The Beautiful Genre of Environmental Art

Environmental Art is a new trending form of Art. We all know that it takes a special kind of creative sensibility to create great art. However, it takes a different type entirely to incorporate a concept with the natural world itself. From indoor installations to using the great outdoors itself as a set-piece, the concept of exploring political and urban topics through the medium of the natural world itself is an ever-important and continually evolving landscape of artistic creation. It’s not every day that we see the world itself being utilized as art. Consequently, these intrepid artists are forcing us to be more aware of the beauty and complexity of the natural world.

The History of Environmental Art

Early beginnings

The fascination with representing the natural world in art has been with humanity since the dawn of the species. Not to mention the early pre-historic cave paintings found all over the world as the best illustration of Environmental Art. In a way, it begins here, since this was the first examples of humanity trying to encapsulate the natural world.
Ever since, in every era, artists around the world have been successfully capturing nature and putting their stamp on it.

Chauvet Cave, France – Pre-historic cave paintings

Even up to the more recent era we can see evidence of the impact of nature upon artists. As an example, the famous impressionist painter Claude Monet, for instance. Without the influence of the natural world, Monet would not have been able to create his wonderful artwork.

Claude Monet working on Water Lilies (1916)

Impact of the 1960s and 70s movement

As a more active and pointed movement, Environmental Art started as a philosophical force in the 1960s and 70s. During this time, the movement grew and emblematized various styles of sculpture specially created in specific sites for specific reasons. These fresh and vibrant sculptures stood out compared to the ‘stale’ works exhibited art galleries. Using the outdoors enabled artists to grow distinct voices using the natural world itself. The movement, in direct contrast to the ‘sterile’ environment of traditional movements, set out to live in harmony with nature.

In 1968, an exhibition called “Earthworks” debuted at the Dwan Gallery in New York, which would show a vibrant and bewildering collection of art that directly challenged the domain of traditional forms. From the concepts of sales and exhibitions themselves, Environmental Art emerged to make the community understand that this was something else entirely. In other words, something that was unwilling to be commodified. Most, for instance, were photographs, because they were either too large or too unwieldy (or both!) for anyone to see them in person (let alone collect them). This resistance to acquisition is one of the key elements of the movement.

Environmental Art Earthworks Exhibition – Robert Smithson, A Non Site, Franklin, New Jersey, 1968.

Environmental Art has had an extensive and vibrant life since this inception. To this day, exhibitions and installations still abound, especially in large, natural-leaning cities.

A collection of unique talents

From the 1960’s onwards, Environmental Art has had an influx of novel talents and artists entering the medium and making their mark on the art world. Below are some notable examples, with many of them still active to this day. These pieces all epitomize and exemplify the vast and vibrant world of Environmental Art and show us why the movement is so important.

Olafur Eliasson: Your waste of time

Eliasson created Your Waste of Time in 2006. This installation at the MoMA contains a refrigerated room, powered exclusively by solar energy. The houses pieces of ice broke off from Iceland’s largest glacier, called Vatnajökull. This ice is more than 800 years old and visitors moved around the installation to gaze upon frozen history at their leisure. It is both a beautiful and horrific installation. with the visual and visceral confrontation of something beautiful, the natural formation of a vast quantity of ice over 800 years, and the realization that we are damaging environments such as this on a daily basis.

Olafur Eliasson: Your waste of time (2006)

In the New York Times, Ken Johnson would write, “’Your waste of time’ is that global warming is wreaking havoc on nature.” On one hand, the facing of reality as blatantly as this is a sobering feeling as one gazes at the centuries-old ice formations. On the other hand, it allows one to introspect on the impact of their own lives on the earth. Even though we have been around for hundreds of thousands of years as a species, our individual lives are blips on the historical timeline. Gazing upon ice multiple generations old reinforces to us that the world is not solely for our immediate needs and desires.

David Maisel’s Photographs of Open Pit Mines

The natural beauty of these photographs is marred by the implications shown therein. On viewing them, one might see the beautiful colors and swirls and think of it as some abstract art, but far from it. The scenes all depict the aerial appearance of some of the most severely damaged sites in the US. Various industrial events, such as logging and mining transformed them forever. “With the mining sites,” Maisel begins, “I found a subject matter that carried forth my fascination with the undoing of the landscape, in terms of both its formal beauty and its environmental politics.”

The Mining Project (Butte, Montana 9), 1989, Archival Pigment Print, 2013

Indeed, if nothing else, Maisel’s work is a sobering reminder of the impact we’re having on the planet. Not only, he shows us aerial views of affected areas, also, but also the full extent of urbanization and industrialization. Some of these areas will never be the same again, even if we need the resources from them. Indeed, some of the actions that are being carried out on our behalf for living the lives we do are showing a dramatic impact on the natural world.

David Maisel, The Mining Project (Inspiration, Arizona 9), 1989, Archival Pigment Print, 2013

Andy Goldsworthy’s Herd of Arches

Born in Cheshire, England, Goldsworthy created this brilliant piece in 1994 and is one of many of his installations involving the open air. His philosophy is one of impermanence and entropy, allowing the remote and wild locations he visits to eventually envelop and take back his installations. As the first attempt of the sandstone arches, Herd of Arches uses of materials native to the region. The project utilized stone exclusively quarried from near Glasgow.

Andy Goldsworthy’s Herd of Arches (1994)

The interesting, natural, color combinations of the piece highlight its natural aesthetic. Consequently, it allows an interesting blend of nature vs. constructed art. The dynamic nature of the work is heavily apparent in the placement and the architecture of each arch. Moreover, the arches themselves signify a holistic beauty that Goldsworthy was attempting to articulate. “It is like the keystone in the arch that slots into place,” Goldsmith begins, “it’s the same with the ideas. You build up these things and suddenly the thing is complete and this is another arch. The idea is part of a bigger arch, if you like, the pieces of which are spread all over the place.”

Chris Jordan’s Portraits of American Mass Consumption

This Seattle-based creator became obsessed with American consumer culture, the waste of the nation, and the scale of the trash left behind. For this reason, he decided to leave his career as a Lawyer to take up the artist’s mantle. Jordan combines photography and digital tools to create his vision of “apocalypse” that underlies the entire western existence. He makes extensive works about mundane objects like plastic cups, cell phones, paper bags, and various other items. The problems of unbridled consumerism and disposability of our way of life suffuse his work. Through his work, we understand just how much our existence costs in terms of trash and refuse. By forcing us to come face to face with our excesses and waste, Jordan forces us to take stock of our current position in the world.

Chris Jordan’s Portraits of American Mass Consumption – Crushed cars,
Tacoma (2004)

These photographs are all silent reminders of a world we must live. They beautfully give an accurate portrayal of the expensive nature of our lives. When we meditate upon these images, we understand the value of the planet itself and our place within it.

Chris Jordan’s Portraits of American Mass Consumption –
Cell phones, Orlando (2004)

An ongoing discussion with the planet

The brilliant aspects of the Environmental Art movement cannot be denied. The movement not only plays into our preconceived notions of living in a first world environment, but also clue us in to the realities of living a lifestyle that isn’t necessarily compatible with nature. By showcasing the impacts of our actions on a global scale, Environmental Art in general is the voice in the back of our collective mind, urging us to be stewards to the environment and not destroyers. With movements and voices pushing the conversation further and further ahead, we come face to face with realities that we might not appreciate knowing about, yet must hear nonetheless. It’s important to live harmoniously within the world and with Environmental Art, we understand the reasons why this is necessary. By furthering the conversation, we take yet another step to solving the problems with contemporary existence.

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