Nature, the Environment and their Uses in Art
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“I name that man an artist who creates forms… I call that man a craftsman who reproduces forms.”
Malraux is talking about artists and craftsmen, but might as well be talking about artists and designers. The audacity of the lowly “reproducers” was penalised by the iconoclasts, and perhaps we harbour the same fundamental suspicions about designers, people paid to build and sell us dreams just as frequently as they build and sell us houses. Yet it strikes me that there are two ways of dodging the suspicions of the public- the use of the imagination, and the use of Nature. If the two can be happily married then this superior union ought to germinate a magic all its own.
“Moreover, a taste, not to say a passion, for building must be engrained in the child. Mechanical toys and mechanised entertainment kill his imagination and initiative; the feat of putting building blocks on top of each other hardly taxes the brain of a monkey”
So the designer presents himself as a kind of sub-originator, and defers his symbolism to the greater origin. There is an individual and a more cosmic interest at work at the same time. The artist grows like a tree, developing, spreading, the ideas rising from the mysterious soils and falling like leaves. But the broader picture, a fluxing creative rhythm bridged by moments in time, demands a grander theory of unification.
Nature is as synonymous with decay as it is with growth. The ephemera of modern life is as temporary, inevitable, immediate, as nature itself. Our cities have become sort of flaking, dying, layered forests, with their own dangers and rhythms of life and death. Everywhere we find reminders of our own impact on our surroundings- it is human nature, we can't help trying to clothe our hairless bodies and modify everything around us to make our lives more comfortable. But for some this seems to be a source of almost biblical guilt, and people go to extraordinary lengths, for their own reasons, to cover their tracks and paint their human presence out of the landscape altogether.
Hundertwasser's house in Vienna , and his designs for the “Eye Slit house” spring immediately to mind. Are we guilty enough to try to make our impact completely invisible? There can be no contention over the point that man has a negative impact on his environment and it may be that one solution is hiding man's impact altogether, (to enfold ourselves in nature's arms, camouflaging ourselves in Her) while another might be to try to disguise our impact by turning our constructions into impersonations of Her. Is this really any different to the fearful icon building of ancient times, and do the “uglier”, modernist, construction-stating buildings represent a sort of iconoclasm- a return to buildings being made for human functionality rather than as a fearful acknowledgement of nature's power as a constructor?
Most of the architectural structures which are intended to resemble nature draw attention to the similarities between buildings and plants. Both are subject to a functional rhythm, both have access points, layers, a projectile dynamic- in other words, a sense of growth and promise. Yet plants are transcient, not concrete: they grow and bloom and fade and die, like people. They nourish and protect and reproduce and crumble away. The contrast with sturdy, permanent building materials used for, say, gothic cathedrals, Romanesque churches, the Eden Project, the Golden Gate Bridge, presents a sense of wonder and beauty in itself. Because plants are not like buildings. Buildings are sturdy and static and monumental. It is a fantastic thing to see a grand self-generating plant-beast made of concrete, it is alien and dreamlike and mesmerising - but it is all these things because it is impossible. It enchants us because its beauty comes from a faraway, magical land, not from a world we know about but from one we would like to know- one in our dreams. Designs based on nature not only solve our problems, sate our yearnings and answer our questions, they also create new problems, new yearnings, and new questions.
1) Ecology since the 17th Century: historical relationships with Nature
In the preface to “The Origins of form in Art”, Herbert Read references Henri Focillon, who suggested that life itself is a creator of forms, that there's no real distinction between art and life:
“Life is form, and form is the modality of life. The relationships that bind forms together in nature cannot be pure chance, and what we call “Natural Life” is in effect a relationship between forms, so inexorable that without it this natural life could not exist. So it is with art…constitute an order for, and metaphor of, the entire universe.”
Nature is uncontrollable and unpredictable- it is an ancient metaphor for uncontrollable intervention and for everything we can't accurately forecast. There is even an ancient Japanese treatise on archery which details the way in which the hardest part of the entire sport is waiting for the natural release of the string- a moment of serenity and detachment; total absence of striving. The flow of inspiration to the artist is analogous to this although it is unclear whether the creator's inspiration rises from this or rises like it.
Theorists have long been aware of this ambiguity and have thematised it themselves.
Michael Fried interprets the woods, rocks and glens in Courbet's paintings as faces or symbols or metaphors. Christopher Wood finds terrifying anthropomorphised trees looming over the subjects of Altdorfer's exquisite scenes. The point is that those people who look at art, who are also interested in using it as an expression of themselves, consistently seek reflection in the pools provided by nature, natural imagery provides the perfect apparatus, somehow, for the admirer of human creativity to integrate the object into their own field of experience.
When Paul Klee wrote that “The creation of a work of art is compared to the growth of a tree- its roots in the earth, crown in the air.” he is presenting an image of flow, as if an artist stands near the tree to allow the sap to rush in. This flow, though, occurs without conscious effort and the artist, crucially, experiences a transformation.
“ The idea that art is not a mirrored reflection of a given reality, but also a transformation of one element (which has its roots underground, in the unconscious) into another (made conscious in time and space). The artist is merely a channel whose function it is to transmit the forces of nature into forms of art.”
Vivante's assessment that “art, far from being non-conscious, is a conquest of consciousness” is revealing, but wisely countered by Read, “Admittedly, the artists themselves may not always know when they are merely exploiting the unconscious, rather than “letting loose the riot of tender shoots””
As nature and art are so closely related, almost counter intuitively, so words and nature and words and art, are sometimes indistinguishable. All are concerned with abstraction, with roots, with origins, “we establish…our sense of reality by creating, for each experience, a clear and appropriate symbol- vocal sounds which were eventually stabilized as words. Every words was once an original work of art.”
Whenever anything becomes too prevalent, too integrated into our consumer vocabulary, we scarcely notice it anymore and it loses its impact. In becoming part of our environment, ourselves, the cliché ceases to become something desirous to us.
Designed solutions respond to an expression of specific desire or need, and so become a meta expression of the same need. While design solutions sate specific hungers, art is an expression, and not even necessarily a resolution of, thematic desires. Poetry and the visual arts dance around the cliché while occasionally retaining originality (Poussin's Dance to the Music of Time is a delightfully literal example of this)- art finds a janus-faced simultaneity, a place for both the cliché of nature and the pure artistic drive of “artisticness”. Design, however, is trapped in the problem solving one-dimensional rationality of the prevailing zeitgeist. Perhaps nature is a way of side-stepping the cliché, but it can also present itself, maddeningly indistinguishably, as the alluring siren.
Maybe there is a link between the mechanised production of imagery and forms and the predominance of natural imagery in the products and lifestyles consumed by people nowadays. There could well be a relationship, yet unexplored, between the unnatural production of natural images and the homogeneity of the images themselves. If the origins are authentic and essential then we should expect products to be more persuasive, more reflective of their origins, more transparent. Mechanisation has allowed for imagery to “ride the zeitgeist” and generate a new kind of language of “natural” iconography- perhaps where once there was religious iconography.
In Poussin's Dance to the Music of Time we find Arcadia, the natural utopia, being equated to male/female synthesis, and then, on another level, the gender synthesis standing for a synthesis of heaven and earth in the familiar conceit of rhythm. In Peter Blake's extraordinary work, The Arcadian Cipher pentagram shapes are located everywhere as a kind of unification symbol: Blake is anxious to synthesise traditionally opposing forces, and make sense of illogical harmonies through the imposition (or uncovering, in his terms) of this particular hypograph. His choice of symbol is less important than his- and other academic semiosticians' - impulse towards holism. I have already suggested that artists are involved in a janus headed effort: always trying to channel pure nature and represent her in a familiar language- to experience and the represent the cliché at once. Blake's assessment of the Dance describes the duplicity:
“For where the other two pentagrams represent the Jesus figure and Pan, this definitely connects them with a female element. Through it we are able to establish a male/female partnership both in heaven and on Earth and between heaven and Earth, and it is one which symbolises the poles upon which the Earth spins.
The painting depicts Hermes playing his lyre – music was his method of communication between two worlds- and a group of earthly figures dancing to his celestial tune. On the left hand side of the work is a column on which is mounted a carving…of two heads facing away from each other.”
Theory of this sort, while certainly in constant danger of toppling into quasi-science, superbly exemplifies the inextricability of Nature and Geometry. Theories of Arcadia are saturated with geometric semiotics; art writers constantly trace and re-trace paintings, covering them in layers and layers of “mathematical” justification. Whether any of these theories have any real use or even make any sense outside of their own self-imposed rules is not my point. I am interested in the relationship between the powers of nature and the powers of men, the irresistible urge to explain the mysteries of nature, her circadian rhythms, her life giving and life stealing properties, her silent chthonic swell and the threat and awe experienced by the bewildered humans that observe her.
As one of the most evocative and symbolically potent plants on the planet, the cactus has played many roles in South American tradition and folklore. As with any hostile climate, indigenous species that seem to offer solace will inevitably acquire mystical significance as the protection they offer is associated with promise. To the parched population of parched landscapes, cacti are life-giving, life-saving, surprising, mysterious, frightening- divine.
Cacti started off on American continents, and are still most associated with these places- but they have experienced a massive geographical distribution over the centuries, and cacti have been able to instigate habitats around the world. One rumour says that Christopher Columbus was the first person to have taken the first cactus to Europe, presenting this 'peculiar' plant to Queen Isabella of Spain, however this is of course apocryphal.
During their explorations on the American continents, the Spanish Conquistadors found, among many other things, these strange 'vision inducing' plants that were utilised ceremonially by the natives as a religious sacrament and was revered as virtual gods. The native South American name for their spineless dense-shaped cactus (Lophophora Williamsii) was 'peyoti'. It is a plant native to Mexican and south west US with button like tubercles which may be eaten fresh or dried as a narcotic. Initially, Cacti ('peyoti') were employed for healing purposes, for attempting to divine the future and for generating hallucinogenic visions during scared rites. Although these hallucinations often appear to be compared to LSD trips, the peyote “acid” is 4000 times less potent, only briefly affecting the chemical balance and activity of the brain.
The Spanish chronicler, Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, claimed that natives used a certain plant to induce hallucinatory state and estimated that 'peyote' was widely used at least 1890 years before the arrival of Europeans. The earliest European record dates from around 1635 with the first column of Historia de las Indias Occidentales by Gonzalo Hernandez de Oviedo y Valdes appeared with illustrations of what we would now classify as Cereus and Opuntia.
In 1886 that the German pharmacologist, Louis Lewin, published the first systematic study of the cactus, to which his own name was subsequently given- Anhalonium lewinii. The cactus was already well known and loved by primitive religions and the Indians of Mexico and the American Southwest. One of the early Spanish visitors to the New World wrote, "they eat a root which they call peyote, and which they venerate as though it were a deity."
It became clear why this plant was venerated as a god, when such eminent psychologists as Jaensch, Havelock Ellis and Weir Mitchell began their experiments with mescalin, the active principle of peyote. Mescalin research has continued, and now chemists have not only isolated the alkaloid; they have learned how to synthesize it, so that the supply no longer depends on the sparse and infrequent crop of desert cacti. Neurologists and physiologists have spent years investigating the mechanism of mescalin's action upon the central nervous system, and at everyone from philosophers to writers- notably Aldous Huxley- have taken mescalin in the hope that this mystical cactus extract may shed some light on such ancient, unsolved riddles as the place of mind in nature and the relationship between brain and consciousness.
It is surely no coincidence that the peyote cactus, so ubiquitous, so loved and feared, is also identified as the solution to ancient problems of human displacement. We identify with the cactus perhaps. It projects intelligently, like an alien from the sand, while we wonder how we are supposed to best relate to our surroundings. When we look at the cactus we see ourselves done better. If anything on the planet holds the key to man's reconciliation with his estranged mother nature, it is surely the cactus. It is too alien to be part of our problem, we reason, so it must be part of the solution.
2) Taoism and Nature
“Humans model themselves on earth,
Earth on heaven,
Heaven on the Way,
And the way on that which is naturally so.”
Lao Tse Daodejing (Tao te ching) #251
This simple but sententious dictum was delivered by an Chinese ancient sage, Lao Tse, the founder of Taoism. The saying suggests a means of building a harmonious relationship between beings and nature. Taoist ideas about conservation and ecology, with nature as the inspiration and conclusion to all things, reflect and resemble new philosophies of industrial design, to some extent. Alongside Buddhism and Confucianism, Taoism is one of the three great religions of China. It can be roughly translated into English as “path”, or “the way”- that is, the way of correspondence between man and nature, and the way that is a kind of path of nature - the course of natural world. The term Tao describes a power that envelops and flows through all things, both living and nonliving. As such, it serves to regulate natural processes and encourage a cosmic balance of all things in the Universe.
Tao suggests that the answers to life's problems can be found through inner meditation and outer observation. Taoist ideas and images may have nurtured or inspired a love of nature in the Chinese, so that they have traditional felt a need to protect it, and have had many ways of cultivating an affinity with it. The Chinese have always seen nature as a companion, a place of security and support to which they could retreat from the cares of the world to rest or heal themselves. Nature, through Tao, is also sincerely life-affirming. Nature can be unfathomably brutal and Tao constantly reminds that the external world is explicitly on-ideal: in fact, according to Tao, the ideal world can only be found through a spiritual path. The only thing that might compromise one's eternal happiness, in Tao as in Buddhism, was a state of mind, an attitude.
Both Tao and Nature are associated with a non-materialistic attitude to life, a spiritual approach to living which many perceive as a possible answer to the social issues of today: the problems of sustaining a unified and healthy social order. Taoists believe their religion holds the answers, as it advises its followers to emulate nature, with its simplicity and relaxed, non-intellectual approach to life. Tao seems to suggest that many of the environmental problems of today have arisen from a materialistic human attitude that has overwhelmed man's spiritual relationship with his natural environment. Rather than coexisting with our living space, people have begun challenging it, and it has even become a respectable achievement to be seen to “conquer” nature.
An estimated 42 million acres of tropical rainforest are destroyed annually, an area the size of Washington State. Around 50,000 species of plants and animals are condemned to extinction every year, an average of about 140 species a day. There are more people than ever, and these people routinely pillage resources, destroy or change natural processes arbitrarily and are support the production of thousands of products that lead towards the 'destructive path' of the environment – contradicting the Taoist 'path'. Increasingly materialist in their lifestyles, most people believe that only matter exists, leaving no room for spiritual beliefs. Our quest for pleasure corresponds to a demand placed on the Earth for immediate gain. The visible world takes precedence over any spiritual or psychological activities and ultimately a form of materialism becomes the only truth and belief. Nature's force is unknowable in its essence but observable in its manifestations. With the crisis of energy and resources, the crisis of ecology and environment, the crisis of belief and mortality we experience force in the form of nature's lamenting reactions.
"We believe in the formless and eternal Tao, and we recognize all personified deities as being mere human constructs. We reject hatred, intolerance, and unnecessary violence, and embrace harmony, love and learning, as we are taught by Nature. We place our trust and our lives in the Tao, which we may live in peace and balance with the Universe, both in this mortal life and beyond."
- Creed of the Western Reform Taoist Congregation
The recent revival of instinctive desires preserve the health of our planet's life without compromising human comfort is the task of ecological attitudes in art and design. Those ecological design solutions that take on board Taoist philosophies link nature, culture, and technology to resituate social human requirements in an environment where the balance of nature receives precedence. Artists and designers must of course work within the constraints imposed by their clients, including the practical and material demands made by every stage of production.
Classical Taoist philosophy, formulated in part by Laozi (the Old Master, 5th century B.C.), in part by the editor of the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and its Power), and in part by Zhuangzi (3rd century B.C.), represented a reinterpretation and development of an ancient nameless tradition of nature worship and divination. Laozi and Zhuangzi, living at a time of social disorder and great religious skepticism developed the notion of the Dao (Tao - way, or path) as the origin of all creation and the force - unknowable in its essence but observable in its manifestation that underlies the mechanisms of the natural world. These men saw in Dao, Nature, and in Nature, Dao. In both these Ways lay the secret to harmonious living. According to these early teachers, the order and harmony of nature was a model for human structures, so much more stable and enduring than either the power of the state or the civilized institutions constructed by human learning. The early Taoists taught the art of living and surviving by conforming with the natural way of things; they called their approach to action wuwei (wu-wei -- lit. no-action), action modelled on nature. As one writer explains,
“Their sages were wise, but not in the way the Confucian teacher was wise, learned and a moral paragon. Zhuangzi's sages were often artisans, butchers or woodcarvers. The lowly artisans understood the secret of art and the art of living. To be skillful and creative, they had to have inner spiritual concentration and put aside concern with externals, such as monetary rewards, fame, and praise. Art, like life, followed the creative path of nature, not the values of human society.”
Chinese history is dense with stories of people who have grown tired of the pretensions and desperation of social activism increasingly aware of the fragility of human achievements, and whose response has been to retire from the world and turn to nature. Such people have traditionally retreated to a countryside or mountain setting to commune with natural beauty, often composing poetry about nature , or painting interpretations of the scenes surrounding them, as they attempted to capture the creative forces at the heart of Nature's vitality. Such people might share their excursions with friends or family, drinking a bite of wine, enjoying the autumn leaves or the evening skies.
The literature of Chinese utopians often had a Taoist slant: Tao Qian's famous "Peach Blossom Spring" told of a fisherman who happened across an idyllic Chinese community who had fled a war-torn land centuries earlier, and lived in perfect simplicity and harmony ever since, blissfully oblivious to the turmoil of history beyond their idyll. While the inhabitants urged him to stay, the fisherman departed and shared his discovery with a local official. However hard he tried, he never found a path back to the grove. The fisherman never found a route back because he had failed to understand that he had discovered an abstracted, ideal, world – and one which was to be found not via an external path, but a spiritual one. The utopia was a state of mind, a unique attitude.
Laozi and Zhuangzi had reinterpreted nature worship and belief in esoteric “magical” arts as something both more abstract and more tangible, but the ancient methods and beliefs crept back into the tradition as ways of using knowledge of the Dao to enhance and prolong life. Despite its pragmatism, for some Taoism would always go hand in hand with magical belief. Some Taoists poured their energies into a search for "isles of the immortals," or for herbs that could unlock the secrets of immortal life. Many Taoists were interested in health and carried out many studies of herbal medicine and pharmacology, in fact entailing significant advancements in these arts. Taoists even worked out the principles of macrobiotic cooking and other supposedly new and healthy diets. Sensitive to natural processes, they recorded gymnastic mechanisms and studied the effects of massage on keeping the body strong and youthful.
Taoists were, then, both magicians and of proto-scientists: they represented the sector of Chinese culture that most closely studied and communed with nature. Some Taoists held that nature was filled with spirits however, theosophically, such spirits were simply many manifestations of the one Dao, something impossible to represent as a single image or in one discreet form.
“The Tao of Heaven operates mysteriously and secretly ; it has no fixed shape; it follows no definite rules; it is so great that you can never come to the end of it, it is so deep that you can never fathom it.”
The Huai Nau Tzu
The central theme of Taoism is a relationship, and as such contradicts the general western attitude to nature. Nature should not be considered as something passive, awaiting man's masterful control, but as an equal or even superior partner be mastered in a relationship. The aim of the Taiost is to rediscover and eventually merge with the ordered origin of the universe and the only way to do so is the Tao – the path shown to us by nature.
Early Taoist philosophers set out from their civilised worlds to take expeditions into the natural world, where they hoped to learn from primitive people living in remote mountain villages. Initially they aimed to introduce the benefits of human civilization to the mysteriously rhythmed order of nature. According to the Tao, nature is
“infinitely wise, infinitely complex, and infinitely irrational. One must take a yielding stance and abandon all intellectual preconceptions. The goal is wu wei, doing nothing contrary to nature. Nature does not need to be perfected or improved. It is we who need to change; we need to come into accord.”
Contrary to one possible interpretation of Yin/Yang, Taoists rejected all dichotomies, including the fundamental existence/non existence one, since it is their belief that both stem from the same source, “Athe deep and the profound." Rather, Taoism's goal is to use consciousness of duality and wisdom about it to reach the stage before any dualities existed. There is only one path to this source, then – the observation of nature. As one writer explains,
“The Tao is a divine chaos, not a random accident. It is fertile, undifferentiated, and teeming with unrealized creation. It is the mother of everything in nature; it is a great darkness that operates spontaneously to give birth and life to all things.”
3) Ecological thinking in contemporary art and design
Are we really moving towards a common lexicon of human creation and natural creation? Alan Power cites Steiner's “startling prediction”,
“ Buildings will begin to speak. They will speak a language of which people have as yet not even an inkling,”
Yet I wonder how startling this really is. Buildings are indeed more “scientific”, more complex with less obvious evidence of human intervention. Many buildings nowadays appear to have been designed and built by aliens, no longer made to be lived in but impenetrable to our rational human minds. Again, they resemble complex organisms in their initially baffling structure, their illogical shapes and apparent preference of shape and form to practicality. But they are still made by humans, albeit humans employing a dozen layers of technology to translate abstract geometry into audaciously confusing formulae. They are still constructed by and for humans to use, and to that extent are utterly comprehensible, at least to the humans that use them. Where there is room for gratuitous aesthetic treatment in a design, designers, consciously or not, grasp the zeitgeist, construct from fashionable and available materials, and exploit their artistic freedom as far as their unconscious notions of the “aesthetic” will allow them to. These notions, I am attempting to argue, are controlled by biologically ingrained forms of the organic. It doesn't matter if a building is technically accomplished to exhibit skeletal forms, as with the giant domes of the Eden Complex in Cornwall, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and the Mildred Cooper chapel in Arkansas or swollen like the pregnant belly of the Guggenheim, NY . Nature can be found in all design, both rational and irrational, and the more we try to escape it, to avoid mimicking it, the more we are forced to study its base rules, its gravity and its ebb and flow, the tensile strength of its spider-webs, the effects of its uncontrollable eruptions and tidal waves and tornados.
Nature is absolutely full of potential metaphors for ways in which we can improve our lives. Today, apple peels are being used by scientists at the University of Clemson as a metaphor for edible packages' disolvable pouches like boil in the bags that add protein to a macaroni and cheese dinner, or packages that act as a booster for laundry detergent. There's certainly a human instinct to perceive products inspired in obvious ways by nature, as being somehow “good” for us, or “good” in a moral sense. Of course, human instincts are not to be trusted blindly, and it doesn't follow that because a kind of packaging is inspired by an apple core it is environmentally friendly, inspirational, beautiful, or better for us or the world. But I suppose it has a slightly higher chance of being one or more of these things, our instincts are not too wide of the mark and do control the things we want to buy and sell.
A study entitled “Trees in Small City Business Districts:
Comparing Responses of Residents & Potential Visitors” begins,
“This study tested whether public response to trees in the downtown business districts of smaller cities is comparable. Research methods included interviews and mail-out surveys. Survey respondents prefer having large trees in retail streetscapes. Trees are also associated with reported increases in patronage behavior (such as travel distance and visit frequency), and willingness to pay more for products. Few differences in response were detected between small city residents and potential visitors who reside in large cities.”
What is it about natural organisms that make us want to part with our money? Marketing strategies state such things as fact, using careful example to “prove” what we “intuitively” want to believe is true - that “good product and package designers have known for centuries- that the best inspiration for new products comes from nature. The camera mimics the human eye. Helicopters, like hummingbirds, can hover and fly backwards. Velcro brand fasteners were inspired by prickily burrs attached to a Scottish inventor's boot.”
They get away with this because nature is, and has always been, such an alien force to us humans, as we have seen. Like an alien from another planets, we hope it will be benevolent and, through its own irrepressible character, its mysterious and enviable immortality, hold the secrets to our own improved lifestyles and lifespans. Of course our relationship with nature has changed slightly as we have changed, as a race, but our view of Her remains essentially the same as ever. We still need to imitate and control what we see outside us, in the hope that we can sypher off a little of the magic and mystery for ourselves. In the developed world these harmless, yet irrepressible rhythms are increasingly invisible. It is possible to spend months in a city dwelling, never seeing a dead animal, a nesting bird, a tree in blossom. Nature has become more promising, more mysterious, more magical, and more frightening through its real invisibility, but nature is not wilfully elusive or coy, this is an invisibility we that have imposed.
Inevitably, the packages and products that are environmentally superior that are kind to nature also resemble it: they might be inherently efficient, easily recycable, and often they use recycled materials made from renewable resources. One organisation creating such products, back in their 1990s heyday, was “Zerosm”, and they identified several techniques for generating environmental product designs.
“Technique #1: Emulate nature's models directly. Some of the most exciting green products on the market today take their inspiration direct from nature's principles. IBM's PS/E computer hibernates when it's not in use so it saves energy. Mazda's 929 car has solar cells on its roof that run a ventilating system when the car is parked in the sun. By matching the respiration rate of vegetables, W.R. Grace's breathable package keeps produce fresher longer.”
Less convincingly, their promotional literature goes on to say that “a good way to reduce packaging is to package in bulk. Nature has a way of packaging in bulk. It's called the pea pod.” I think it is probably dangerous to ally human economics to Mother Nature's too closely. Nature is spectacularly wasteful in many ways, after all, and seeing too much hyper efficient human design in the natural world does smack rather suspiciously of evangelical Christian sympathies…
As the zealous promoter proclaims, confidently, and ironically expressing the weakest argument,
“In trying to address environment-related challenges, doesn't it just make intuitive sense to get to the source? Starting today, make room on your Environmental Packaging and Product Committees for Mother Nature!”
Our intuitions are not the ultimate authority on matters like this. Solving these oblique “environment related” challenges requires precision, scientific rigour, sensitivity, awareness, rationality and a predictive imagination borne from experience. Creating products that fall into sympathy with nature's rhythms is not an intuitive activity for human beings, creatures interested “intuitively” only in modifying their environments to their own benefit.
Perhaps even more tenuous is the suggestion that “Nature” has “devised” gravity itself, as a means of “making her work lighter”. “This principle is at work in Colgate's cartonless toothpaste tube. Standing the tube on its head eliminates the need for a carton, and the gravity helps to solve the age-old problem of getting all of the product out.” The argument is weakened irretrievably by such straw grasping. Physical processes are manipulated, mimicked, and exploited in product design, of course but physical (cosmic?) processes like gravity have nothing to do with our unconscious associations with the “Natural” and a personified “Mother Nature”.
“Technique #2: Study nature's processes. Study how nature does the same things you are trying to do. This can help you clarify the issues, and it can come in handy when trying to communicate the issues to your peers and to consumers. Do you realize that there are no landfills in nature? In nature, nothing goes to waste. Everything is recycled. Manure fertilizes the fields upon which cows graze. Soil represents decayed plants and animals.”
There is some truth in this, but it does raise, and miss, some interesting questions about the psychopathology of waste. We are practically bound to experience concern about the amount of waste we generate as a species, but we also experience intolerable, if subconscious, guilt, about the waste we do produce. Marketers exploit our guilt, “did you know you waste…of water every year? Spend a third of your life on the toilet?” etc. We would rather suppress it, but environmental issues are wrapped in and supported by our own guilt, guilt at being humans with cars and fridges and hairspray cans, but mostly guilt at being animals who must hide their meat in fancy cookery, hide their bodies in civilised trappings, and secretly copulate and reproduce and excrete behind our civilised doors.
“Technique #3: Change the System. No man is an island, and no package is either. There are many opportunities available for reducing packaging by making changes within the system in which your product or package operates.
Back in high school biology you learned that in eco stems, all organisms are interrelated and interdependent. Trees, for example, sustain squirrels who then help to distribute the seeds that reproduce the trees. The strength of the Apple Computer company is thought to come as much from the ecosystem of hardware and software companies that has grown up around it as much from the company's own internal resources.”
This kind of comparison is rather unhelpful. Organisms are systems, of course systems resemble organisms, but it is tenuous and unnecessary to suggest that a company's “eco system” is founded on a natural “eco system”. Whatever this country's picture of Mother Nature is, she appears to include physical laws such as gravity, abstract mechanisms of production, her own objectively and morally Good waste disposal system that precludes humans- who are “bad”- unable to dispose of their guilty waste, and left off the Ark. If nothing else, this surely proves the difficulties in talking about Nature. It is a word with so many potent associations, not all of them comfortably compatible, that adopting it for inspiration is easy, but involving it in a sales pitch is only easy if that pitch disguises itself as a treatise on inspiration.
Ruskin and Morris were perhaps the earliest exploiters of this universal sense of nature's aesthetic and moral superiority. As a source of inspiration, Nature was a consensually superlative. If dreams were in the past, it was a reminder and a re-assembler of the pleasant personal experiences of millions of individuals. If dreams were themselves a consensus, then Nature embodied the ultimate dream of Christian past - and future too Eden was a Garden after all. At a time when town dwellers rejected their rural origins to seek the superficial “progress” associated with the new urban life, John Ruskin yearned to reinstall the Nature of his own past,
“ All vitality is concentrated through those throbbing arteries (the railways) into central cities: the country is passed over like a green sea by narrow bridges, and we are thrown back in continually closer crowds upon the city gates.”
Meanwhile, across the pond, a small but increasingly influential group of progressive reform-minded American architects turned their attention to the unhealthy, squalid conditions of the poor in the industrial city. Seeking to design and promote healthful "social" housing, they looked to this developing English tradition of functionalism and social housing, the sort promoted by Ruskin and William Morris. This tradition aimed to improve occupants' living conditions by introducing design elements such as internal courtyards, light shafts that brought external light and ventilation to common stairwells, as well as radically reduced site coverage and inhabitant density. Health and nature were curiously synonymous in the new American urban planning movement. It is curious particularly when we consider that Ruskin's and Morris's ideas also had a marked anti-urban bias, which later urban planners adopted and amplified.
As the United States rapidly industrialized in the late nineteenth century, people gravitated en masse to urban manufacturing centres- centres that were unprepared for the influx. The absence of carefully considered central plans to absorb this new population resulted in increased densities and the proliferation of disease and unrest in the nation's cities. Developers, desiring to maximize profits in a promising marketplace, built structures quickly and poorly- adding frequent fires and building collapse to the growing panoply of urban hazards. Late nineteenth century social reformers, appalled by the dangerous and unhealthy city, turned to pastoral values in their search for solutions.
One such reformer was landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who advocated a picturesque town layout as a panacea for the city's grime and monotony. Olmsted was a critic of the harsh Manhattan 25' x 100' lot gridiron, and stressed the importance of integrating informal natural beauty through the use of winding pathways and asymmetrical clusters of buildings. He adhered to the four principles of the picturesque garden: irregularity, intricacy, movement, and roughness. The romantic picturesque garden was brought to the United States by Andrew Jackson Downing as an antidote, not only to the inflexible purism of the Greek Revival of the 1830s and 1840s, but to the geometries of a quickly industrializing land. In the face of growing urban industrialization, the Arcadian idea flourished, both as an aesthetic ideal and as a moral principle, sending the message that "the country is good for you," and implicitly, "the city is bad for you." Olmsted adopted Downing's principles of picturesque plot planning, implementing them on the grand scale of Central Park. In Central Park, Omlsted utilized winding roads, underpasses and a sustained illusion of natural variety in the heart of New York City. Olmsted's vision was later picked up and further elaborated by the Garden City movement, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. Olmsted's work was popular, but his picturesque aesthetic ideology was inevitably in tension with the growing standardization and the “rational grid” that was to become an emblem of early 20th Century design.
Section 4: Looking at land art – the natural environment as the new museum
“Andy Goldsworthy processes 'raw materials' in the literal sense of the word: materials as they are found in nature. That has certainly been, in primeval times, the starting point of human production as such. But gradually nature itself came to be processed before being subject to further manipulation. No longer the fleece of the sheep is washed and cut: it is the wool that is sheared, combed, spun before entering the fabric as a thread…Not so with Goldsworthy: his colours are not just squeezed out of a tube. He uses the very colours found just like that in an autumn forest. They are all over the place. Just like sticks, pebbles, plumes, icicles and all the other materials Goldsworthy is using.”
Such is Goldsworthy's supreme economy of natural forces – his is a true ecology of art.
Goldsworthy's use of “found” materials exemplifies an almost Tao-like harmonious approach: his is a way rather than a series of acts – the simplicity of the materials used suits the simplicity of the artist's treatment of them. Goldsworthy involves himself in the selecting, displacing or rearranging of leaves, pebbles, sticks, rocks, feathers, ice, petals, and other natural materials. If he uses instruments at all, they too are constructed from very raw basic materials: the sand will be moved around with a stick; like some ancient shaman he will employ thorns as pins or needles. Generally, though, he leaves nature to speak for itself, letting it work without isolation or encouragement from his human influence, such as when he allows shards of ice to freeze together or melt. This artist avoids kiln-baking, preferring to leave clay to dry in the sun. The processing is constructive and positive, or deconstructive and negative: such as his man-made structures of sand which the tide pulls away or the snowball that collapses in on itself as it melts.
Even Andy Goldsworthy's composition is minimal, indeed he uses minimalism to uncover, rather than impose, the order already extant in nature. Goldsworthy transforms the chaos of multicoloured leaves on the forest floor into a regulated colour wheel, or from light to dark, arranging pebbles from according to shade or size. He replaces the random pattern of scattered sticks with a beautifully composed circle, a harmony of lines. This artist retrieves pieces lost to gravity, stacking the grounded debris into triumphant towers, arches, cones – upholding the wasted as something heroic and grand.
This artist contrasts the randomness of “found” objects with a created order, as his creations are set starkly in contrast, apparently the antithesis of the natural backdrop. However, it would be erroneous to suggest Goldsworthy's work is somehow unnatural – its unnatural quality is an illusion of context, and a deliberate one at that. Every shape from his straight lines to his winding spirals, circles and egg shapes are “natural” in their composition, and only artificial in their new context. Hence Goldsworthy's work expresses a symmetry between human and natural worlds, as much an ideological ecology as a practical one.
The compositions are occasionally deceptive, so natural looking that they barely seem to have been near a human hand. But the secondary layer of representation are these works' salvation: Goldsworthy has bothered to take the photograph, causing us to pause and look. We might take note of a crack running through a line of stones, but it requires some intellectual effort to dissemble this image, to identify exactly what it is that feels so strange about it. Cracks are natural, but not in rows of pebbles.
The impact of Goldsworthy's art comes from his reluctance to remove the objects from their natural environment. It is the untouched virginity of the environment that enables us to see the disturbance – that grants it visibility. If these works were transported into an artificial, say, gallery environment, they would become meaningless. In this way Goldsworthy's works, attitude, ethic, career – his “bread and butter” - are inextricably attached to the natural world.
This artist's point is not to create an object. The “art” does not lie in the objects he uses, or the places where he lies them. Rather, Goldsworthy intends to use his interventions to express the spirit of creativity itself. The spirit of creativity and the creativity of the spirit. Thus the beauty of his work is not in its completion, but in the process and love of creation, the activity which resulted in the startlingly magical final effect. Such creativity seems to remind us of a half forgotten harmony with nature: the unwritten rules we intuitively know about intervention – that we may adapt but not to assault Her.
Goldsworthy's art is technically accomplished, linear, masculine, even – and as such has been interpreted as tacitly critical of industrial production methods, those rigid processes that begin so far down the line from primary material and which subject nature to an apparently endless series of transformations, as if striving to subdue Her power with the harsher one of man.
Art works that exist outside the museum, that have infiltrated the popular iconography of our daily lives, have such an extraordinary cultural power as iconography that they are no longer mere art works- but act as signifiers for a vast array of social meanings. The new significance has turned the old significance fugitive to some extent: the world is drowning in iconographic and reproduced images, and as an army of their likenesses marches across the globe, the original paintings, drawings and sculptures lose power and relevance daily. Consider the way that a saw slices unresisted through a tree, or the laser cuts thick steel plates. Nature never fights back in any direct way, and Goldsworthy reminds us that we, as part of the natural world, have a responsibility to hold fire. Goldsworthy's silent advice is more beautiful and poignant for its ecology of material, by using nature as a mouthpiece he allows it to speak for itself.
In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin claimed that what was lost in a work of art when it was reproduced was its "aura," a uniqueness that gave it its mysterious power. Photographs, he believed, lacked the aura that a traditional work of art supposedly has. Barthes' response is fascinating: for him a photograph had a melancholic quality all its own. It is as though our new museum of the reproduced image can be invested with sentimental historical reference by those who “visit” it, but that it must be the visitor's choice to do so. There is an ethical implication to this, because it cloaks a hint that there is a “right” way to look at art. Moreover it is surely an elitist position to be able to theorise about the “aura” or otherwise of a work of art at all.
As art, for many is still often (and not always incorrectly) defined in terms of the museum context, artists must work harder to convince the resistant public that their creations still qualify as “art”. When work liberates itself from the conventional museum space, and journeys outside, or into our homes, computers, televisions, cameras, we suddenly demand know its criteria for self-labelling as “art”, though there is of course always an undesirable situation where people accept something's value as art precisely because they do not know why it is art- when it is taken out of the museum. Even works which are explicitly unframed by representational convention (the “pile of bricks”) would be tolerated more as mysterious and beyond the lexicon of comprehension, if they were removed to a field or photographed and sold as post cards. True, people speak of audacious objects (Goldsworthy's Angel of the North springs to mind) “growing on them” but people also accept Barnham statements and read horoscopes when they have to. There is no retroactive justification in the wobbly testimonials of the general public.
In “Art, Site, Context” Gillian McIver lists the attributes that apply to “site specific” art which do not apply to art within the museum. Firstly art is accessible; since academic institutions are concerned with preserving the elitism of art, she says, unknown artists are forced get their name into the public domain by employing “aggressive marketing strategies”. She also mentions the ephemeral quality of art that has been taken outside,
“In most cases the works made for a particular site owe their existence only in relation to the site. If they can be moved and re-placed at all, they will be changed by this process.6 In this case we can say that the work is ephemeral. This applies equally to Kapoor's Marsyas, made for the Tate's Turbine Hall, as to the House of Detention projects. In many cases the work's “life” exists only for the duration of the exhibition.”
Art removed from the museum space is also much more open to reproduction in the public domain. In particular ephemeral works, such as land art, will be extensively documented and photographed until the photographs themselves are all that remain. If more art in the world means that more people see and enjoy art, then encouraging this kind of reproduction, which uniquely does not necessarily remove anything from the power of the original work, must be a positive thing.
Further, art in the public domain is less easily commodified. Open-air works rarely generate sales, and income for the projects will normally derive from sponsorships and grants. In this way, site-responsive art exists slightly outside of the art market. Photography and video work that comes out of the documentation, will of course have a commodity life outside of the site work- but this is even incidental to the point of photographing it- documentation. A typical “site-responsive” artist is constantly involved in writing proposals and funding applications for the few grants and sponsorships that exist, and they are well aware that art dealers are unlikely to visit their exhibitions.
Most engagingly, McIver defends this kind of art for its “uncoolness”- the more unfashionable something is, the more credibility it generally has, particularly if it cannot easily or obviously be turned into a money spinner,
“It is an “engaged” art form – Above all, site-responsive art is an engaged art form. The artist is interested in what is happening, what has happened, in the place. Working in this way implies questioning, possibly rejecting, the irony and “cool” relativism of certain strains in contemporary art. The artist cannot avoid coming into contact with social, economic and cultural realities during the course of the creative process. Site-responsive art is not necessarily making any direct comment or “telling” the audience what to think, but instead invites them to engage with the very real relationship between place and work, and inviting them to draw their own conclusions.”
Connected, of course, is the tricky question of why the public feels the pressing need to be seen to be “cultured”. An unpopular suggestion might be that some people still unconsciously associate gallery-art with a high degree of cultural fluency, and this in turn with middle class privilege, wealth, and power. Removing art from the gallery space affords it an ostensible air of democracy, but there is no logical reason why breaking down the gallery's walls should cause the public to flock to the objects inside. It is as though a kind of reverse iconoclasm is taking place- the art works are being stripped of their surroundings, the buildings, texts and conventions which are their frames, and left open to the elements. Inevitably, artists sometimes find themselves imbuing their extra-contextual pieces with louder voices: a self-defeating exercise.
This essay has examined some of the ways in which humans around the world have related to their environments over the course of history. Nature seems to be uniquely placed as something representative both of utopian ideals of order and rhythm and mortal horror of chaos and irrational force. Of course Arcadian utopia can be a romanticized version of nature, a tactic of control through dreams of a tranquil pastoral scene, a pleasant Arcadia, a garden of Eden paradise that overlooks some of the "bad" realities: storms, droughts- "Nature red in fang and claw." If the zeitgeist is a reflection of cultural history, and is expressed through advertising, we might find an accurate sense of man's attitudes to nature by looking at a snapshot of his consumer culture. If nature can be used as a device for creating dreams, as much as fulfilling them, then it is a powerful tool indeed for marketing executives everywhere. One environmentalist notes two common ways adverts can use words and images of nature are stated:
“(1) as a generally pleasant background association for any product (e.g. clothes, cars); (2) as a background for products specifically related to the outdoors (e.g. camping gear, boots, travel).”
The writer goes on to discuss a recent trend towards "green marketing" : the term used for ads specifically related to environmental issues, especially in their claims about conservation and recycling.
While the man/nature power battle is an ancient one, the integration of Nature into a lexicon of consumable dreams is a relatively recent development. As late as the 1950s in America, common images (seen in ads and news photos) showed factory smokestacks belching smoke as being symbols of urban power, hard work, industry, and success. Scenes of strip-mining the tops off of mountains and clear-cutting forests like a lawn mower were shown as triumphant symbols of power, of our country's frontier spirit, of "taming the wilderness," of putting empty land to "good use."
According to the same writer, “we no longer see this kind of imagery because the environmental movement starting in the 1960s created a public awareness of the problems of pollution and destruction”, but it strikes me that this is slightly simplistic. It is surely no coincidence that many of these changes occurred in the late 50's, just when consumer culture was taking hold. As soon as people realised they could “buy” their dreams, other people began to realise that dreams could be invented from nebulous images of the mass unconscious “ideals”. The 1960s environmental movement was something else again- perhaps a reaction to new salesman, a suspicion about all these new promises- something perceived as prescriptive, choice-removing, an international oppression.
We no longer have the luxury of what looks from here like a rather naïve counterculture. We are more dependent than ever on “evil” companies, we know that ecologically sustainable environments are, on a grand scale, realistically unsustainable, and we see the corporations (oil and chemical companies, timber and mining interests), spending so much of their advertising budgets to tell us how much they care for the environment. We can't reasonably complain, because it is in our interest to believe them now, if we care about the environment at all. These companies are an invisible part of our life now: we need electricity, water, houses, more than ever, faster than ever, cheaper than ever- we need their economically truthful advertising just to keep us sane. And, as they go on to say:
“When certain words get a "halo effect," then everyone wants to identify themselves and their products with them. Much controversy exists in "green" labelling (about recycling) -- about the definitions, arguments over kind and degree -- because these are complex issues, with big money at stake.”
It is impossible not to lapse into Marxist terminology at some stage. At one end of the production chain, we are interested in whether the consumer product itself can be recycled, in order to avoid waste and destruction. Of course, nowadays, regulations have tried somewhat to establish common standards and terms, so that key words and images such as re-cycle arrows are printed on the product. At the other end, there is the question of whether the producers (oil, chemical, timber, mining) are exploiting, destroying, or polluting the earth and seas. The writer suggests that, since no one wants to be seen as a polluter,
“the corporate ads focus on issues of kind ("We're doing the right thing, the right way.") or degree ("not too much"). Environmentalist critics, of course, reply "it's the wrong thing" or the "wrong degree,"” and identifies two types of corporate advertising, corporate "feel-good" ads and "advocacy" ads, where “Feel-good” ads are vague and general, but they emphasize how much the company does to protect the environment and “Advocacy ads” relate to specific policies (offshore oil drilling, clear-cut logging) and seek to influence the political process directly by asking people to respond by writing to their Senators or Representatives.
“Often, such advocacy ads are not broadcast to general audiences, but are targeted only on specific audiences (by direct mail, magazines) already likely to be "on their side" and likely to exert political pressure.”
Perhaps there is something deeply ingrained in the human psyche which responds positively to the aesthetic of organics. We have seen that the impulse to represent nature in the world we build for ourselves is always “rationalised”-literally- by geometric and technical strategies. I have posited this may be due to our human discomfort in the face of nature's uncontrollable power. Nature, after all, cannot draw straight lines but a man can, with mathematics, whether he be an artist, a designer, or a critic anxiously trying to make sense of a representation of nature.
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