A white-paper about art by Kevin Korpela (© 2004 observatorydrive.com)
Many artists in the late 20th century turned to active mediation of the earth and its ecology, including: Buster Simpson, Patricia Johanson, and Agnes Denes. They became mediators between earth and culture. Although integrating art with the earth is not new. Barbara Matilsky, in Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artists' Interpretations and Solutions, suggests that there has been a long relationship between art and nature because artists are:
“Keen observers of the natural world, artists throughout history have sought metaphors in nature to help define human existence...Cave paintings in Western Europe established harmony between people and animals and preserving nature’s balance has motivated many artists through millennia...Over the centuries the relationship between people and nature grew more distant and the gap widened with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. However, many landscape painters continued to maintain nature in art (Matilsky, 4.)”
Earth artists, as “...keen observers (Matilsky, 4,)” began working directly with the earth and its processes versus only painting images of nature-people relationships in the previous centuries. Working directly with ecological ideas essentially coincided with the beginning of Conceptual art. Both Earth and Conceptual art were about questioning the notions of What is art? and providing alternatives to the traditional art institutions of the gallery and museum. For example, the artist Patricia Johanson suggests that we should:
“…discard the categories and distinctions about what is art and what isn’t art. There’s no real gap between the cultural and the practical. Rather than having a set idea of what art should be, we can simply approach things creatively. Then you open art up to an infinite number of possibilities. Art can be houses, plates, parks, habitats, and highways. Artists can affect survival by making a world that is both nurturing and beautiful. It may be better to approach everything as art and make it available to everyone (Johanson, 25.)”
Creating “…a world that is both nurturing and beautiful (Johanson, 25)” is one goal of Earth art and includes various permutations: Land art, Environmental art, and Ecological art. This type of art is generally regarded as being developed in the late 1960s alongside increasing public awareness of the environment, for as Western cultures progress:
“...nature was commodified as a ‘natural resource’ and exhausted as real estate for the unchecked human population...[and]...Our propensity for consumer luxury, militarism, and excessive consumption of natural resources has left the planet on the verge of becoming uninhabitable (Cyphers, 52.)”
The photographer David Hanson suggested a similar notion from a different view:
“It seems frightening yet strangely appropriate that perhaps the most enduring monuments that the West will leave behind for future generations will not be Stonehenge, the Pyramids of Giza or the Cathedral of Chartres, but rather the hazardous remains of our industry and technology...vast gardens of ashes and poison (Galik, 49.)”
Despite Hanson’s generally true statement, the context of some of his “...enduring monuments (Galik, 49)” should be noted. For example, the Pyramids of Giza is vastly superior regarding aesthetic concerns relative to a pile of rubbish buried under an impervious clay-cap, however, pyramids were built by mostly slave labor. Although the pyramids are aesthetically impressive, a statement could be made suggesting that they are its era’s own version of the “...hazardous remains [or slavery I would argue] (Galik, 49)” of its industry and technology. Excessive cultural habits of one type or another implied by Hanson and Cyphers are some of the reasons for the degradation of the earth and its human counterpart. But artists as “...keen observers (Matilsky, 4)” may be able to “…organize, design and present (Korpela, 2004)” options or at least commentary on the excessive habits of the human occupation of the earth. Commentary or options that suggest alternative ways to organize thoughts and present actions while collaborating within other disciplines such as science, law, literature, architecture, and art. Artists in particular are thought to be important contributors when dealing with environmental concerns because:
“Artists are in a unique position to effect such environmental changes because they can synthesize new ideas and communicate connections between many disciplines. They are pioneering a holistic approach to problem solving that transcends the narrow limits of specialization. Since art embodies freedom of thought, spirit, and expression, its creative potential is limitless. Art changes the way people look at reality. In its most positive mode, art can offer alternative visions (Matilsky, 3.)”
Providing “...alternative visions (Matilsky, 3)” is important in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries due to the myriad of social, economic, political and environmental concerns requiring unique solutions for complex problems. Meanwhile, women as well as men can be problem solvers. One aspect of Earth art which was different then most other movements is that it was practiced by male and female artists with generally equal participation and recognition. However, it’s probably unfair or misleading to suggest that the reason for the good representation and recognition of women in Earth art is because women are better at nurturing then men and it may be misleading to suggest that the Mother-Earth connotation is apt for women and not men because women can be mothers, hence they make the best Mother-Nature Artists. These notions may be true, but the writer Kate Soper suggests that it is not necessarily a good idea to generalize because although Earth art may be about nurturing, men as well as women can create works that nurture nature. Generalizing roles implies that one group of people is better than another group of people and we may end in the same place as previous generations by legitimizing who can or can not do certain things. Soper said, in Land and Environmental Art edited by Jeffery Kastner, that the:
“Ecological argument also needs to be cautious in accepting the classic genderization of nature as feminine, as it does whenever it simply inverts an Enlightenment devaluation of both women and nature as, by association, the exploitable objects of a masculine instrumental rationality in favour of a celebration of the ‘maternal’...which has been rejected...by her rapacious human son or suitor. This is in part because it reproduces the woman-nature coding which has served as legitimation for the domestication of women and their confinement to the nurturing role...It is in part because in the process of symbolic identification it tends to repeat the exclusion of women from ‘humanity’ and ‘culture’. Any eco-politics, in sort, which simply reasserts the claims of a feminized space/being of nature against its human dominion is at risk of reproducing the implicit identification of the human species with its male members in its very denunciations of ‘human’ abuse of ‘nature’ (Kastner, 286.)”
Soper’s argument suggests that nature or nurture is not strictly a feminine construct and that men as well as women can nurture or mediate. Both male and female artists have developed several earth-minded answers to earth-minded questions, therefore Earth art doesn’t need to be classified by gender, rather, Patricia Sanders in the article Eco-art categorizes Earth artists into types based on their argument presentation:
“...those who alert us to environmental problems through shock or humor; those who educate us about the systemic nature of our world; and those who engage us directly, through political activism or actions (Sanders, 77-81.)”
Earth artists “alert...educate...and...engage (Sanders, 77-81)” themselves and their viewers/participants in a variety of works focused on actual environmental issues as suggested by Jackie Brookner in the article The Heart of the Matter where she says many:
“...artists are aiming their imaginative powers at real-world problems – cleaning up rivers, planting trees, detoxifying water and soils, working with garbage and wastewater systems. These activities, which require collaboration with scientists, engineers, landscape architects, and municipal authorities, are important beyond their practical value. They feed our imagination with positive images of participation and regeneration (Brookner, 9.)”
Art that regenerates, restores, reclaims, or restates relationships between people and nature is not new. But in the late 20th Century views were updated to respond to cultural and scientific issues by practicing art that advocates better “...art-to-earth (Loonsk, 2004)” relations. Earth art mediates between culture and earth by proposing solutions to actual problems and is a collaborative art that can involve many disciplines and professions. Earth artists often “alert...educate...and...engage (Sanders, 77-81)” their viewer/participant in particular “...real-world problems (Brookner, 9)” through their art works where the artist becomes an “...artist-shaman, believing that a healing transformation of our social structure [can] take place only by integrating the spiritual, mystical, and irrational with the casual and rational (Brookner, 9.)” Many Earth-minded artists began practicing in the late 1960s including Buster Simpson, Patricia Johanson, and Agnes Denes.
Buster Simpson and his cure for “acid reflex disease”
Acid rain may be damaging the environment and has been a growing concern effecting nearly all areas of the world, although in specific regions it may be more obvious. Acid rain is attributed to chemicals such as sulfur exhausted from automobiles or mercury exhausted from smokestacks at coal-powered electrical generation plants that move into the upper atmosphere of the earth and then fall back to the ground within snowflakes or rain droplets, commonly called acid rain. This precipitation contains large quantities of sulfur, mercury or other chemicals and has been suspected of damaging forests in the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern United States or concentrating to dangerous levels within the muscle tissue of fish. Humans whom eat fish with high concentrations of mercury, for example, in-turn raise the mercury levels in their own bodies. Human health problems attributed to high mercury counts include learning disabilities and birth defects (Moyers, 2004.)
The artist Buster Simpson developed one response or “cure” for the damage attributed to acid rain but it may not be a long-term remedy because of the complexity of the problem and societal/cultural implications. Simpson’s River Rolaids from 1990 neutralized the acidity of water in several American rivers. Simpson made a series of hand-carved disks of limestone. Then he selected a particular river and placed multiple disks, each weighing about 50 pounds, in the chosen river hoping to neutralize the acidity for at least a short period of time. As the water rushes over the disks, the current of the river dissolves the limestone and releases lime, a base that counteracts acid, and helps mediate chemical poisons in the river. Simpson would usually wade into the river hand-carrying each disk and dropping the disk into the riverbed. Matilsky suggests that Simpson’s ritual of wading into the stream to deliver his medicine “...recalls the ceremonial practices of Native American medicine men, who heal the sick through dramatic rituals (Matilsky, 95.)” Simpson also worked with water in his Downspout – Plant Life Monitoring System in Seattle.
In 1978 Simpson modified the typical downspouts that run along a building exterior. A downspout carries rain-water from the roof through vertical pipes and releases the water into a garden, to the sidewalk, or into a storm-pipe system below the street. At Pike Place Public Market in Seattle, Simpson “...grew ferns in plumbing pipes attached to the side of a building (Matilsky, 93)” and set the ferns into a limestone/soil mixture that helps to neutralize the acidity in the rain as is passes through on its way to the ground. The soil mixture also absorbs water and slows its release into the storm system reducing overflow at the sewage facility. However, one modification of one pipe on one building won’t significantly impact the municipal storm-water discharge, but if Simpson’s rather low-cost idea was implemented for a city-block or a neighborhood, the reduction in water overflow into a storm system may be significant. Working with water was also a common artistic vehicle for Patricia Johanson.
Patricia Johanson Says Things Flow from One Thing to Another
The artist Patricia Johanson, whom also holds an advanced degree in architecture, suggests that there is no death in respect to nature, she says that:
“There’s just change, transformation, metamorphosis – a flowing from one thing to another. If only we could regain some kind of spiritual connection to the earth...[rather than] the idea that everything is valuable and can be translated into profit (Johanson, 35.)”
Johanson’s art allows for change and transformation and includes low-impact and collaborative works. A mile-long path called Cyrus Field is made from marble, wood and cement and winds through a forest, and a new park called Endangered Garden is integrated into the design for a new pump station/sewage holding tank at Candlestick Park on San Francisco Bay. Johanson believes that:
“Art should be about shared experience, not about money,” and “...that artists could make a major contribution by working on large-scale, basic infrastructure projects. But unfortunately, instead of allowing artist a full range of creativity on [public art] projects, they are told what to do – interpret or decorate the facility, rather than using the facility as an opportunity to create something that would make a real difference in people’s lives (Johanson, 31.)”
The work called Endangered Garden from about 1990 could “...make a real difference in people’s lives (Johanson, 31)” because Johanson worked with the design team for the new sewage treatment facility to provide more public benefits besides clean water. They partially buryied the facility and ran a mile-long bay-walk along the roof giving new public access to the bay. Considering the complexity of a sewage plant, Johanson spent “...months of research on the site, working with all kinds of environmental specialists: entomologists, sedimentologists, experts in shellfish restoration and endangered species (Johanson, 23.)” Each specialist contributed to her ability to “...synthesize new ideas and communicate connections between many disciplines (Matilsky, 3.)” For example, one feature in the Endangered Garden are the Ribbon Worm Tidal Steps where small pools fill and drain as the tide ebbs and flows, leaving pockets where “...visitors will be able to examine small pools of water that shelter a delicate and complex ecosystem of intertidal life (Matilsky, 64.)” Caffyn Kelly, in the preface to Art and Survival: Creative Solutions to Environmental Problems, suggests that:
“Johanson’s graceful designs for sewers, parks, and other functional projects not only speak to deep human needs for beauty, culture and historical memory. She also answers to the needs of birds, bugs, fish, animals and micro-organisms. Her art reclaims degraded ecologies and creates conditions that permit endangered species to thrive in the middle of urban centers. ‘To me it’s all equally important,’ [Johanson] says, ‘the microscopic bacteria and the man who contributes a million dollars to build the project’ (Johanson, 2.)”
An early work by Johanson called Cyrus Field did not require a “...man who contributes a million dollars (Johanson, 2)” though a Guggenheim grant contributed to the project. It was constructed in the back woods near her home in New York State in 1970 and is significant in its approach as being relatively quick to construct, inexpensive to build, and has a low-impact on the natural surrounding. The project is essentially three lines running through the forest. The sculpture is large and includes three walking paths made from marble pavers, redwood planks or cement blocks set end to end winding through the forest. Michel Conan in Landscape Design and the Experience of Motion suggests that Johanson’s frequent bay-walks or forest paths “...capitalize…on the contemporary taste for picturesque wandering to lead visitors from movement into stillness and engagement with nature (Conan, 15.)” In the work Cyrus Field each “...wandering (Conan, 15)” path is from 2600 feet to 3200 feet in length and are laid “…through a mixed forest of pine, birch, and maple that provides the viewer with the chance to experience nature’s changing patterns, textures, colors, and compositions (Matilsky, 60.)” Johanson thinks that because the simple paths are in the forest that she and her participants actually notice the ecology more, she says that:
“The lines frame the natural world. They mediate between human and nature, without distorting or displacing anything. All the animals are still here, and they even make use of the project. Snakes sun themselves on the marble; chipmunks live under the redwood; and small mammals tunnel along the edges of the cement blocks (Johanson, 9.)”
Art may show images of humans in nature. Art may also “…mediate between human and nature (Johanson, 9.)” Both versions are art, though in a complicated world with many unusual cultural and societal problems maybe an art attempting to mediate versus only depict relationships between nature and humans could be practiced by more artists.
Agnes Denes and Wheatfields
The artist Agnes Denes attempts to “alert...educate...and...engage (Sanders, 77-81)” her viewers while relating cultural-societal concerns in a complicated world. In the Spring of 1982, she negotiated with the owners of a river-front property facing the Statue of Liberty and two-blocks from the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan to plant two-acres of wheat in a work called Wheatfield – A Confrontation. Planting a swath of wheat in Manhattan, one of the most congested and wealthiest places, is not an easy task and most likely required numerous presentations prior to sowing the first seed. The initial stages may have included many discussions with the land owners whom were probably reluctant to remove their income-generating property for an entire growing season. After both landowner consent and city approvals, two-hundred truckloads of landfill were dumped on the plot followed by eighty truckloads of topsoil making a one-inch spread of fertile ground. The 285 furrows were dug “...by hand, clearing off rocks and garbage, then placing the seed by hand and covering the furrows with soil (Stiles, 543)” by Denes and her two assistants and several volunteers. She and her group “...maintained the field for four months, set up an irrigation system, weeded, cleared out wheat smut (Stiles, 543,)” and then on August 16 they harvested “...1000 pound of healthy golden wheat (Kastner, 160.)” Denes suggested that the harvest was a dramatic event, saying that:
“All those Manhattanites who had been watching the field grow from golden amber and had gotten attached to it – the stockbrokers and the economists, office workers, tourists, and others attracted by the media coverage – stood around in sad silence. Some cried. TV crews were everywhere, but they too spoke little and then in a hushed voice (Stiles, 543.)”
Why grow wheat on an urban island? Denes says that she wanted to make something other than the traditional public sculpture and:
“...to call attention to our misplaced priorities and deteriorating human values...To attempt to plant, sustain, and harvest two acres of wheat here, wasting valuable real estate, obstructing the machinery by going against the system, was an effrontery that made it the powerful paradox I had sought...(Stiles, 543.)”
Denes suggests that she generally likes to question the status quo and that Wheatfield – A Confrontation was a symbol representing “...food, energy, commerce, world trade, economics (Stiles, 544,)” laid down “...on an area of land worth $4.5 billion (Kastner, 160.)” Denes says that the wheatfield idea is rather simple:
“One penetrates the soil, places one’s seed of concept, and allows it to grow, expand, and bear fruit. That is what creation and life is all about. It’s all so simple, yet we tend to forgot basic processes. What was different about this wheatfield was that the soil was no rich loam but dirty landfill full of rusty pipes, boulders, old tires, and overcoats. It was no farmland but an extension of the congested downtown of a metropolis where dangerous cross-winds blew, traffic snarled, and every inch was precious realty. The absurdity of it all, the risks we took, and the hardships we endured were all part of the basic concept. Digging deep is what art is all about (Stiles, 544.)”
An exhibit called “The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger” organized by the University of Minnesota in the later 1980s displayed some of the harvested wheat in many museums and galleries throughout the world (Kastner, 160.) Denes was offered many options for the balance of the harvested grain, she said that:
“Some suggested that I put up my wheat on the wheat exchange and sell it to the highest bidder, others that I apply to the government for a farmers’ subsidy to prevent me from planting the next year (Stiles, 545.)”
The artists Buster Simpson, Patricia Johanson, and Agnes Denes develop separate approaches to mediate the relationships of human occupancy with the planet Earth. These Earth artists make art that reveals particular views about culture and society, and promotes solutions or at least temporary remedies to generally environmental concerns but also concerns relating to economic, engineering, commercial, or scientific concepts. Earth art or:
“Ecological art has become a catalyst for a heightened awareness of nature as well as a model of interdisciplinary problem-solving. By revitalizing and recreating habitats, artist redefine their role in society as their art becomes inseparable from life itself. In ancient times, artist mediated between people and the world of plants and animals; today many artists actually remediate the environment and help close the gap between nature and humanity (Matilsky, 114.)”
Art can be many things. Some artists organize information to increase awareness or participation. Earth artists help themselves and their audiences develop a better understanding of our natural context. The context may include a river near your house, a downspout on a building, the local sewage treatment facility, a path through a forest, or an urban wheatfield, but each idea mediates human actions with natural surroundings while advocating direct relationships with the things around us.
The End (or is it the beginning.)
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Korpela, Kevin. “…organize, design and present” are notions developed by the group Observatory DriveSM as described on their web-site and relate to the practice of design, architecture and community action. URL: www.observatorydrive.com June 2004.
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Loonsk, Susan. “Art-to-EarthSM“ is the symbol trademark for the organization Art-to-Earth, Inc., Superior, WI. The phrase “...art-to-earth” was referenced in this report because notions described by this group on their web-site relate to notions argued in this report. Referencing the phrase seemed appropriate in the context of the paragraph above and as a philosophical concept appropriate for a report about earth-minded artists. URL: www.art-to-earth.com June 2004.
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Matilsky, Barbara C. Fragile ecologies: contemporary artists' interpretations and solutions. Rizzoli, NY: 1992.
Moyers, Bill. “[Proposed EPA air pollution regulation].” Now with Bill Moyers. WDSE-TV8, Duluth-Superior Public Television: Sunday, June 27, 2004.
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Stiles, Kristine and Peter Selz, editors. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA: 1996.
Weilacher, Udo. Forewords by John Dixon Hunt and Stephen Bann. Translation by Felicity Gloth. Between landscape architecture and land art. Birkhäuser, Basel, Boston: 1996.
© Kevin Korpela, www.observatorydrive.com™