ART News
ENVIRONMENTAL ART: A PRACTICAL RESPONSE TO THE CLIMATE CRISIS

15th November 2021 | Guest Writer: Margherita Nussio
The relationship between humanity, nature and the environment has always been discussed among intellectuals and philosophers and it fluctuates between an optimistic view of communion between man and nature and a pessimistic and catastrophic one of man against nature in any possible sense.
Han Sai Por, Transformation Series, 2013, Granite, Istana, Singapore, Credit: Han Sai Por
It’s difficult to have a good understanding of when environmentalism started. The consequence of the exploitation of nature has always been quite clear but the first actual political act that aimed at tracking it down was made in the 18th century in the USA when Benjamin Franklin petitioned for clean air as a public right. The first Clean Air Act in the UK has been approved in 1956, following what is famous as the killer fog of London.

The response of art to the progressive destruction of the environment is quite diverse, but we can agree that environmental art is a common and participatory response. Born between the 1960s and 1970’s Environmental Art is often seen as a form of protest against cultural institutions and governments.

It aims to take art outside and uses, often, nature not only as inspiration but as the main part of it. It is often executed outside to transform a landscape or to reveal the beauty of the site itself, creating a trait d’union between what is created by man and what is already there: humanity is in full balance with the surroundings. It creates a unique bond between society, economy art, beauty, and nature.


Environments Reversal, Exhibition Poster. Camden Arts Centre 26 June to 27 July 1969

In London, the term landed in 1969 when the Camden Arts centre organised an exhibition called Environments Reversal where "art of an indoor nature will be in the garden and art of an outdoor character in the gallery". (Nicholas Alfrey, Stephen Daniels, and Joy Sleeman - To the Ends of the Earth: Art and Environment)

Environmental art is a concept that is quite close to performance art. It is valid in a specific time and space and can be only appreciated in a specific context. Time is a key element of it. If we take, for example, Spiral Jetty, the most important work by the environmental artists Robert Smithson (1938-1973), the work changes according to the season, the temperature, and the light. Nature is at the centre of the work and it's responsible for it.

Gianfranco Gorgoni, “From the portfolio Smithson’s Spiral Jetty Photographs, 1970-2014,” 1970, digital print, 13 x 17 in. Utah Museum of Fine Arts, purchased with funds from The Paul L. and Phyllis C. Watts Fund, UMFA2018.6.1.8. Photo © Estate of Gianfranco Gorgoni. Art © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation / VAGA at Artist Rights Society (ARS) NY

Discover below three examples of Environmental artists and their practices.


Olafur Eliasson (b.1967, Denmark), Ice Watch (2014-2018)

The Ice Watch series is a project that took place for the first time in 2014 in Copenhagen and was exhibited in London in December 2018, coinciding with the COP26 in Krakow. It was created by Olafur Eliasson, an eclectic Icelandic artist, and Minik Rosing, a Danish geologist. They took icebergs from the Nuup Kangerlua fjord, in Greenland and they installed them in front of the Tate Modern in London, where the public could see them gradually melting. Rosing, during the press conference, said “These icebergs didn’t only come here to be beautiful, they’re all carrying a story […] you’ll notice they’re all individuals, they are like beings. And they whisper to you, if you put your ear to them, you can hear the bubbles pop […] what they tell us is about a world that is different from the one that we have today. The air bubbles contain air that is fresh and clean and has half the CO2 that we have in the atmosphere today.” (Ben Luke -The Art Newspaper) The duo selected the icebergs carefully, the carbon footprint of transporting them to London is the same one of a single passenger seated on a direct flight to Greenland. Art here is a form of protest against the government and aims to create a climate consciousness in the general public.

Ice Watch, 2014, Bankside, outside Tate Modern, London, 2018. Photo: Justin Sutcliffe
Nils-Udo (b. 1937, Germany), Clemson Clay Nest (2005)

Nils Udo is one of the most influential environmental artists of the last century. Born in Bavaria, he creates works of art that are in complete synergy with nature. He uses flowers, wood, water to create and manipulate the space and glorify it. He created, during his career, several versions of this work, this one specifically was created with the help and support of the students at the Clemson University in South Carolina. The nest for the artist represents the beginning and the end of the creation. To build them he uses wood, clay and bamboo, materials that could be found in the construction of a house or of a shelter in a juxtaposition between the human processes and what bids and animals are doing in nature. The work ultimately was destroyed by nature itself reestablished its dominance over us. We can argue that this is the perfect example of environmental art, nature is back in the centre of the dialogue.

Nils-Udo, Clemson Clay Nest (2005), in Clemson University in South Carolina.
Agnes Denes (b.1931, Hungary), Wheatfield – A Confrontation. Two acres of wheat planted and harvested by the artist on the Battery Park landfill, Manhattan (summer 1982).

Agnes Denes is an artist that is commonly known for the time when she harvested a wheatfield in the ground of Manhattan in 1982. She chose this specific slot because it’s close to the site where the Twin Tower were and one of the least developed areas of Manhattan. She worked on the field for months, with the help of some volunteers, to harvest and create this ephemeral work. It’s a work of contrast between Wall Street and the fields, between the countryside and the city, between what is perceived as a simple agricultural life and the city. The work lasted for a summer and has been welcomed by the workers of Manhattan that reunited in the field in a magical and surreal communion between modern and ancient, between magic and technology, between nature and the city.
Agnes Denes – Wheatfield – A Confrontation, 1982, Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan, photo: John McGrall
Exhibitions now open and not to miss!

Waste Age: What can design do? at the Design Museum
Until 20th February 2022

Our Future Planet at the The Science Museum
Until 4th September 2022


About the Writer
Margherita Nussio was born and raised in Udine, a small town in the northeast of Italy, where the proximity of Austria and Slovenia creates an interesting middle-European mix.

She studied Art History at La Sapienza University of Rome and life brought her to London, to undertake a Master's degree at SOAS, University of London, in Contemporary Art of Asia and Africa. She is curious, passionate and always wandering around, trying to discover new things about London and the world.

@margheran