoke question in others. Finally they dedicate themselves to the cause and successfully work towards a more stable natural world.
See work by Unframe artists engaging in environmental work, such as artist Jaanika Peerna and Rachel Duckhouse.
Many contemporary collectors today engage with environmental concerns and the art world’s effect on the climate crisis. Swiss art collector Francesca von Habsburg is the founder of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection and the TBA21-Academy. The nonprofit programme holds a belief in the power of multiple disciplines and in the ability of the arts as a vessel for communication, change and action.