So, What Does Sustainable Art Really Mean?
Many definitions of sustainable art might refer to works that address urgent issues related to nature. But looking into the term grammatically, the definition of sustainable art is clear: work that largely incorporates eco-friendly methods in its conception and creation.
On that basis and contrary to popular belief, sustainable art is not synonymous to environmental art nor to land art, both which may address concerns related to the natural environment but do not necessarily do so in an eco-conscious manner.
The relationship between art and sustainability has always been tricky. When Olafur Eliasson flew thirty blocks of glacial ice from Greenland to London for his installation Ice Watch in 2018 and left them to melt to the awe of passersby, he most certainly wasn’t practicing eco-friendliness in his practice but was rather placing attention on the dangers of climate change. Despite his altruistic intentions, that’s a long trip with a large carbon footprint.
It goes without saying that the distinction between sustainable art and art about sustainability is quite significant. For the most part, sustainable art involves the reusing and the recycling of found objects and materials (or trash art), rather than resorting to materials hazardous to the ecological balance of the environment.
Sustainable art examples
The following are examples of artists who – whether intentionally or not – have developed multiple bodies of works using repurposed materials in their works of assemblage, installation, and collage.
Ghanaian artist El Anatsui (b. 1944) creates sculptures out of liquor bottle caps, cassava graters, and newspaper printing plates. With his signature weaving technique, these metal wall hangings look like textiles. In 2015, he won the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale. His work is currently part of the collections of Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and the Kunstmuseum Bern.
Credit: El Anatsui, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) would scour the streets of New York to find bits of wood – including mouldings, dowels, spindles, and furniture parts – and compile them into all-black assemblages, like Big Black (1963) and Black Wall (1959). Later in her career, and as she had increased access to resources, the artist began opting for less ecological industrial materials like aluminium and steel.
Credit: Amon Carter Museum of American ARt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In his early career, British sculptor and Turner-prize award winner Tony Cragg (b. 1949) experimented with “rubbish”, like the assorted detritus in his 1975 work Stack. He also explored colourful compositions with found objects with household plastic, such as New Stones (1978).
Known for her large installations, New York-based artist Phoebe Washburn (b. 1973) repurposes scraps of material like wood and cardboard in her work. Her 2003 site-specific piece, True, False, and Slightly Better, was presented at the Rice University Art Gallery in Houston, Texas and utilised thousands of cardboard boxes that she had collected from the loading docks and streets of New York, then painted while keeping the outer labels intact.
Sustainable practices for artists
If you’re an artist looking to become more eco-conscious in your work, there are a myriad of swaps and changes that you can take on, like the following:
Repurposing and recycling
Instead of generating new wasteful demand, help contribute to a circular economy by prolonging the life of existing materials. Assemblage and collage – both which typically tend to rely on existing materials – are just two of many exciting forms that artists have used across the years.
Opting for non-toxic paint and materials
There’s no need to let go of your painting practice. Acrylic paint is a petroleum-derived polymer (or plastic) but there are many sustainable art materials and nature-friendly alternatives that you can opt for instead. The advocacy centre Consumer Action suggests water mixable oil paints or all-natural paints pigmented by botanical extracts.
Minimising travel and transport
Works of art that need to travel far for a destination – whether for an art fair, gallery, museum, or collector – undeniably generate a footprint. There is a vast selection of online CO2 emission calculators for both cargo and passenger travel that can help you make the best decisions on how to ship your art, or plan your own travel.
Cover Credit: See-ming Lee from Hong Kong SAR, China, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Writer | Bana Bissat
Bana Bissat is a Milan-based writer who reports on sound art for Sound of Life. She has written for Flash Art, Lampoon, and Cultured. @banabissat