When environmental art emerged as a classification, artists like Robert Smithson and James Turrell were creating pieces using the earth itself as their medium. Most works of earth art commented on the state of the environment and the impact of humans and industry on the land.
Today our global mobility, digital dexterity and heightened awareness of the interrelated implications of social inequity, political corruption, human health, and the earth's rapid demise, have given rise to a new generation of "environmental artists." But these aesthetic activists can be labeled "environmental" only if the term conjures -- as it should in the 21st century -- a many-layered and indivisible subject composed of social, cultural, economic, urban, political and geographical issues.
All of the artists reviewed here were featured in this year's Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates, the opening symposium of which I had the honor and good fortune to participate in. Their work can also be found in the recent book (reviewed here last fall), Land, Art: A Cultural Ecology Handbook. These contemporary change-makers hail from all over the world and address pressing issues with an originality and impact that would strike a person each on their own -- and when experienced together leave the viewer/visitor with a profound sense that art remains a potent agent for revolution and transformation.
Argentinian-born Tomas Saraceno's best known work is an ongoing investigation of the politics of migration, the potential of solar energy, and the capacity of scientific and technological advancements to upturn our assumptions about what's humanly possible. It all comes together in a project called Air-Port-City, inspired by the organization and policy of an international airport, where international and local laws apply respectively in different parts of the single facility.
Air-Port-City proposes to create a floating international city in the sky, kept afloat by solar-fueled Aerogel -- a "lighter-than-air" material developed for the aerospace industry. The idea is to establish a residential urban district for migrants which is itself migratory, constantly crossing and blurring boundaries. As described for the On Mobility exhibition:
These habitations would move like clouds, eliminating geographical and political boundaries, generating human and political communities in continuous transformation and re-definition. These airport-cities would be freely constituted in compliance with international laws, challenging the political, social, cultural and military restrictions presently in effect around the world.
And this is not just a concept. Describing the project in words leaves the reader wondering how this is anything but a utopian pipe dream -- but then you see the work. Saraceno's large-scale installations have proven the possibility of airborne habitation (or at least human flight through solar energy). In periodic collaboration with the Buckminster Fuller Virtual Institute and several different scientists, he's conceived translucent, Bucky-like structures, and created the largest solar-energy geodesic balloon ever built, the instructions for which he made readily available to the motivated DIY faction.
A necessary complement to the human habitation is a botanical component -- the greenery for the sky city -- which is one of the more intriguing, perhaps because it seems more realistic and attainable than sustained human existence in balloons in the sky (this kind of art exists to prove skeptics and conventional thinkers wrong, though, doesn't it?). Saraceno "landscaped" the Air-Port-Cities using airplants --formally called Tillandsia -- a type of Bromeliad which can literally derive all of the nutrients and water it needs from air, requiring no soil to thrive. This makes it the perfect candidate for life in a solar-powered air balloon. Saraceno created several of his installations with airplants established inside. You see the familiar hanging, mossy plant, but where you'd expect to see a tree, instead it's a bubbly geodesic sphere.
Tue Greenfort is a Danish conceptual artist living and working in Berlin. When I sat down with him a few weeks ago at an outdoor bar on the Arabian Gulf, we talked about his childhood in Denmark and the influence that his upbringing has had on his work. He described his parents as what might be called "un-self-proclaimed environmentalists." They led a low-impact lifestyle, with an awareness of nature and attention to sparing natural resources, but the environmental awareness they instilled in him didn't emerge from guilt or dogma or urgent obligation; it was simply a given part of a normal childhood. Now 34 years old, Greenfort has developed a significant body of work that is fundamentally related to environmentalism, but also deeply interwoven with sociopolitical commentary and reflections on a 21st century urban condition.
An article about Greenfort from the RSA Arts and Ecology program in London (where he's been working in residency) describes his work as "primarily micro-interventions in the urban natural world." One such "micro-intervention" is the BONAQUA Condensation Cube, a subtle scrutiny of corporate ethics and the manipulative power of modern marketing.
BONAQUA Condensation Cube (2005) is an acrylic box containing the Coca-Cola bottled water Bonaqua. As the gallery’s temperature changes, the water condenses and evaporates. The piece poses a general question about the commercial use of a natural resource, and refers specifically to accusations by the Indian government that a Coca-Cola bottling plant in southern India was responsible for depleting the local water supply to such an extent that wells went dry.
For the Sharjah Biennial, Greenfort pushed further on his previous play with changing gallery temperatures. His commission for the show cannot be seen inside the Sharjah Art Museum. Rather, it's an architectural intervention with the museum itself, created when staff [grudgingly] agreed to Greenfort's request to lower the air conditioning inside the galleries for the duration of the show, thereby raising the temperature by several degrees. Not only does the installation give visitors a sensory impression of the heat created by climate change, but it makes an actual impact in the museum's energy use and the ecological/financial costs incurred by pumping AC in the building (while outside temperatures range from 90F to well over 100F at this time of year, and up to 130F in the height of summer). With the money saved on energy costs through this intervention, Greenfort plans to adopt some rainforest acreage as an offset measure.
As a piece in Dubai's daily paper, Khaleej Times pointed out, this is a dematerialization of art -- from the journalist's perspective, perhaps not a positive one -- and it suggests a number of other questions about the impact of the artist himself in executing the project in terms of his travel to the site (the journalist asked, "Couldn't an A/C technician change the temperature?"). But in case anyone thought that Greenfort had overlooked that part of the picture, it's worth noting that he made a plan to drive to the United Arab Emirates from Berlin in a vegetable oil-powered vehicle -- a plan that couldn't happen due to other circumstances, but reflects his whole-picture assessment of the execution of the project. (This mode of transit might only have been surpassed by Biennial artist, Tea Mäkipää, who is currently en route back to her home in Weimar by cargo ship. Check out her diary of the epic journey.)
Somewhere in the vicinity of Mato Grosso, Brazil, according to a number of historical and theoretical texts, lies the physical location of The Garden of Eden. Fascinated by the theory of Eden as a South American jungle -- and conversely, of the South American jungle as a representation/replica of Eden -- artist Sergio Vega embarked on what's evolved into a lifelong exploration of contemporary concepts of a natural paradise as reflected in the still pristine natural landscape of Mato Grosso and the modern capitol city of Cuiabá. Reflecting on the architecture of this city of shanties and modernist buildings, he says:
The facades of those carnivalesque buildings were covered with mosaics of pure colors, with curved balconies of organic design....How come the patterns employed by the landscape architect in parks, plazas, and promenades ended up literally applied to the facade? I concluded that this tropical architecture established a dialogue with nature not in order to camouflage itself, but to contend with it. In some cases, it acquired an emblematic presence that not only competes with mango trees, coconut palms, and parrots, but also imitates them.
His Paradise in the New World is a powerful hybrid of photographic essay, natural history, and the anthropology of a modernist city and modern culture in the archetype of original wild beauty.
Alfredo Jaar's work has a profound force behind it that defies description. The first time I encountered his work was during our visit to the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art last fall during the Worldchanging book tour, to see the Massive Change exhibit. When we wandered upstairs, we found ourselves stunned by a Jaar installation called Geography=War. Set in a darkened room by itself, the piece consists of 36 oil barrels filled with water which looks blackish and reflective in the dim light. Suspended above the barrels, a lightbox illuminates photographic full-color images of African people living in the detritus of a toxic waste disaster. The photos can be seen only as a reflection in the liquid below, which looks like oil, collecting lint from passing visitors over time and becoming polluted itself.
Since that initial introduction to Jaar, I've had the opportunity to become familiar with his breathtaking body of work, and recently watched an interactive digital piece he created about AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, Project Emergencia, which is a striking example of innovative use of web tools and graphic design to convey the severity and urgency of this epidemic. (Worth an immediate click )
Tomas Saraceno, ANDERSEN-S Gallery, Copenhagen
Tue Greenfort, Johann König, Berlin and Galleria Zero, Milan
Sergio Vega, Umberto di Marino, Naples
Alfredo Jaar, Galerie Lelong, NY and Galleria Lia Rumma, Naples and Oliva Arauna, Madrid