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'Rabbit'. "A sculpture that looks disgusting and smells bad invites people to frolic as they acknowledge that decay means life-affirming renewal." 

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To Life!

Martin Spray

November 8th, 2013

Martin Spray reviews a text on eco-art that whilst (surprisingly) not visually stunning he found presented a comprehensive guide to the issues and approaches of the genre, as well as providing clues on 'where to look to next' ...

Most of the admired practitioners of eco-art have, as she says, upset existing art standards

I once showed a book of photographs by Andy Goldsworthy to one of my ecophilosophy students - mature, articulate, and deeply concerned. She turned away in disgust....

If your introduction, like mine, to artists working ‘environmentally' is through the activities of this British artist and his publications, such as Rain sun snow hail mist calm and Hand to earth, you may be a little puzzled to read that "from an environmental perspective, the allure of Goldsworthy's refinements aligns with the belief that nature is a resource to be manipulated by humans. It is this assumption that can lead humans to generate the 'unbeautiful' conditions that currently beset the planet". 

Goldsworthy makes clear that what he does here is deliberate ‘art' (and Weintrieb details and contrasts some of his other work), but he seems to be saying that, as an artist, he can show the beauty in whatever he happens on - fern fronds, pebbles, a dead heron. He plays with these, and presents the results to us. To an extent, we can all do this.

We certainly also generate unbeautiful things around us, and a flick through To life! makes one think that tag could be attached to several of the case-studies exemplified by Weintraub.

A stark one is the Austrian group Gelitin and its project / artwork ‘Hase' (‘Rabbit'). This is a knitted, 55-metre, pink doll-bunny stuffed with hay, with its knitted entrails laid out and its face in agony, spread-eagled a 45-minute walk from a road, in the Italian Alps.

"Gelitin uses the expressive freedom of art to help overcome failings to achieve flip sides of oneness. [...] A sculpture that looks disgusting and smells bad invites people to frolic as they acknowledge that decay means life-affirming renewal. [Such] impudent means serve an earnest environmental goal - to assert the role of human attitudes in setting our planet's course." 

Weintraub sees eco-artists as the vanguard of the "revolution towards a sustainable future", and her book is intended to rally supporters of the crusade. Will it work? Maybe To life! by itself won't. I found it visually unappetizing, with its somewhat crowded pages, and the text relieved by numerous but mostly small, grey photos, typical of so many modern books.

For this subject matter, something still humble but more inviting might have been possible - especially as this is offered as a text for teachers and students. However, a website leads eventually to colour images for each case study, and other material including full contents of this book. Much thought has probably gone into the other graphics, but it seems to have made them more complicated than they could have been.

Details of art genres (painting, sculpture, bio-art, public art, etc.), art strategies (such as intervention, dramatisaton, and celebration), ecological issues (e,g. waste, climate change, habitat loss, sustainability), and ecological approaches (e.g. deep ecology, urban ecology, sustainable development) are summarised graphically for each case study. Twenty prefatory pages are given to explaining the schematics, and to glossaries for them.

The text proper begins with a series of essays on what eco-art is and is not, what ecology and environmentalism are, eco-art themes, aesthetics, and materials used. The bulk of the text is cameos of thirteen 20th century pioneering artists and groups, and thirty-four 21st century ‘explorers'. For each of these, an appendix gives suggestions for further reading. There is also a questionnaire, intended to help users of the book construct their "actual, potential, and desired role as an artist and environmental advocate" - though it looks too naive to help much.

There is a useful selection for further reading for each artist; I missed, however, some of the writers about the subject in general, who I think have been especially influential. I can see nothing, for example, by Suzi Gablik (e.g. The reenchantment of art and Conversations before the end of time), or Barbara Matilsky (Fragile ecologies. Contemporary artists' interpretations and solutions), or from the British Royal Society of Arts (Land art. A cultural ecology handbook, edited by Max Andrews).

If Goldsworthy, and such others as Richard Long, Herman de Vries, and Chris Drury, who do not feature in To life!, have a message for us, it is (or so I find it) that the commonest things in Nature hold a beauty. Stones for Long, bramble stems for de Vries, fallen autumn leaves for Goldsworthy, are examples. But these are not examples of what Weintraub means by eco-art. That is, she says at the beginning of the book, something of "extraordinary diversity", with a commonality that can be described as "experiment, exploration and inquiry". 

Unfortunately, this would also characterise the likes of Long, de Vries and Drury. It is easier, though, to see that most of the admired practitioners of eco-art have, as she says, upset existing art standards. They do not make or do things that are conventionally beautiful.

Later in the book, Weintraub tells us that some things are "ecologically beautiful because they are vital to maintaining ecosystem functions", and explains that "anthropocentric beauty privileges appearance, serves humans, manages materials and conditions", whereas "ecocentric beauty considers the welfare of all forms of life, enhances ecosystem functions, and involves responsive interactions.

As a result, dynamic processes cease to be seen as obstacles to overcome, resources to consume, or conditions to control." These would seem to be two different senses of ‘beauty'. Superficially at least, the latter is rather like the beauty of mathematics.

Unlike mathematicians, eco-artists are seeking tangible changes. Eco-art, unlike much that is called such things as environmental art, and land-art, is drawing our attention to environmental - especially ecological - damage we are causing (some land-art etc. included, perhaps?).

As Weintraub shows in her case studies, it is being done through such things as drama, ceremony and ritual, and by direct environmental intervention, as well as painting, sculpture and photography.

Amongst her examples are pioneers Hans Haacke's ‘Rhinewater Purification Plant' (biological remediation of sewage-contaminated water, 1972), Helen and Newton Harrison's ‘Meditations on the Sacramento River... ‘ (an installation of data maps of the region, 1976), and Carolee Schneemann's ‘Meat Joy' (an erotic performance with raw fish, chicken and red meat, 1964), and explorers Chu Yun's ‘Constellation' series (installations of junked electrical and electronic equipment, 2009), Fernando Garcia-Dory's ‘Bionic Sheep' (developing a 21st. century version of a bell-wether's bell, 2006 ongoing), and Eduardo Kac's ‘Specimen of Secrecy about Marvelous Discoveries' series (‘paintings' using microorganisms, 2006) - as well as Gelitin and Goldsworthy.

What eco-artists are trying to do is, for me, neatly expressed in an essay by ‘permaculture nomad' Jed Picksley: "The best way to effect change with art is to enact the change with the art". Eco-art is thus usually dynamic, often involves collaboration, for instance between artist and environmental scientist, and is more concerned with the-world-as-the-artist-finds-it than with making beautiful things.

And how successful is it?... Jed Picksley's essay title warns of one problem area: ‘Spreading ideas and keeping sane (the aim) OR Huge Disgusting Works of Art (the outcome)' (Article 3 at www.landartnet.org), but Weintraub ends her text with a sensible upbeat, noting that as the world continues to need creative problem solvers and persuasive strategists, "a special entreaty might be made to artists because [these] are two qualities that have always been used to measure art's excellence and to explain its significance". To life! is thus offered to inspire more attempts to find ways out of our problems. 

I think that other books, such as those of Matilsky, Gablik, and the R.S.A., noted above, as well as such websites as those of the Greenmuseum and Ecoart Scotland do a good job starting this inspiration. To life shows a diversity of cases, and brings us up-to-date, and is presented with great enthusiasm. It is very welcome to join them.

Martin Spray is an ecologist who retired early from the University of Gloucestershire, England, where he taught aspects of ecology, landscape architecture, environmental philosophy, and professional ethics. He is an editor and writer for Ecos - A review of conservation. He writes for a variety of magazines on conservation, landscape, and gardens. He has Parkinson's Disease.

TO LIFE! ECO ART IN PURSUIT OF A SUSTAINABLE PLANET

Linda Weintraub, 2012, University of California Press.

Paperback  £24.95. A hardback edition is also available.

 

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