With Scotland recording its hottest night EVER in July, global warming is understandably on our minds… As Olafur Eliasson astutely points out in his extremely popular current exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, “art has a carbon footprint, too.” But what exactly does he mean?
Art, in its many diverse forms, has the potential and power to influence change; from political to cultural and almost everything in between, Contemporary Art is rarely void of opined meaning. But Eliasson’s work is particularly activist, which he acknowledges himself and his latest show seems to have struck a nerve, one directly connected to our increasing so-called ‘Climate Change anxiety’. It has led to questions within the art world about the effects the industry as a whole is having on the planet, and might stir you to wonder whether art is something you can still justify indulging in with a clear carbon conscience. The process behind creating many types of artwork could certainly be classified as eco-unfriendly, so to speak, but it also makes us ask where exactly the line gets drawn? The fashion industry, for instance, contributes to around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which really puts into perspective the far more minimal impact the creation, distribution and ownership of art has on carbon emissions. But the important point that Eliasson ultimately highlights is that along with every other industry, business and cultural contributor, art should have a role to play in protecting our planet, too.
So, if the environment is high on your list of ‘Things I care about’ (as it should be, but no judgement..) then here are some works that are particularly worthy and relevant to the cause, along with some reasons why Art can help to promote a positive attitude towards implementing climate control.
To begin with, Audrey Yeo extracts physical pieces of nature and isolates them from their original environment. By preserving them in resin she aims to fight against anthropocentricity by encouraging us to dwell directly in the presence of natural elements that do not ordinarily exist in our everyday lives. Our current geological age has been named the ‘Anthropocene’ because of the egocentric attitude humankind has towards our planet. Yeo’s delicate sculptural works are an important reminder that ultimately culture is “the manifestation of an intimate connection” between humanity and nature, rather than “an indication of their distinction,” (as Josefine Klougart puts it in an interview with Eliasson). And what’s really unique about Yeo’s concept is that you could own the avant-garde version of a house plant – one that doesn’t need watering and lasts forever!
Cornelius Wright also uses natural elements in his work, but unlike Yeo’s microscopic snippets of botany, he creates large mountainous macro-scapes. The scenes in his work depict extreme environments and evoke a sense of the subliminal scales that we sometimes forget exist in our world. For instance, An Immigrants Dream of His Highland Home, Glencoe 2018 is a mighty triptych created with peat, graphite and pigment on concrete, mimicking the organic growth and changes that occur within nature. By mirroring natural environments in his works, he creates literal windows into rural worlds far away from the urbanscapes most of us are best acquainted with, making them more present in our minds and thus increasing their importance. Speaking about this work, Wright explains the symbolism behind the idea of a mountain pass; “passing over a hurdle from one side to another…from one place to another, a journey, my displacement, others displacement, forced displacement of people, changes in perception to foreigners and closing of borders.” He also expresses the importance of “understanding landscape in our time and how it has changed both by movement in historical activity and how it is changing by human impact, climate and Geomorphology.” It is now predicted that the next wave of mass-displacement causing refugees will be as a result not of war but of climate change, and when viewed within this context Wright’s work becomes even more poignant.
In History’s Trace 2018, Wright manipulates bitumen and enamel on the canvas to form a strikingly dramatic abstracted work that is both astonishingly simple yet complex within the details. Bitumen is a naturally-occurring, non-drying, tarry substance that is often used in paint mixtures to enrich the appearance of dark tones. Through capturing the momentary morphing of a substance from one state into another Wright mirrors his observation of the ways that “the environment has morphed and adapted to the impact of change and progress.”
Eliasson is also interested in using the natural world and its transitional states in order to awaken environmental awareness in the spectator. As the icecaps continue to melt at alarming rates, his Ice Watch installation, which placed twelve individual blocks of glacial ice taken from Greenland in public spaces across European cities, allowed their gradual melting to be witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people. It was an elaborate demonstration of climate-warming and demanded confrontation of an urgent crisis that is becoming harder to deny and ignore.
Using a similar concept but on canvas, Melting Ice by Sheila Chapman could be seen as particularly relevant in the context of climate change. This wintery oil painting captures the delicate impermanence and transitional fragility of ice. There is something significant about the inclusion of a young, anonymous girl stood watching the ice melt and it might instil within the viewer a renewed sense of responsibility for the Earth’s future generations. With her striped wooly hat and long hair this little girl coincidentally resembles the now iconic environmental activist, Greta Thunberg.
The former Director of Tate, Sir Nick Serota, has acknowledged, “unless we recognise that climate change is a major interest for our public, especially young people, [the art world] will forfeit respect in relation to the public.” His awareness of the important role art has to play in this eco-centric movement is recognised by Eliasson who has stated, “it’s completely legitimate to call [art] activism, because culture is part of society, not something you step out of society to practise. When culture is seen as peripheral, it can be hard to understand its political potential, but culture is critical to a society’s ability to be reflective, and thus to reinvent itself.”
But not all art has to be as active in making a statement as Eliassion’s work and art that more passively reminds the viewer of the irreplaceable value of nature can be just as important. Shanshan Jiang’s water works capture evanescent qualities of the supreme source of all life on earth. In Water 1, Water 2 and Water 3 she commands watercolour and ink on canvas to convey the spiritual tranquility of clear, clean water and the respect it truly demands from us. Conscious that humanity’s coexistence with nature means each force has an influence upon the other, Jiang’s works could serve as a more creative reminder of water’s increasing vulnerability at the hands of human pollution and exploitation. From chemical spills to plastic, pollution threatens to permanently destroy the once harmonious relationship man had with this elusive element as we rapidly become a more persistent enemy of the oceans and the life within them.
Here at artpistol Gallery, however, we try to avoid contributing to this problem by reusing all our plastic packaging (which is why sometimes the bubbles in our bubblewrap seem a little deflated!) and by ensuring we don’t wrap up artworks unnecessarily. As Eliasson believes, we “have to find optimism within the climate challenge to really motivate people” and by doing simple acts within our immediate reach, we are more likely to achieve change. Every little helps!
Photography is yet another medium with the power to promote the protection of the natural world. James McGeachan’s works brings our attention to natural ecosystems by emphasising the immense allure of the wilderness. Fasgadh 6 exposes the untamed entanglement of an autumnal forest. Seeped in amber light these distinct layers of silhouetted trees with their wiry black branches distantly echo images of distressed forests plagued by wildfires that we seem to see so often now in the news.
Burning branches is exactly what Coco Blue Key-Main focuses on in works like Chaos. Using fire she communicates its ecological effects and shows that shifting states can produce brief moments of calm reflection that emerge from “the heated chaos of change.” With clay, charcoal, paint and inspiration from the impermanence and destruction that occurs in our elemental surroundings Key-Main shadows the chaotic impact heat has on natural materials.
Also using mixed-media and a varnish glaze on wood, Lee Herring draws our eyes from the ground up to the skies with Burnt Clouds. Dividing the composition into trees and sky, the latter invades the former by trickling on to the white in an overload of orange. Beneath the vibrant layered blends of the bright and the black, a metaphorical message might be found that touches upon atmospheric catastrophe. With the thinning ozone layer contributing to global warming, the sky above is quite literally starting to burn the world below it.
Speaking on the subject of art in the time of global warming, renowned British artist Antony Gormley has said, “there is a strong connection between the desire for survival and the art of a people and a time,” and contemporary Landscape Art, including the works above, certainly seem to reflect this. From the ground to the sea to the sky, our planet is quite literally overheating, melting and transforming in ways that according to scientists will soon become irreversible, so we need to act now. It is a global burden and a responsibility that should be shared by all, including the art world…or maybe we should just give up already and ‘Break Glass For New Beginning (Eden)’ as Magnus Gjoen playfully suggests!
But in all seriousness, these artists and their works are important visual aids to the necessary conversations we should all be having about Climate Change and they can therefore play a vital role in provoking thought and inspiring people to care more about the landscapes they live in at large.
So as this blog has hopefully demonstrated, art can be a powerful platform for promoting and implementing change, if you want it to be!