It is impossible to say that all environmental art looks or functions the same. Beyond drawing inspiration from the land, basically all eco-artists create one-of-a-kind works that are only loosely related to other projects in theory, usually not in aesthetics. This diversity stems from artist’s differing perspectives of how to use the land. Some artists hold extreme reverence for the land and don’t alter the landscape when making art. Others, however, use the land as their canvas and move or destroy the Earth as they see fit.
Robert Smithson is known for his neglect of environmental preservation. His most famous work, Spiral Jetty (1970), coils for 1,500 feet at the edge of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. During construction, Smithson displaced 6,000 tons of black basalt from the site. Smithson chose the lake due to its salinity and presence of microbes, which cause the water to turn a reddish hue. While not detrimental to the environment, the work conducted by Smithson for Spiral Jetty did include permanently moving and altering the natural landscape. Smithson built the Spiral Jetty during a period of time when the water levels in the lake was low. He hoped that his project would remain visible over time. As water levels rose over the years, preventative measures to care for the installation have been considered. However, none have been enacted. The Dia Art Foundation, one of the partners of the Spiral Jetty, suggests allowing the elements to interact with the installation. Erosion and other elemental factors are part of the whole story of the work and shouldn’t be altered, even if that means the work disappears over time.
Environmentalists often criticize Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art as being harmful for wildlife. However, all of their projects undergo a painstaking review process by third party entities. For example, Surrounded Islands covered the edges of eleven islands in Biscayne Bay outside of Miami. The fabric was tethered to the islands and the sea floor. Working the the Army Corps of Engineers and representatives from the state of Florida, Christo designed a special fabric that would not harm the wildlife. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work in Biscayne Bay inspired those living in Miami to consider the fragility of their environment through community involvement. Most importantly, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s team removed over forty tons of debris from the islands during the installation process.
So, now here’s the question: should artists hold any social accountability for producing art that not only doesn’t harm the land, but activley benifits it?
The answer is obviously yes.
Within the constrains of capitalism there is only so much that each of us can personally do for the environment. I can use reusable metal straws and eat plant based, but I cannot curb carbon emissions from mega corporations or prevent catostrphic oil spills. Artists, too, have a social responsibility to the land in their personal lives as well as in their art practice.
So, even though Smithson didn’t wreck the land with his Spiral Jetty he didn’t tend to the environment either. Which, in my opinion, is telling of his true relationship with the Earth. Although attempting to reconnect with the spirituality of the land Smithson is distancing himself from the connections he so yearns for because he’s commodifying the land rather than using it as a partner in his work, as Christo and Jeanne-Claude are attempting in Surrounded Islands.