Art and Ecology – Our Part in It
'Culture Declares Emergency’ Dan Harvey and Heather Ackroyd, XR (photo Louisa Buck)
William Ruskin (1819-1900), thinker, critic and artist urges us to make sense of our environment, by directly by observing every detail, being in and studying nature (some of which took place on his walks in Yorkshire).
Artists across time have layered observation, curiosity, material exploitation and imagination, to explore our place in the world and find meaning. We look at nature, and the nature of ourselves.
A cave painting in Borneo from over 40,000 years ago depicts a bull. Was the unknown artist scribing those images for identification of animals as food (as a utility) or as an appreciation of the beauty of the beast ? What pleasure was derived in making those marks ?
The Renaissance, Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau and much contemporary art and design references natural forms in a romantic way. Even Ai Weiwei a romantic himself in his design for the Beijing Olympic Stadium, references nature in ‘Birds Nest’. Like much of his work natural forms involves roots, trees (often up-rooted) and their displacement as both symbol and metaphor for humans, and a structure which could not have been realised without computer aided design and high-tech construction techniques.
We sometimes forget that we humans, are also part of the ecology, it is not something out there, but within us. I also believe it is within arts nature, to experiment and challenge the status-quo and am very interested in artists that have made a direct connection to nature as part of their process. Joseph Beuys is a critical figure who amongst many things was co-founder of the green party in 1973, planting 7000 oak trees in Kassel in 1983 as an art ‘action’, and was committed to a synergy between environmentalism and art, as a form of social sculpture or activism.
Contemporary artist duo, Dan Harvey and Heather Ackroyd went on to nurture acorns from Beuys’s original oaks and produce ‘Beuys’ Acorns’, a project which would continue his original aims into a new generation of people and trees. They have made art with natural processes at their core and also as the material itself for a lifetime. Last year in 2019, contributed to an extra-ordinary intervention with Extinction Rebellion, at the Tate Modern when they took horses with riders adorned in grown grass clothing into the Turbine Hall (this was unannounced!).
Like many of us, crazy temperatures, wildfires worldwide, flooding as close as South Yorkshire, (not to mention a shocking lack of action by leaders worldwide) leads artists like others to intervene, beyond ‘normal’, combining art and protest. Tate have subsequently declared climate emergency.
This urgency reflects how many of us feel, wanting to be happy in nature through making small differences whilst at the same time seeing a climate emergency; a mass extinction juggernaut, hurtling towards us.
If most of our experience is derived is from our immediate surroundings, formerly known as nature, how man-made has that nature become, in a globalised technologised world ? Where can we find that direct connection with life and space to reflect on what it means to be a conscious, being as much part of the ecology as animals and plants ? And as a species, philosophise knowing our impact on the world far outweighs, our numbers or timespan compared to other species on earth ?
Would those early people who did the cave drawings, have known that their future relatives might go on from hunter gatherers to farmers …..or operatives in agri-business, and in so doing, change a relationship to the land in such a way that might possibly lead to the extinction of entire species of plants and animals?
We are part of evolution along with a conflicted relationship to technology as we mutate into cyborgs, most of us glued to artificially intelligent ‘smart’ phones; future humans, prostheticised with memory enhancement and audio visual extentions. Our ‘natural’ environment is of course now as much, ‘human made’ as ‘natural’ we are in the anthroprecene era, (the geologic period dominated by one, [the human] species).
This era when the medium (art, music, film, video, publication, social media) would both rely on and become the message itself. As artists have always experimented with materials and technology, from aquamarine pigment derived from grinding lapis lazuli into a powder, as early the 1400th Century, acrylic paint and electronic art in the 1960’s, Nano-art and bio-logically synthesised art in 2020 ? Science Fiction ? No, new media.
As science and technology develop for utility, artists re-appropriate and re-invent for other means, asking important philosophical questions and experimenting with new processes and materials. Doncaster born Nathaniel Mellors (consumption and robotics), Jakob Steensen (augmented reality & climate change), Morehshin Allahyari (virtuality & politics), Erica Scourti (social media & identity), are (some) good examples of artists both employing and questioning our relationship to technology, whilst addressing issues of automation, cultural identity and mental health.
Yorkshire artists Jake Harries, and Monika Dutta share a strong commitment to hacking technology and permaculture as an alternative to industrialised farming (For every 1 calorie of food produced by modern agricultural methods, 10 calories of fuel are burned in its production). The result is a hybrid art practice in the form of a community café, serving home-made Dandelion Burgers, food and process as artistic medium. Interested in the relationship between modern, urbanised living and individual health and wellbeing, they utilise the current issues of renewables, rewilding, biodiversity, and sustainable food sources as a means of exploring and challenging contemporary approaches to the natural world.
So, as many of us walk about glued to our phones, remember some of the alternatives: stay curious, draw, recycle stuff, go into nature, grow things and have fun, if we are not happy: the ecology is not happy, we are all part of the same ecology and nature.
“Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you.”
‘Beuys’ Acorns’, Dan Harvey and Heather Ackroyd, fifty-two trees (of 180) grown from acorns collected from German artist Joseph Beuys’s monumental 1982 artwork, 7000 Oaks
(photo: Jeff Spicer, Getty Images)
‘Dandelion Burgers’, 2019, Monika Dutta & Jake Harries Image 4:‘Pack Poster’, 2019, Monika Dutta & Jake Harries
’The Vomiter (Ourhouse)’, Nathienel Mellors, 2010, Animatronic sculpture (photo: Box Gallery, LA)