In case you haven’t noticed, we’re living in the middle of a climate emergency. The first Earth Day took place 50 years ago, but half a century later, we’ve got a long way to go. Largely thanks to human activity, our planet is getting warmer, and not in a cute “let’s go to the beach way.” Instead, we’re noticing heat waves, forest fires, mega-storms and melting glaciers, and what happens in the Arctic, has an effect on the whole world. So what part do artists play in getting the human population to change their habits and help save our planet? Well, there are a considerable number of artists who are using their practice to raise awareness of the issues our world is facing. Here are ten artists who use their art to comment on and draw attention to the climate crisis.
Let’s start with the obvious, shall we? The artist most people equate with the environment is Olafur Eliasson. The Danish-Icelandic artist uses air, water and light to draw attention to the fundamental elements of our world. Amongst many environmental oriented projects, in 2012 Eliasson established the social business Little Sun, which distributes and produces solar lamps to off-grid communities. Furthermore, Eliasson was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for renewable energy and climate action by the United Nations Development Programme in 2019.
Judy Chicago first turned her attention towards the planet in the 1960s in her series Atmospheres, which sought to bring art into harmony with the environment. The works involved bringing environment-friendly coloured fire into the landscape, injecting a cloud of colour without leaving a trace of destruction. And now, almost 60 years later, she is bringing this work into the digital space in a collaboration with Light Art Space. Through an immersive AR app, Judy Chicago gives you the opportunity to to create your own coloured smoke, proving that consciousness about the climate must be a continuing concern.
Another art queen who has used an App to make art focused on climate change is Marina Abramovic. Through the Rising app in 2019, Abramovic played the role of someone at risk of being submerged by water from melting ice caps, that only the user can save her from. She also exhibited an artwork associated with the app at Venice’s Rezzonico Gallery.
Allison Janae Hamilton
Having grown up with links to a family farm in the rural flatlands of western Tennessee, Allison Janae Hamilton has always had an interest in landscape. Within her work she uses plant matter, layered imagery, complex sounds, and animal remains, to create spaces that consider our social relationships in the face of a changing climate, particularly within the rural American south. The land is the central protagonist within her work, using it to engage with today’s social and political concerns, including sustainability, climate change, environmental justice and land loss.
Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang often makes work in the public space, making use of natural materials, most notably, gunpowder. His use of this material has driven him to create explosive outdoor displays that seek to prompt his audiences to consider the universe around them. His work has also used dead pigs to shed light on China’s environmental conditions, as well as dying animals clinging to life-sized boats to make us think about how we treat animals.
Mary Mattingly uses her work to explore issues of climate change, sustainability and displacement. Working across various mediums, she depicts nomads struggling with the weight of their possessions, pilgrimages over arid lands, and refugees searching for a more sustainable natural world. Her projects include Swale, an edible landscape on a barge in NYC, allowing anyone to pick free food, as well as Public Water with Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de la Habana, which involved pulling spherical ecosystems across Habana.
Haley Mellin is both an artist and a land conservationist. An 8th generation Californian, her ancestor was LA’s first mayor and brought fruit trees to LA from Spain. Through her conservation work she conserves one large-scale location per year, with a focus on tropical forests and biodiversity. These projects have taken place in Oregon and Guatemala. In her artwork, she focuses on painting, thinking about it as a human technology.
Andrea Zittel’s work is made in response to her environment. Her work involves making design objects like furniture, kitchenware and clothing, in an endeavour to better understand our social needs. Working under the name A-Z Enterprise, her work re-examines our needs and how we define them as consumers.
Hungarian artist Agnes Denes is best known for Wheatfield Confrontation, a work she made in 1982 in which she planted two acres of wheat in a landfill neighbouring Wall Street and the World Trade Center. The work places nature in the heart of the city and financial centre. A pioneer of environmental art, her Rice/Tree/Burial is considered the first large scale site-specific ecological artwork. She is also behind Tree Mountain, A Living Time Capsule, the first man-made virgin forest (a forest having a mature ecosystem uninfluenced by human activity), which is located in western Finland.
Tomas Saraceno’s practice links art, life science, and the social sciences together. He creates floating sculptures, community projects, and immersive installations that propose sensory solidarity with the planet through a social, mental, and environmental ecology. For over a decade, he has been imagining a world free from carbon, extractivism, capitalism, patriarchy and fossil fuel. He also works with the air, spider webs and indigenous communities.
Text Lizzy Vartanian