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The twentieth and twenty first centuries have seen massive advances in technology and science. These developments have been proceeding at an ever increasing rate without considering the long term environmental consequences of such drastic changes. Most of our progression has been developed only for the advantage of humans in the short term, designed to benefit us in the immediate future. These hasty decisions and developments have overwhelmed ecosystems placing biodiversity as ecology's most extreme disturbance. For example, intensive farming, deforestation, urbanization, industrialization, soil erosion and the use of pesticides to combat crop failure has had a catastrophic effect on honey bees, especially in the last five years. The company responsible for the manufacturing of many pesticides, a German firm called Bayer, were also responsible for the invention and production of nerve-gas (Zyklon B) during World War 2. It goes without saying that honey bees play a massive part in the fertilisation of many of our food sources (over 80% of flowering plants are entomophilous; dependant on insect fertilization).
We have no research on the long term effects of many of the scientific developments we now use on a daily basis, for example the wide spread use of mobile phones and wireless internet, the use of HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) which is speculated, amongst other things, to be able to blast high frequency radio waves into the ionosphere and into the earth's magnetic field for scientific research. There is no way to predict any long term effects of this sort of probing at the atmosphere. Even if HAARP was originally built for scientific research of the higher levels of the atmosphere, with so much funding supplied by military based sources it is difficult not to be sceptical of the intentions of the research programs.
As well as these specific examples of recent developments, there is a much more general cause for concern when we consider the many lifestyle choices of the majority of the human race today, especially in Western living. Sandra Postel is one of the many key activists in the environmental movement; she was Vice President for Research at theWorldwatch Institute and continues to lead organisations concerned with the destruction of the world. She documents the deterioration of the environment in her paper 'Denial in the Decisive Decade' by noting 'the greenhouse effect, ozone layer depletion, desertification, population growth, air and water pollution, pollution of the world's oceans, loss of topsoil, the continuing loss of ancient forests throughout the world, and the rate of species extinction' as contributing factors to the state of the world today. She claims most people are in a 'psychological state of denial'; most humans are not willing to accept how serious our situation is.
Leading ecotheologian Thomas Berry describes the contemporary ecological state of the world; 'The oppression of the natural world by the plundering of the industrial powers has so endangered the basic functioning of natural forces that we are already on the verge of a total dysfunctioning of the planet.'
Throughout this essay I intend to explore the concept of ecological art by firstly researching the history and foundations of the movement. I will then move on to building a comparing the works, writings and ideas of various artists who move towards a common goal of highlighting their concern for the current state of the planet. In doing this I hope to produce a body of writing that accurately depicts the movement of Ecological art in a contemporary environment.
Our 'ideal' environments are becoming completely artificial and so in turn we are becoming increasingly disconnected from nature. Our rapid technological expansion has affected our instinctual behaviour developed from thousands of years of evolution. We watch David Attenborough DVDs and visit natural history museums for explanations of the history of our planet. Many museum displays appear to be aimed at 5 to 8 year olds, they do not challenge or provoke questions but give general smoothed over views of loose facts. In other words they are largely passive; there is no interaction between the natural environment and the viewer. There is always a television screen, glass wall, line of rope between the information and the visitor. These methods of educational learning are simplified, generalised and uninformative. We get lazy and detached from the land we came from, the thousands of years in which we evolved is completely disregarded in favour of the newest ideal environment which is completely unnatural. These conditions can easily be compared to the environment of a zoo, the way each enclosure is designed to 'suit' the species in the box. They are not ideal; they are about as far from each species' natural habitat as is possible. The word 'environment' is connected with the word 'nature', i.e. not a human and not a cultural surrounding, but 89% of the population of the UK lives in urban areas. Not only do we destroy nature on the hunt for knowledge but we also destroy and remove massive chunks of it for the sake of mindless human development, in doing so we are destroying our foundations.
Artists emphasising the romantic qualities of nature are working within a minuscule band. In other words, to have nature as your subject but only to depict the beauty of it and of what it once was is ignoring the majority of what is actually happening in the contemporary natural world. Natural systems are falling apart everywhere. Even if the goal is to celebrate what is still left, most of nature is in a state of drastic change. To ignore this fact and focus on the perfect beauty and balance is uninformative and even ignorant. However, romanticism for nature does depict a heightened level of awareness and sensitivity for the natural surroundings which is of obvious importance to the artists. The beauty of the surroundings is pondered but it is not distinctly recognised that something must be done in order to protect what is still alive and avoid appreciation for natural beauty being replaced with a sad nostalgia for what once was.
Ecological art is a movement that progressed from the work of the artist of a romanticised nature and their idealised concept of the natural world. Ecological artists are concerned with raising awareness of our polluted planet and of the very serious threats the natural environment of the planet is under. The work of this group of artists educates the public about key environmental issues aiming to depict some solutions to current environmental problems and portray some ways to avoid causing more damage.
During the 1960's in coherence with the beginnings of the environmental and ecological art movement, a number of related environmentalist organisations were quickly becoming main stream introducing alternative ecological ways of existence. In the UK, the Clean Air Act legislation formed in 1956 in reaction to the Great Smog of 1952 and introduced numerous guidelines and environmental standards throughout the 1960's. Shortly after the Clean Air act, Greenpeace formed and instantly branched out to the masses. In the USA similar non governmental political organisations were assembling such as the Environmental Defence Fund and Friends of the Earth International (FOEI) which now benefits from the involvement of over 80 different countries. The first Earth Day was celebrated in the USA in 1970 in the hope of raising awareness of our environment. The disastrous environmental effects of the Industrial Revolution and rapid industrialisation fuelled these environmental activists to gain a large public voice and begin to fight for the planet, establishing a realisation of the great damage we have incurred in such a small amount of time and combating some of the drastic anthropocentric choices we had recently made. These organisations were concerned with alternative cultural and spiritual choices to materialism and consumerism; a radical new earth-friendly way of thinking that quickly became popular as it was impossible to ignore the effects of our industrial growth centred decisions any longer.
Previous to the start of the environmental movement from 1960 onwards in terms of art, nature tended to be ignored in favour of contemporary iconic imagery of culture consumerism and materialistic portrayals of human beings' fashionable modern lifestyles. Post war advertising depicted the latest and greatest home life gadgets, the same basic structure advertisements still follow to this day. With slogans such as 'Ask for the best' , the availability of reinvented brands and choices of products after the hardships of the war encouraged people to buy big, and buy best. Also coinciding with the ecological revolution was the beginning of the artist movement known as Pop Art. It was one of the major movements of the 20th century and stood in stark contrast to the beliefs and intentions of the ecological artists. Pop Art was a movement that referred directly to pop culture. Items of mass media advertising, labelling and packaging became objects of iconic imagery through the medium of Pop Art, glorifying the materialistic intentions of the public and the greed of the mega-corporations responsible for the widespread distribution of such nonsense. Andy Warhol's rise to fame with one of his first major solo shows in 1962 at the Stable Gallery in New York was compiled of his famed Campbell's soup cans , Coke bottles and hundred dollar bills. With images such as these reaching the masses through the medium of main stream art and advertising, it is clear the ecological movement had a lot to stand up to.
There are endless examples of structures and understandings of nature existing in every civilisation's history, form ancient standing stones to Egyptian pyramids. These emblems devoted to nature convey the celebratory importance these ancient people felt for the natural world and the respect they paid to cycle and balance in nature. Many of these structures were built in alignment with planetary happenings harnessing the light of the rising sun which was recognised as the source of all living things. At a time when we had not interfered with the elements for our short term benefit we respected and valued the sources provided to us.
It has been argued that in comparison to the ways and beliefs of more historical religions, modern Western Christianity teaches a far more anthropocentric way of life. U.C.L.A (University of California, Los Angeles) historian Lynn White argued that 'Christianity had desacralized Nature, encouraged its exploitation, and prompted an anthropocentric world view in which humans are superior to, and in charge of, the rest of Nature.' He also claims that 'modern science and technology are permeated with Christian arrogance toward nature'. To blame the most prominent religion of contemporary western culture for the behaviour of man is a little far fetched when in fact is seems the western culture in general is far more at fault than the religion of the majority. Most people who would call themselves Christian do not take the writings of the Old Testament to the literal extreme; nature does not exist for the convenience of man regardless of what may be read in any book.
Coinciding with the political ecological movements of the 1960's, a new philosophy also emerged. Ecologists and philosophers concerned with the social and political state of our planet spontaneously formed the movement of Deep Ecology, just as artists with similar concerns began to work ecologically.
The foundations and beliefs of ecological art stem from the philosophical concept of Deep Ecology. In 1970, Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess first devised the notion of 'shallow' and 'deep' ecology. According to Naess, shallow Ecology involves the belief that nature is only there for the use of humans, that we as humans are separate from nature, we are more important, above the level of all other living things in the natural world, in other words shallow ecology is an anthropocentric view of the world. Deep Ecology is a ecocentric (earth centred) view of the world and is focused on the belief that every aspect of the world is interconnected, that humans are only a small part of the whole, and each section must be maintained in order for balance to remain equal. The proposed solutions to our current ecological problems are extremely difficult to comprehend and almost impossible to envisage. It is hard to become completely devoted to the theories of Deep Ecology no matter how good the intentions are because essentially a fantasy existence is being described. An existence where we live in complete balance and harmony with the planet without leaving any traces of our presence, humans and nature are one and the same. In order to achieve this according to the writings of Deep Ecology, we must, 'drastically scale down industrial activities on Earth, change consumption lifestyles, stabilize and then reduce the size of the human population by humane means, and protect and restore wild ecosystems and the remaining wildlife on the planet'
There is of course no explanation of how we might begin to go about this massive overhaul of our existence. The bottom line is there are far too many humans for the earth to sustain so in essence we can never live in balance with nature; we are too successful a species.
Ecological artist Agnes Denes brings to light some of the biggest of our contemporary issues through her large scale land art works. In 1982 she installed her outstanding work "Wheatfield- A Confrontation" into a landfill site. The actual site consisted of the rubble from the construction of the World Trade Centre. It was dumped at the tip of Manhattan Island with plans of it becoming the site for the World Financial Centre. Denes sowed the grain, set up irrigation and fertilization and finally harvested the fully grown wheat after 4 months of care.
This work is of course as idealistic as some of the proposed solutions to our problems found in the previously mentioned writings of Deep Ecology. The wheat could not be eaten due to the contamination of the site and all the top soil was transported to the site from elsewhere for the propagation of the grain to take place. However the work raises fundamental concerns and underlines the problems of our contemporary politics and society. It was not Denes' intention to feed the hungry with her wheat; it was a work representational firstly of the contrasting landscapes. Wall Street and the World Trade Centres are the places where management of food prices among many other things are decided and the golden wheat field situated in the middle of these symbolic structures created a significant distinction of landscape. The work also highlights the transformation of a piece of waste land, the energy of the land producing a field full of wheat situated in a city far detached from the natural cycle of nature. Instead of taking her wheat and growing it directly in a gallery, Denes explores another dimension of her work by placing it in a completely alien context; the inner city of Manhattan. The work not only scrutinizes the growth and regeneration of natural form, but also comments on the miss-use of waste land. She highlights the detachment from country and city- an ever widening gap. Finally Denes manages to supply a new and natural habitat for wildlife during the process of the work.
Along with her monumental ecologically inspired land artworks, Denes has written extensively on her philosophy and perceptions of the world.
"I am concerned with the fact that we have taken evolution into our own hands. We are the first species that has the ability to consciously alter its evolution, modify itself at will, and even put an end to its existence. We have gotten hold of our destiny, and our impact on earth is astounding. Because of our tremendous "success" we are overrunning the planet, squandering its resources. We are young as a species, even younger as a civilisation and, like reckless children initiate processes we cannot control. We tend to overproduce, overuse and quickly tire of things. We also overreact, panic, and self correct in hindsight. Sustained interest and effective action are diminished with the alienation of the individual who feels little potential to interact of indentify effectively with society as a whole. Overview for humanity is lacking and, as the momentum increases, human values tend to decline".
Denes argues similar points and issues as are sited in the philosophies of Deep Ecology, yet she does it through the voice of the Artist. She explains we are the only species able to control our future. Every other animal endures a constant battle for survival; to exist, breed and die is their life. For humans this is not enough, we have something no other species has, we have choice. We can choose our future and decide which path to take.
She also notes the decline of human values in coherence with our increasing momentum as a successful species. The ever advancing rate of our development, scientifically and technologically creates a larger and larger gap between us and the natural world. We as humans have always carried the instinctive desire to leave our mark on nature separating us form that of the rest of the animal world. We want more than to simply exist and survive. Land art is truly inspired by the landscape. Ecologically inspired artists began producing work as a reaction to the growing art market, a reaction against capitalism and cultural consumerism. The artists broke away from the restraints of realism; their art was free, natural and minimalist.
James Turrell is one of the most impressive and experimental Land Artists of our time. He manages to reconnect humans to the earth through his structures devoted to the exploration of the human perception of light. An American artist born in LA, 1943 Turrell works with light and space creating monumental structures comparable to grand prayer space devoted to clarity of the human mind rather than more conventional religion. His most outstanding and longest running project to date, 'Roden Crater' is situated in the middle of the desert in Arizona. Turrell has been excavating the site of an extinct volcano since 1972 in order to create a plethora of chambers and tunnels, each one individually crafted to harness and embrace the ambient light which is channelled in from outside via an aperture cut into the roofs of the chambers. There are no distractions in his installations, only an empty bench waiting to be filled and the slowly yet constantly changing colours to absorb as time passes by. This sense of the passing of time is further enhanced by a visual secret of the Sky Spaces . On sunny says a beam of light shines through the aperture casting a distorted circle of light over the walls and ground of the Sky Space. The shape traces the sun's journey across the sky; the turning of the earth, as it moves slowly yet constantly around the room in union with the speed of the changing colours acting as an uncharted diagram reminiscent of a sundial. Turrell brings forth what is already quietly occurring for us to notice and consider. We are able to appreciate the beauty in the simplest of happenings and respect the balance of our existence. Dramatic and diverse, these structures create an area for quiet intuitive thought; human contemplation and meditation is inescapable. There is time for free thought and reflection, something which is less available in the cultural context of the time than ever before. He plays with the sensation of physically feeling light and with the phenomena of our visual perception. In taking about this project, Turrell explains how visitors will "feel the presence of gathered starlight." As the attention of the viewer is focused solely on the light, it becomes almost touchable, something physical and solid as apposed to something being used to illuminate a definite object. Turrell attempts to create an awareness of light being more than simply a source of brightness allowing us to see other objects and our surroundings, by depicting how light itself is visible and all around us. Turrell reveals, "We used to always think that light illuminates or illumines. We use light to reveal other things but for me the greatest thing is that light becomes the relation itself. So that way I'd like to give it physicality of thingness. Generally we use light to illuminate other things; I like the thingness of light itself." This perceptible sensation rouses an intangible dimension in the viewer attained through the union and confusion between seeing and feeling.
In stark contrast to Agnes Denes' 'Wheatfield- a Confrontation' which is situated in the middle of a city and almost impossible to ignore, Roden Crater is far removed from all civilisation. To simply reach the site brings about connotations of a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey undertaken with intensions of cleansing and contemplation. Both artists achieve a connection between us as humans and the sources of our existence through their art work. However, the fundamental difference lies with their intentions. Denes' message is forced onto the public in the manner of a protest or political statement. Turrell does not take an ecological stance, his structure is constructed from concrete inside an extinct volcano and his primary interest is the perception of light. The environmental effects upon the viewers of Turrell's Sky Spaces are little more than a fascinating by-product. Turrell is essentially investigating and experimenting with the different effects of light on humans both physically and emotionally. His main area of interest is not with the global concern of our planet. His structures are not built particularly environmentally friendly and he has no main ecological concern.
David Nash, a British artist based in Wales has worked for over 30 years on wooden sculptures celebrating the seasonal changes, growth and sequence in the natural environment. His living sculpture, 'Ash Dome' first planted in 1972 is one of his most recognised works. Nash is concerned with both the unlimited and independent elements of the land he works in. He makes works in connection to the seasons; his sculptures live and grow in unity with the materials, elements and locations. They are constructed with consideration for the sense of meaning and placement. For example, 'Ash Dome' sits at an unknown location in Snowdonia, whenever it is filmed or documented crew are taken to the location on a circular route so as to protect the area from over stimulation. It is very important to Nash that the site remain a scared and relatively untouched area. Since 1972 Nash has skilfully manipulated the growth of the Ash trees by fletching the trunks to encourage growth in certain directions. The dome is clearly a manmade structure and design, with obvious connotations to the symmetry of nature, the Fibonacci spiral and its sequence of growth. Each tree is manipulated to form a structure of spiritual space that is actively maintained and pruned. Nature is humanely controlled and maintained in a mathematical and geometrical structure. It is reminiscent of ancient formations devoted to the celebration of the cyclical elements of nature, growth and seasonal change. The trees signify a link to the symbology of the Tree of Life, otherwise known as the Alchemists Tree which is an illustration used in science, religion and philosophy to describe the interconnectedness of all life and the link between land and sky, the connection between above and below. The symbology of the tree as 'the connector' of the vertical journey that relates to the joining of the earth and sky, light and dark, it's The roots firmly planted within the soil absorbing nutrients and water, the leaves and branches reaching into the sky absorbing light and air. Nash states, 'The tree unites above and below by weaving light and earth with it's will to live, every year increasing its height and width.' The structure and shape of the dome also creates a safe environment of serenity comfort and security. Light seeps in through the leaves and the enclosed space is reassuring. The angles fletched into the trunks of the ash trees bring about another element of direction encompassing horizontal, vertical and diagonal directions of growth. Similar to Turrell's 'Roden Crater', reaching the dome can be considered a pilgrimage, a sacred space for appreciation and admiration of the world around us. Nash creates this structure in the land not as a symbol and mark of human presence and domination, but as a place for recognition and celebration of the cycles of nature. His materials are ecological and his methods environmentally friendly, he does not disturb nature, but uses its will to grow, its determination to multiply in order to construct living sculpture. Nash works with materials that are living, changing and developing. They alter their growth pattern in order to suit the conditions provided. In doing so Nash creates an artwork that grows in balance with the environment.
- Further discussion on the romanticism we feel for the past, the presumed connection we held with nature (was there not a balance simply because there was less of us?)
- Environmental/ecological artists breaking free from studios and reinventing art with a function... with more on ecological art in general, the start of the movement ect..
- The 'role' of the ecological artist and their collaborations with may other specialists to achieve their visions i.e. working towards a common goal.
- return to the key ideas and sum up your thoughts about ecological art in general.
- Thomas Berry quote following from quote in introduction
'Never before has the human community been confronted with a situation that required such a sudden and total change in its lifestyle under the threat of a comprehensive degradation of the planet'.
- Bottom line- humans are over populated. It is impossible to live in balance when there are essentially too many humans. Radio4- contraception is a far better suited and more effective way to combat environmental issues than wind farms and recycling. The Telegraph- "Contraception is the cheapest way to combat climate change"
- Holistic approach to life in order to survive as a species.
- Fragile ecologies- "habitat destruction is the cause of most of most extinctions, artists are in the forefront of this movement to preserve all species, including our own" -biodiversity is the main concern of our planet and it's connected ecosystems.
- Spiritual living the latest faze for humans to follow? Hippy/ entrepreneur/ materialistic/ ect. Or is it different because it is learning form our past. Learning and adapting or re-enacting'?
- Perhaps searching for the closeness early man had with nature, the feeling of oneness, man and earth are one and the same.' romantic primitivism'? We always romanticise the history of humans. Nostalgia for what presumably once was.
- The isolation of the site- stimulated meditation and oneness with nature.