Putting Nature in the Picture: In an Edited Extract from New Book Art and Ecology Now, Andrew Brown Explores the Growing Influence That Environmental Awareness Is Having on Contemporary Artists from around the Globe

By Brown, Andrew | Geographical, September 2014 | Go to article overview

Putting Nature in the Picture: In an Edited Extract from New Book Art and Ecology Now, Andrew Brown Explores the Growing Influence That Environmental Awareness Is Having on Contemporary Artists from around the Globe


Brown, Andrew, Geographical


These days, it's almost impossible to walk into a contemporary art gallery or museum, or to browse through an art magazine or website, without coming across work that expresses some kind of engagement with the natural world. Once an area of interest for a relatively small group of people, art that addresses environmental issues has, in the past five years, become part of the artistic mainstream.

Of course, artists have always been inspired by the beauty and mystery of nature, and have used elements of the natural world in creative ways for centuries. Painting and poetry, to name just two art forms, have long reflected the close bonds of mutual dependence that we have with our physical surroundings through landscape, still life and pastorals. In recent times, however, there has been a growing tendency in contemporary art to consider the natural world not only as a source of inspiration or subject to represent, but also as a realm to influence directly.

RAISING AWARENESS

The nascent conservationism that developed in the USA, Britain, Germany and other European countries in the second half of the 19th century helped to foster an awareness that steadily grew in the next. The images of photographers such as Ansel Adams helped to spread knowledge of environmental issues more widely and encouraged the recruitment of new members to the cause. By the mid-1960s, a new eco-consciousness had taken root in sections of Western society.

By then, nature-focused work had become a fixture of the international art scene. The Argentinian artist Nicolas Garcia Uriburu was the first to announce its arrival on the world stage in 1968 when, for that year's Venice Biennale, he dyed the Grand Canal using fluorescein, a pigment that turns bright green when synthesised by microorganisms in the water in order to raise awareness of the problem of water pollution.

A magnet for pioneering artists of all kinds, New York hosted many seminal environmental-art projects into the early 1980s. In May 1982, after months of preparation, Agnes Denes planted Wheatfield--A Confrontation, a two-acre (0.8-hectare) field of golden wheat on rubble-strewn landfill near Wall Street and the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, 'confronting' some of the most expensive real estate in the world with one of the Earth's most basic crops. According to the artist, the work 'represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, and economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger, and ecological concerns.'

COMPLEX PROJECTS

Environmental art can take many forms: photographic or video pieces that document the effects of deforestation; or perhaps use weather formations as a source from which to create elaborate visual data maps or 'singing sculptures'; or they be could be long-term restoration projects that seek to reclaim a tract of land from the spread of industrialisation. …

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