Art for Earth’s Sake: Eco-artists Whose Work Place Mother Nature at Its Core
Land artists from the late 1960s and early 70s began to include the natural world and natural elements into their work as an awareness of the environment began to increase, leading towards the beginning of understanding a sustainable lifestyle.
Several artworks from these initial art movements highlighted the need to live in harmony with the natural world, the other inhabitants of this same world, and its resources.
American artist Agnes Denes was one of these pioneers of land art and environmental art.
In 1982, Denes completed the large site-specific installation Wheatfield – A Confrontation, where over a four-month period she planted a two-acre wheatfield in a landfill located close to New York’s World Trade Centre and Wall Street.
The work acted as a commentary on the ever-accelerating speed of human advancements but at what cost, and who was paying the price.
In celebration of Earth Month – and Earth Day on April 22, here is a selection of ten artists whose work and research place Mother Nature at its core.
From the use of waste materials to no longer transporting artworks via air travel, the following artists continue to show responsibility (and the possibility) of maintaining a sustainable art practice – now and in the future.
In 2013 New York-based artist Mary Mattingly collected all of her belongings and bundled them into seven large boulders into works called Blockades, Boulders, Weights.
All was included except for a small bag of objects that she used on a daily basis and a set of clothes. The performance lasted a few years as she wore the same clothes and shared with other people.
As part of the performance Mattingly would roll and drag the boulders of her belongings around the city. It was a message to human’s need to consume, hoard and spend on material goods.
Mattingly’s research is linked to the exploitation of the earth’s resources and the need to adopt a more sustainable mindset.
Blockades, Boulders, Weights, Mary Mattingly, 2014. Credit: Mary Mattingly
Combining art and science, Argentina-born artist Tomás Saraceno focuses his artistic research on creating spaces, sculptures and installations that invite another way of thinking, where humans are not in control of nature.
Saraceno collaborates with international experts and thinkers as he imagines a world without fossil fuels, a world that is not led by the Capitalocene.
In 2015 Saraceno founded the Aerocene Foundation, where he collaborates with international experts and thinkers as he imagines a world without fossil fuels.
Aerocene consists mainly of floating sculptures, large balloons that can travel using only the sun’s energy and wind currents. To date, the project has flown 7,060 minutes in the air free from carbon in 110 tethered flights, 15 free flights and eight human flights.
Tomás Saraceno, Fly with Aerocene Pacha, 2020. Credit: STS press
SEVAN GARO NIGOGOSIAN
Sevan Garo Nigogosian’s sculptures are literally one of a kind.
The British artist works directly with a part of the natural world that is suffering due to rising temperatures and climate change: the glaciers.
Nigogosian takes a mould of a glacier, leaving no trace of this work behind in any way, later transforming the mould into a sculptural piece. He has also transformed the work into wearable sculptures with the brand GAROGOSI.
Today the speed at which glaciers are melting has doubled in the last twenty years, therefore, these pieces are not only unique in that those moments in the ice and rock have moved but also act as an urgent message.
If we do not change the consumption and production rate of human activity, these geographical wonders will be a memory of the past.
Twelve large blocks of ice arranged in a clock formation dominated three public locations: Bloomberg’s European headquarters, Tate Modern in London, and Place Du Panthéon in Paris.
Ice Watch was a collaborative art project between Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson and geologist Minik Rosing.
The melting ice spoke to the interacting public, calling for action against the alarming rise in global temperatures.
In addition to the artworks that cover themes of climate change and environmental damage from human activity, Eliasson has introduced a no-fly rule into new contracts, meaning that he only sends artworks via ship or train, with the aim of becoming carbon neutral by the next decade.
Ice Watch, Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, 2015. Credit: UNclimatechange
The Weather Project, Olafur Eliasson, 2019. Credit: Bjoss
JUSTIN BRICE GUARIGLIA
In 2019 London-based cultural institution Somerset House presented Justin Brice Guariglia’s Reduce Speed Now! as part of its Earth Day Season initiative.
The outdoor installation consisted of nine solar-powered LED motorway signs, highlighting texts from different sources to inspire positive action in the face of environmental degradation.
The work shares the words of poets, writers and philosophers, such as Greta Thunberg, Bruno Latour and Timothy Morton, exploring how we can navigate the global climate crisis through language.
Guariglia’s 2018 series We Are The Asteroid is similar in its use of motorway signs, again using warning language such as Goodbye Arctic Ice.
Reduce Speed Now!, Justin Brice Guariglia, 2019. Credit: Anthropocene888
British artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah presents multi-channel video works that examine post-colonialism, the Black diaspora, and environmental degradation.
One of his most recent works, Purple is an immersive six-screen video installation with hours of archival footage mixed in with new material made to address themes relating to the damaging effects of climate change on the environment and on communities.
Akomfrah focuses on disappearing landscapes, from Alaska to Greenland to islands in the South Pacific, we are shown the fragility of the natural world.
He will represent Great Britain at the 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale Di Venezia in 2024.
John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea, 2015
Three channel HD colour video installation, 7.1 sound
48 minutes 30 seconds
© Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery.
Chilean poet and artist Cecilia Vicuña is known for her Arte Precario works, which starting in 1966, consisted of creating precarious installations using found debris and objects, weaving them together.
A combination of textile sculptures and traditional crafts characterise her practice.
Often political in her artistic research, Vicuña presented NAUfraga at the Venice Biennale in 2022. An installation composed of ropes, debris, and plastic found around Venice; the title (naufragio in Italian translates to mean shipwreck) refers to the city that is beginning to sink due to rising tides and climate change.
Currently on show until April 2023 in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, Vicuña presents the multi-part installation Brain Forest Quipu, which is made up of sculpture, sound, music and video.
NAUfraga, 2022. Site-specific installation. Basuritas (debris), twigs, plastic, metal, threads, sticks, improvisational materials, and tiny precarios. Dimensions variable. All works with the additional support of Lehmann Maupin. 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, The Milk of Dreams. Photo by Ela Bialkowska
Examining the relationship between the natural and artificial, Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone installed Seven Magic Mountains in the Mojave desert just ten miles south of Las Vegas in 2016.
The colourful sculptures, approximately ten metres tall, contrast with the orange hues of the surrounding sparse desert, a comment on man’s influence on the natural world. The installation invites the viewer to take in the moment in the wilderness compared to the urban landscapes built not far off.
In 2022, similar sculptures titled Doha Mountains were installed in Doha, the colourful totems with the backdrop of skyscrapers and urban environment.
Seven Magic Mountains, Ugo Rondinone, 2019, photo by Natosha Benning/Unsplash
Tanya Preminger primarily works with natural materials and is mostly known for her Land Art sculptures.
Preminger’s early sculptures were made of clay, wood, and stone, later incorporating soil, grass, and water.
In works such as Round Balance (2008), Ritual Cut (2009) and Pyramid (2009), the artist moulds the land itself into sculptural forms. Then, as time passes, the grass begins to grow and the sculpture becomes one with the natural environment, accepted in its new form.
Preminger demonstrates the need to live in harmony with the earth and appreciate its natural beauty.
Pyramid, Tanya Preminger, 2009. Credit: עודד.ש
The Anthropocene is a new geological era characterised by the unsustainable rate of production and consumption of the Earth’s resources due to human activity. Edward Burtynsky created a large-scale photography and film project of the same title.
Burtynsky’s aerial-view photographs offer a different point of view of the earth’s changing landscapes, from the mountains of waste in Kenya’s Dandora landfill to Los Angeles’ never-ending infrastructure and built environment to the bleached corals in Indonesia.
The project contrasts the beauty of these images with the stark reality of what the future holds for the natural world.
Anthropocene, Edward Burtynsky, 2019, Fondazione MAST
Cover: Seven Magic Mountains in Las Vegas at sunrise. Credit: Elizabeth Villalta/Unsplash
Celebrate nature’s world of sound at Soundtrack: Earth
Writer | Glesni Trefor Williams
Glesni Trefor Williams is a Bologna-based art journalist/translator from North Wales, who focuses her writing on contemporary art and interlinked exhibition spaces. She has written for Lampoon, Spinosa Magazine, and is an arts contributor on BBC Wales radio. @glesniw