Protesters and activists around the world took to the streets on September 27, 2019, demanding political action on climate change. In Toronto alone, tens of thousands of people took to the streets demanding real change. In Montréal, sixteen-year-old activist, Greta Thunberg led a rally of half a million. This comes days after Thunberg’s voyage across the Atlantic Ocean where she embarked on a year-long journey of eco-activism. Her first stop was in New York City where she spoke at the United Nations Climate Action Summit.
Environmental preservation is a hot topic at the moment, in part due to Thunberg’s activism. Around the globe activists like Thunberg are challenging their governments to do better and be better for the future of our planet.
Now, this leads me to question what role do artists play in the discussion of climate change?
Historically a lot!
Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) was a German artist who focused his art around the preservation of the land. Beuys coined the term “social sculpture” in an attempt to define his art. Social sculpture was a broad term that defined as intentional acts using a mixture of language, actions, thoughts, and objects to create societal change. To Beuys, this was art. Beuys believed that social sculpture could create revolutionary change in society.
In practice, Beuys planted 7000 oak trees in conjunction with documenta 7. The work, 7000 Oaks: City Forestation Instead of City Administration, attempted to counter the urbanization of Kassel, Germany. This project revitalized the landscape and improved the ecosystems surrounding the city
However, the rejuvenation of Kassel was not Beuys’ only message with 7000 Oaks. The artist felt as if oak trees themselves were symbolic. The trees were not only a reminder of the Druid civilization but also of the dependence of contemporary society on the environment. Beuys wished for the trees to serve as a reminder for the ways that we depend on nature to maintain our lifestyles. Moreover, Beuys hoped his oaks could be used for further education on political activism.
With the rise in activism surrounding climate change it is becoming more common for artists to get recognition for their works that feature the land as a medium. It’s also interesting to see the rise in the interest of the public on these types of works.
I’m not suggesting that viewers are now more interested in ecological works of art now due to the political discourse surrounding climate change, but it does make for an interesting argument. An argument that I will not explore in this brief post, however.
Instead, I wish to explore the more recent work of Andy Goldsworthy (1956-). In 2019, Goldsworthy began his project, Walking Wall, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. This work explores ideas of impermanence and time. Over a year, the work is installed in five stages. Every few months the wall moves to a new location on the museum’s property to ‘walk’ around the area. Lucky for me, when not in Toronto, I spend a decent amount of time in Kansas City. And I have been able to see the Walking Wall at all of its stages so far.
Simply put, the wall is comprised of one hundred yards of stone that are repositioned each time the wall is moved. The wall meanders throughout the outdoor and indoor spaces of the museum to its eventual resting point. The Walking Wall will arrive at its final position near the end of November where it will be a permanent installation at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.
Having a work so intrinsically connected to the land at a museum so close to home is a very exciting prospect for me, and other art lovers and eco-activists in the region.
Goldworthy’s art isn’t connected to eco-activism in the same way that Beuys 7000 Oaks work was, but it still leaves a message noting the importance of the land to both artists and us as citizens. So many other artists are (and have been) tying their work to the environment. So many avenues of exploration exist in this field of art historical study and I can’t wait to see how other scholars approach this topic.