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Art and sustainability: 5 artists inspired by Mama Earth
The art world, too, is chiming into the conversation
Art Stuff 17 Jun 2019

If you follow the news, you know that climate change is just one of many, many reasons to be alarmed. The latest science urges world leaders to take immediate action to avoid the most disastrous effects of climate change. Even if they do, which seems pretty unlikely (not to point any fingers, ahem), we’re still looking at a pretty big mess to clean up.
It’s not surprising, then, that sustainability is on everyone’s minds. From fashion to food, many industries are embracing sustainability as a key business goal. The art world, too, is chiming into the conversation.
A Quick Look at the History of Art and Sustainability
Artists have been depicting nature for centuries—since the Renaissance in the West, and much longer than that in the East. Think of any landscape painting, from Chinese ink paintings to the Impressionists. Although they might not be as explicit as a sign that says, “Protect the Earth,” the implied message is pretty clear. Yep, protect the Earth.
In the 1970s, Earth Art took it one step further. Instead of just painting the Earth, artists actually began using it in their work. Using natural materials like earth, wood, sand, stones and water, artists created sculptures, often large-scale, outdoor ones. The most famous example is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a massive spiral sculpture built from basalt in the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jerry (1970).
Contemporary Art and Sustainability
These days, as the climate apocalypse seems to draw closer and closer, artists are embracing sustainability once again, both as a subject and as a method. Lately, there has been a greater preoccupation with sustainable practice in all areas of art. Sustainable architecture might be the most famous example, but any artist working in any media can make an effort to use materials that don’t kill their environment. So, yeah, maybe you should scratch that Styrofoam sculpture idea.
Others embrace not just the practices but also the message of sustainability. Lately, there’s been a flood of exhibitions organized around the concept of sustainability, from Art and Sustainability: Social Challenges from Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, which offers an online tour through the museum’s collection, to The Coming World: Ecology as the New Politics 2030-2100 at Moscow’s Garage Museum. All over the world, art x sustainability collectives are popping up. Galleries and art fairs are doing their best to go green.
Climate change might seem like a pretty straightforward topic—let’s avoid try to it?—but contemporary artists are tackling the issue in a variety of different ways. Some focus on the ecological level; others go straight to the politics. Approaches range from doom and gloom to naïve optimism, and everything in between. In March, Grimes announced a new album called Miss_Anthrop0scene that will try to “make climate change fun.” Definitely an original way to approach the topic… but is it a good idea? That’s a separate argument.
Art and Activism
While traditionally art has been limited to the role of raising awareness, today, the boundaries between art and activism are dissolving. At a time when so many issues seem so urgent, making pictures that get viewers thinking doesn’t feel like enough to many artists. In that vein, some are opting to take their artwork out of the museum and into the community, creating projects that double as art installations and activist initiatives.
In that spirit, let’s take a look at how these five contemporary artists are taking on climate change, sustainability and all things related to Mama Earth.
1) John Akomfrah, Purple (2017)
John Akomfrah is a very respected artist and filmmaker who lives and works in London. His works often deal with post-colonialism, memory and the experience of migrants all over the world. In his most ambitious project yet, Akomfrah was commissioned to make Purple, a six-channel video installation about climate change.
The work succeeds with flying colors—no pun intended. Purple layers archival footage and newly shot film from all over the world with ambient sound to create a deep, immersive experience for the viewer. As you might expect, there’s a lot of purple involved, a color that symbolizes mornings and death in some African cultures (Akomfrah was born in Ghana). Another interpretation points to purple as the ancient color of royalty. In this way, Akomfrah hints at humanity’s motivations for destroying the environment: greed and power.
As pictures of pristine nature ruined by human hands move across the screens, we’re all invited to meditate on our role in climate change—and what we can do to stop it.
Purple will screen at the Garage Museum in Moscow from June 15 to November 17.
2) SUPERFLEX, Dive-In (2019)
Superflex is a Danish art collective dedicated to spreading awareness about the problems with modern, capitalist society. In their latest project, they took on climate change for Desert X 2019, a biennial in Coachella Valley, California. Inspired by the Valley’s past as a prehistoric sea, Superflex designed a “Dive-In,” a drive-in movie theater that doubles as a home for fish.
It was a simple affair: only one screen playing footage from the collective’s Deep Sea Minding project, where they took to the open oceans to try to discover materials for a fish-friendly habitat. They then used these materials to construct Dive-In, painting them pink to match Coachella’s bubblegum aesthetic.
But why would you need a home for fish in the middle of the desert? The installation points to a not-so-distant future when rising sea levels might turn Coachella Valley into Coachella Sea once again. Sorry, Cali tweens, guess you’ll have to find a new place to take your flower crown selfies.
3) Nils Norman, Geocruiser (2001-2004) and Edible Park (2010-)
edible park
Edible Park.
For Nils Norman, it’s not enough to use art to get the people talking. He wants his audience to get their hands in the dirt, literally. Norman first became famous for his 2001-2004 Geocruiser, a revamped bus complete with solar panels, a biodiesel engine, a community library and a greenhouse. In 2010, Norman launched Edible Park in The Hague, an artwork-meets-community farming project. To pull it off, he joined forces with local activists and farmers to create a collective organic farm.
It’s a work that doesn’t just make a point—it makes real change. Norman’s goal was to test out if community-based, sustainable agriculture could actually change the social and economic fabric of society from the ground up. It also brings up an interesting, age-old question: what makes this a work of art and not just a garden? I’ll leave you to ponder that on your own.
Want to learn more? Check out the book Norman published on the project.
4) Allora & Calzadilla, Graft (2019)
Dynamic artist duo from Puerto Rico, Allora & Calzadilla made their solo Russian debut this spring with Graft. For the installation, the artists scattered artificial blossoms from the Roble Amarillo tree, native to the Caribbean, all around the Garage courtyard. The flowers will stay all throughout the Russian fall and winter, so they’re sure to stick out against the grey and snow.
But the installation has a deeper purpose: to remind viewers of the tragic loss of biodiversity around the world. Because of stronger and stronger hurricanes, more trees than ever are being uprooted in the Caribbean. That combined with rising global temperatures is making these trees, and many other native species, gradually disappear. Graft brings a local problem to a global audience, emphasizing that our actions have far-reaching effects.
5) Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė, Lina Lapelytė, Sun & Sea (Marina) (2019)
sun and sea
For this year’s Venice Biennial, Lithuanian artists Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė created a stunning opera/performance/installation piece. The team brought the beach to the biennial, complete with sand and sunbathers. Against this backdrop, singers warn visitors about looming ecological disaster. Not exactly the beach-going experience most of us imagine when we buy our summer bikinis.
“People went in thinking they’d only spend five minutes and instead they stayed and came out in tears,” the pavilion’s curator Lucia Pietroiusti said to The Art Newspaper. “What is it that is so stuck in the back of our throats now that even a small gesture can release?” Clearly, the pavilion struck a cord with our collective imagination—our dreams and nightmares about the future on this planet. Check out a clip here.
The Coming World: Ecology as the New Politics 2030-2100 opens at Garage Museum in Moscow on June 28.
Text by Katya Lopatko
Images via Lisson Gallery, @superflexstudio, Fritz Haeg, @garagemca, Art Forum.

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