In an era when a man’s relationship with nature and its denizens is becoming increasingly uneasy, it seems that environmental art is more relevant than ever. From prehistoric times, people have transformed the environment, but also sought to connect with natural forces through cave wall paintings, megaliths and stone circles. Since those times, artists have been profoundly influenced by images, colors, patterns, structures and systems of nature around them. Including a range of different practices and approaches, environmental art is often used as an umbrella term to encompass Land Art, Earth Art, Earthworks, or Eco Art. It encompasses everything from historical approaches to nature in art to more recent ecological and politically motivated types of works or art which primarily celebrates an artist's connection with the natural world using natural materials. In a general sense, it can be argued that environmental art aims to improve our relationship with the natural world. Thus, it includes art which observes and interacts with the natural environment, art that reclaims or improves physical environments in the tangible sense, and art which engages with the social environment with pedagogical or activist intent.
In one-way or another, nature remained the preferential theme of creative art for centuries. It can be argued that environmental art has its roots in the Paleolithic cave paintings of our ancestors that represented animals and human figures and other aspects of nature important for them. Modern examples of environmental art stem from landscape painting and representation. Following the Enlightenment, Western society began to move away from the agrarian living, trading farms and ranches for towns and cities. This move away from the natural, combined with the expansion of science and discovery, led to a backlash known as the Romantic movement that turned into a Neo-Romantic movement following the Industrial Revolution. Artists began worshiping the greatness and beauty of nature, believing that mankind should remain connected to it. Aiming to inspire humanity to return to nature, they focused on images, music, and sculpture that recognized natural beauty in all its glory. One of the most famous representatives, English painter John Constable is best known for his natural landscapes and images that idealized of those living in connection with the land.
During the political and social upheavals of the 1960s, a group of artists in the United States and Europe increasingly questioned the restriction of painting and experimented with radical new ways of responding to the environment. This gave rise to the movement called Land Art, sometimes also referred to as Earth Art of Earthworks. Rather than painting the landscape, artists started working outdoors and sculpting the land itself. This shift represents an avant-garde notion about sculpture, the landscape and our relationship with it. Many Land Art pieces involved large shapes carved into the earth in remote places, infrastructure in site-specific locales with materials taken from that location and eventually monumental cement constructions in the desert which essentially use the earth itself as a stage, material, and canvas for conceptual art ideas. Leaving their structures exposed to the elements, Land artists emphasized the ephemerality of their works. This entropy of the materials, which were both manmade and organic, was integral to Land Art. Another integral component was the rejection of commodity status and mainstream exhibition venues. Outgrowing from Conceptualism and Minimalism, the beginnings of the environmental movement and the rampant commoditization of American art in the late 1960s influenced ideas and works that were divorced from the art market. Creating outside the traditional gallery and museum spaces, Land artists rejected the commodity status these venues conferred on art and questioned the notion of art as something to be bought and sold for profit. Some of the major figures in the movement were Walter De Maria, Nancy Holt, Robert Morris, Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim and Robert Smithson. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, works of Land Art started moving into the urban landscape. Robert Morris created installations in damaged urban sites in order to suggest renewal and rebirth, Agnes Denes created a work in downtown Manhattan called Wheatfield – A Confrontation in which she planted a field of wheat on the two-acre site of landfill covered with urban detritus and rubble, and Alan Sonfist introduced the key environmentalist ideas of bringing nature back into the urban environment with her Time Landscape sculpture created in New York City.
While some theoreticians use terms Land Art and Environmental Art interchangeably, others suggest that Land Art actually evolved into Environmental Art. Some artists would argue that early Land Art is not so much about restoration, ecology or direct activism, but about using land and nature as a medium for self-expression or to explore art ideas or the beauty of nature. In this sense, Land Art can be considered as an early chapter in our evolving notion of the environment understood as a broader concept which included ecosystems and environmental issues.
Within environmental, land and site-specific art, there is a crucial distinction between artists who do not consider the possible damage to the environment that their artwork may create, thinking only about aesthetic merits, and those who do. While Spiral Jetty from 1969 created by Robert Smithson is considered his seminal work, the piece created a permanent damage upon the landscape he worked with. When the European duo Christo and Jean-Claude temporarily wrapped the coastline at Little Bay, south of Sydney, the piece attracted a lot of negative criticism in environmental circles. The negative criticism these and similar pieces garnered, led land artists to rethink the consequences of their practice and create art that is more sustainable. Some of the artists who tried to leave the landscape unharmed or minimize their impact are Richard Long, who made temporary outdoor sculptural work with natural materials found in site, Dutch artist Herman de Vries who created The Earth Museum that contains 7,000 samples of earth, Nils-Udo who creates elaborate delicate structures on the landscape, combining horticulture and art, or the British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy who creates outdoor sculpture using an endless array of natural matter, from snow and ice to leaves, grass, stones, clay, petals, and twigs. Rising out of a sensitivity towards a habitat, these pieces gave rise to Environmental Art that is largely concerned with the importance of our interconnectedness to the natural world, proposes new ways for us to co-exist with our environment or raises awareness of environmental damage.
Since the turn of the Millennium, world concern over environmental issues such as pollution and global warming, species depletion, and new genetic technologies has increased. Artists have been increasingly answering collective cultural needs and developing active and practical roles in environmental and social issues. This gave rise to Eco Art, as a form of Environmental Art, which addresses environmental issues and proposes paradigms sustainable with the life forms and resources of our planet and frequently has a more eco-friendly approach and methodology. Additionally, it often involves restoration of polluted or damaged ecosystems and landscapes. As a socially engaged, activist, community-based restorative or interventionist art, it raises awareness, stimulates dialogue, changes human behavior towards other species, and encourages the long-term respect for the natural systems we coexist with. In order to create a direct intervention in environmental degradation, artists often collaborates with scientists, city planners, architects, and others. Arguably the most celebrated instance of ecologically aware Environmental Art in the late 20th century was 7000 Oaks by Joseph Beuys, an ecological action in which he and his assistants highlighted the condition of the local environment by planting 7000 oak trees throughout and around the city of Kassel.
Placing environmental issues and climate change in focus, contemporary environmental artists all seek to show the importance of our interconnectedness to nature. For the last two decades, the artist Aviva Rahmani has been reflecting on our human engagement with the natural world and creating informed artwork that focuses on transformation or reclamation. Between 1991 and 2000, she had been working on a major art project called Ghost Nets to create a replicable model for sustainable restoration, including fresh and salt water. Rosalie Gascoigne has also made a significant environmentally concerned work with serene sculptures created from rubbish and junk she found in rural areas. Another artist who has a mindful engagement with her materials, Sarah Sze recycles, reuses, and refurbishes detritus from the waste stream into elegant sprawling installations, drawing attention to our own cluttered lives and consumer culture. An artist and activist, Beverly Naidus creates installations that address environmental crisis and nuclear legacy issues, calling for transformation. Her community-based permaculture project Eden Reframed remediates degraded soil using phytoremediation and mushrooms resulting in a public place to grow and harvest medicinal plants and edible plants. As Olafur Eliasson explains, art is not about decorating the world, but about taking responsibility. His project Your Waste of Time included the display of pieces of ice that broke off from Iceland’s largest glacier that represented 800 years of Earthly existence. He wanted to raise awareness about global warming, but also put human’s physical experience in perspective. Barry Underwood combines paintings, photography, performance, cinema and land art to render environmental issues like light pollution and deforestation in electric splendor. Art can challenge the status quo by its very nature, but it can also serve as a powerful weapon. All these artists and many others have realized the importance of making their art a tool for weather producing knowledge, raising awareness or making an actual environmental impact. In the Anthropocene era, when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems, the work of environmental artists indeed seems more relevant and needed than ever.
Featured images: Nils-Udo - Clemson Clay Nest, 2005, via grrlandog.tumblr; Richard Long - Sahara Circle, 1988, via tate.org.uk; Barry Underwood's Installation, via pinterest.com; Rachel Sussman - Oldest Things, via thisiscolossal.com; Christo and Jeanne-Claude - The Floating Piers for Lake Iseo, via collectibledry.com; Agnes Denes - Wheatfield, a Confrontation, 1982, via fondayionenicolatrussardi.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.