Eco-Art Education: Environmental Artists and Land Preservation

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.

Image result for spiral jetty

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.

Image result for surrounded islands christo and jeanne claude controversy

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.

Eco-Art Education: Environmental Art and Me

If you’ve been on my blog for a few minutes you’ll likely know that I’m really into the environment and how artists deal with our changing global climate. I thought it would be a good resource for me (and possibly you, who knows!) to document the ideas that got me interested studying this topic. I plan for this to be the first post in a series to help educate all of us on environmental art.

What is Environmental Art?

For as long as people painted imagery of their natural surroundings on rocks, environmental artists have existed. While this certainly intriguing, the study of environmental art typically refers to art made due to concerns of an impending climate crisis. Artists around the globe began creating works made from or referencing the physical world in the mid-twentieth century to draw attention to ecological issues. Many eco-artists explore the relationship between humans and the environment and the causes of climate change. Environmental art doesn’t have to look any specific way and can be made of a variety of materials. Some artists choose to work with recycled plastic, while others use natural materials such as plants, sand, or water.Eco-artists often place their work in inaccessible locations outside of the museum setting, which deemphasizes the need for the art market on their projects.

Major Works of Environmental Art?

Agnes Denes’ Wheatfield–A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan (1982)

Two blocks from the World Trade Center Denes planted a two acre wheat field after many months of preparation. Sowed by hand, and maintained for four months Denes and her team harvested over one thousand pounds of wheat on land that was once a landfill.

Michael Heizer’s Circular Surface, Planar Displacement Drawing (1970-1972)

Like many American land artists, Michael Heizer was interested in the transformation of Earth due to human interaction. In this work, Heizer drove a motorcycle in circles in Jean Dry Lake, Nevada. The patterns he created with his motorcycle were then photographed.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida (1980-1983)

Using six and half million square feet of pink woven fabric, Christo and Jeanne-Claude surrounded eleven islands in Biscayne Bay. For two weeks visitors were able to see the islands from the sky, land, water, and air due to built in causeways.

Why am I Interested in Environmental Art?

This one’s easy.

In the spring of 2018 I had a big tumble while roller blading, and concussed myself just in time for finals week. Somehow, I made it through all of my exams and essays but I was still feeling a little wonky from my injury. I spent the first few weeks of summer listening to YouTube vlogs at random. Somehow I came across lots of people who identified with the zero waste movement. These people recycled and reused as many of their everyday materials as possible in order to create less waste that will hopefully save our planet from ecological devastation.

I was intrigued.

That summer I also studied abroad in London and saw works by environmental artists, such as Andy Goldsworthy and Christo and Jeanne-Claude. So, while in the UK, the ideas of environmentalism and eco-art were at the forefront of my brain.

Once the school year began, it was time to choose a topic for my undergraduate thesis. It is probably no surprise that I landed on the reception of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s newest installation, the London Mastaba for my project. Now, in graduate school I’m still interested in environmentalism, but this time with how eco-artists visualized ideas surrounding climate change.

How I Became an Art Historian

Studying abroad in London I saw elementary aged school children wearing reflective vests sitting on the floor in semi-circles around various paintings. They were so engaged with the art at such a young age. I watched them ask questions about the Warhol paintings on the wall. Questions that I couldn’t have asked at such a young age.

While the kids living in cities are so fortunate to be surrounded by incredible galleries, I grew up in a different environment. My parents owned a horse farm in rural Missouri, a few hours away from the major institutions of St. Louis and Kansas City.

Our local state park has a small museum that tells the history of the area. I have vague memories of visiting it once or twice while on elementary school field trips. With the exception of zoos, I don’t recall visiting any institutions until I went to Europe after my high school graduation.

I went to Europe with one of those tour groups that cater to college-aged students that paid for the entrance fees to specific museums. The first ticket they paid for was at the Louvre in Paris. And this is the first time I actually recall visiting a major institution. I’d like to admit that I only went inside because it was a rainy day and I didn’t feel like getting drenched. To say the least, I wasn’t mesmerized by the treasures or the architecture and I couldn’t wait to leave. I remember looking at the Death of Sardanapalus and literally having no reaction (last time I was at the Louvre I remember looking at the same painting and feeling so much). On this trip we also visited the Vatican and the Prado, both of which had little effect on me.

In my first year of college I realized that my initial career goals of becoming a music therapist wasn’t the path that I envisioned for myself. So, I started exploring my other interests.

Since childhood I had always been interested in photography and I was on the yearbook staff in high school. I thought that maybe I could be a photographer, or major in graphic design during my second year of college.

After enrolling in the art program, I quickly learned that even to be a photography major I had to take a bunch of drawing and painting courses. So I begrudgingly signed up for them. Besides three years on the yearbook staff I had never taken an art course, and I was in way over my head. The first semester of the art program was rough, but I learned and adapted, but I was by no means a good artist.

Second semester I was allowed to enroll in a design course and a photography course. Finally, something I was interested in!

Then, I learned that I had to take an art history course as well. My friend took the same course the year prior and gave stellar reviews of the course material and the professor. Even so, I was not excited. I didn’t want to sit in a dark room and pretend to care about paint splattered on a canvas (looking at you Jackson Pollock). I thought that every class period would be like the torture that I endured at the Louvre.

But I went to class anyway.

By the end of the first two weeks of the course I was hooked. I learned that art history is just a bunch of fun facts pieced together to form a coherent history of the work. Plus, looking at art on a huge screen was so interesting. The professor pointed out so many details that went unnoticed to me. I loved having no knowledge about the subject matter and being totally immersed in learning something new. I even recognized some of the works that I saw from my visit to Europe years prior.

Throughout the second semester of my sophomore year I learned that I’d always been interested in art history, I just didn’t know it. In high school, history was one of my favorite subjects. I loved learning about changing cultures and the forces that changed them. I’ve also always loved writing, and researching for papers. While I wasn’t interested in art in high school, I was interested in the design aesthetics associated with yearbook.

Looking back it makes so much sense that I became an art historian, even without any formal art training as a child. Now, four years later I can’t imagine doing anything different and I’m so thankful that my path ended up here.

Review: Andy Goldsworthy's Walking Wall

What does the simple act of stacking and re-stacking thousands of stones, five times to be exact, have to do with contemporary ecological art making?

Well, ask Andy Goldsworthy—a British born sculptor with a knack for ephemeral natural compositions. Typically, Goldsworthy works in nature and with organic materials to enhance the beauty of the landscape. The cyclical nature of his projects reinforce natural ideas such as death, decay, and the passing of seasons. He works with natural objects to create visual poems commenting frivolity of nature.

Since March, Goldsworthy has been working on a major project on the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Titled Walking Wall, Goldsworthy’s newest project transforms before the viewer’s eyes in five separate stages that takes place over eight months. Simple in nature, the installation is only comprised of stones stacked atop one another to form a wall.

In March 2019, construction of the wall began on the east side of the campus and inched forward every few months. The wall wasn’t constantly in motion. Instead for ten or so days in March, May, July, September, and November workers edged the work along. After the initial construction was finished in March, workers then removed rocks from the back end of the installation and placed them at the front to make it seem as if the installation was literally walking around the grounds. During the periods of movements, crowds flocked to the installation site to observe and ask questions. The sensuous act of watching someone construct a physical entity with nothing more than their hands was an entrancing act.

Left in the wall’s wake is a trail of dead grass, crushed by the weight of itself. These footsteps traipse over the small rolling hills of the institution, reminding us all of our intertwining histories with the land and our similarities with each other.

In a time of decisive discourse surrounding walls and borders in the United States, Goldsworthy definitively connects the act of building a wall with nature rather than as a man-made divide. As polarities continue to rise throughout the country, works like Goldsworthy’s attempt to remind us all that we’re apart of something bigger––bigger than our families or our citizenship. But apart of a global support system that relies on camaraderie between humans and the ecosystems in which they live so that both may flourish.

Imposter Syndrome is Worse in Grad School

Imposter syndrome is nothing new, and I’m not the only one who suffers from it. Literally, we’re all in this together.

While it is so hard doubting myself and my accomplishments, it’s also rough seeing my friends and classmates struggling with the same things. In class, my friends are articulate and passionate about their research. They’re inquisitive and always willing to lend a helping hand. But all of us have our moments of doubt; Doubting that we belong in our program and in our field.

Even though that’s obviously not true. We all earned our place in our program, and we work so hard everyday to stay enrolled in it. I don’t want to be pitted against others in my program. I want us to all do our best in whatever field we’re interested in. Seriously, we’re all doing research that is valuable and I want us all to lift each other up into reaching our goals!

My program is very diverse. All of us have different career goals and we’re all at different points in our careers, too. Some of us (like me!) are fresh out of undergrad, while others are coming directly from another MA program, and still others have been working in the industry for a while and are now returning to school. Getting unique perspectives on my research is literally one of the main reasons why I came to grad school, so I’m really thankful for my cohort!
While this diversity is great, it tugs at all of our collective imposter syndromes. When someone curates a show, gets published, or gives a lecture weare so pumped for each other! After you’re finished celebrating, though, you’re left with a feeling of why didn’t I apply, why didn’t I get nominated, how did they have time to do this, etc.

The more I think about it, the less it matters, though. In reality, we’re all on different journeys through academia and at different points in our careers so comparing ourselves to each other is useless. If I don’t want to be a curator, why should I make myself feel badly when someone got a curatorial placement when I don’t want to work in the museum setting? Or why should I be upset with myself that I don’t have tens of journal articles published if I don’t want to have a tenured academic position at a major research university?

“Comparison is the death of joy,” according to one of the more famous Missourians, Mark Twain. And in 2020, I’ve decided that I’m going to try to compare myself to others less and hopefully focus on me, and the crazy interesting research that I’m working on.

My Issues with the Canonization of Joseph Beuys

Graduate school is great because you get to tailor all of your coursework to your research topic. Obviously, environmental art jazzes me up, and I thought a good starting place for my research was with Joseph Beuys.

For those of you who aren’t aware, Beuys (1921-1986) was a German artist who was interested in a pedagogical approach to art making. He believed that everyone was an artist, and that any human activity was representative of creativity and could be considered art. As a teacher and public speaker Beuys spread this message of social sculpture to Europe and America.
Beyond his teaching, he was an also activist. Beuys helped found two political parties in Germany that attempted to advocate for students and the environment—causes that Beuys was partial towards due to his position as a professor and his lifelong interest in ecology.

Some of his works of art toed the line between art and activism as well. Primarily, 7000 Oaks. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, 7000 Oaks revitalized the landscape surrounding Kassel, Germany, that inspired a global tree planting endeavor.

Beuys facade situates him as a pioneer of the eco-revolution and is further bolstered by his myth of creation. One of the most well known stories surrounding Beuys is the legendary rescue by the Tartars after his plane was shot down over Crimea. Beuys was a fighter pilot for the Luftwaffe (yep, the Nazi Air Force) when he was allegedly shot down and rescued. This myth has been disproven by countless journalists and art critics, but was important to the formation of his personal ideology. In Beuys’ story the Tartar’s saved his life by wrapping him in animal fat and felt to raise his body temperature and fight off hypothermia. Hence the importance of felt and fat in Beuys’ oeuvre.

Just to recap here:

1) Beuys fought for the Nazis in World War II

2) Beuys crafted his legendary creation myth on the backs of Europeans that he claimed superiority

Hopefully, this clears up some of my major complaints about Beuys. But if not, keep reading.

Although the canon is highly problematic, it is one of the main ways that art history is taught and influences the art market. And Joseph Beuys is situated in the canon of highly regarded Western artists. Critics and historians fawn over his extended definition of art and his combination of art and activism.
While Beuys does deserve praise for being a pioneer of the radical eco-art movement, we must remember that he was a Nazi and the connotations surrounding his ideology and public persona is riddled with ideas popularized during the Third Reich.

Beuys recognized the universal power of German culture, and he believed that the cultural superiority of the Germans was manifested through their language. The German language came to power due to the unique environment that the Germans lived, according to Beuys. So, if the German language was all powerful and it is derived from the unique German landscape we have a rationale behind Beuys’ obsession with environmental preservation.

I believe that Beuys was simply manifesting ideas associated with Hitler’s regime rather than through a deep connection with the land. Beuys’ belief in the land containing mystical powers of language and culture formation claims superiority of ethnic Germans. While maybe just racist in nature, this message brought forth by Beuys again seeps with Nazi ideologies, in my opinion.
Scholars like Donald Kuspit disagree with me. They believe that Beuys’ work is rooted in healing from the war, and recovering from the traumas it caused Beuys and the Germans as a whole. Kuspit suggests that the war period was complicated for Germans causing them to make decisions that they otherwise wouldn’t have. Kuspit suggests that Beuys would have likely made different decisions regarding Nazi affiliation had the world not been so complex. And, plus he spent the rest of his life creating art representing the traumas and his sorrows from the war, according to Kuspit.

But that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a Nazi apologist.

If we’re not going to dismantle the canon we should at least recognize that problematic tendencies of the artists that we include in it.

Was Joseph Beuys a Nazi?

Yes, remember how I said he fought for the Nazi Air Force.

Should Nazi artists be included in the canon? Yes. But it is our duty as art historians to be upfront with the total history of the artists—including their affiliations that may be hard to talk about or make the artist into a villain.

But should we instead dismiss the canon entirely and teach art history as holistically as possible? Should we include artists who are doing culturally important works regardless of their critical praise by the likes of Clement Greenberg et al.?

Also yes. But louder.

Andrea Gyorody, “The Medium and the Message: Art and Politics in the Work of Joseph Beuys,” The Sixties 7 no. 2 (2014): 120-126. Donald Kuspit, “Between Showman and Shaman,” in Joseph Beuys: Diverging Critiques, ed. David Thistlewood (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995), 30-39.

A Brief Introduction: London Mastaba

Since the late 1960s, Christo and Jeanne-Claude have had an interest in actualizing large oil barrel mastabas. Their first mastaba was installed in 1968 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. To date, they have only installed two mastabas, but have created concepts for many other mastabas around the globe. A third mastaba is planned to be installed in Abu Dhabi.

Image result for london mastaba

Their largest mastaba, the London Mastaba, was installed in 2018 at Hyde Park in London. The installation consisted of 7,506 multicolored barrels stacked in a mastaba form and attached to a floating steel frame. The barrels themselves were painted in bright hues of blue, red, or purple. According to Christo’s plan, barrels were placed on a pre-constructed floating frame; on the two flat ends of the mastaba, single barrels were placed. On the two long sides and the top of the mastaba, barrels were fastened into long bars spanning the length of the mastaba’s frame. For accessibility, the initial construction of the mastaba was done on the edge of the water. Later, the London Mastaba was pushed into the center of the Serpentine.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude began their art careers in post-war France. Together, they create art that discreetly comments on contemporary global politics. While the installations may not outwardly seem to comment on political structures they often have deep rooted symbolism to contemporary politics either included visually or as a part of the education surrounding their projects. To install their installations, the artists work on a local level with city governments to obtain necessary permits for their projects. They use their involvement at the municipal level to educate not only about their specific art projects, but also the global political climate as well.

One of the more interesting elements of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art practice is their inclusion of humor into their work. While taking themselves seriously as working artists, they incorporate humorous components into their work.

Created as a commentary for the global climate crisis due to the impacts of the oil industry, Christo and Jeanne-Claude ironically made their art out of the elements that they’re commenting on. The work itself also floats atop a picturesque lake in a beautiful park. This directly criticizes the role of the oil industry in destroying the global environment.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are very aware of the placement of their works. As with other site-specific artists the placement of their art is just as important as the installation itself. By choosing Hyde Park, the artists knew that viewers couldn’t help but comment on our global future if the oil industry isn’t stopped.