Art and climate change: artists-activists

Art and climate change: artists-activists

By Constanza Ontiveros Valdés

Art is no stranger to the urgent topic of climate change. Ecologically conscious art has existed since the 1960s’ but it has recently acquired traction due to the alarming rate of environmental catastrophes which have finally brought awareness to the gravity of the situation. Resulting from this, contemporary artists working across mediums and disciplines are increasingly exploring these issues and large-scale art exhibitions that tackle climate change are on the rise. To this, it must be added that the art world’s not-so-eco-friendly practices are also under the microscope. In the midst of this eclectic and sometimes contradictory scenery, this two-part article dealing with art and climate change starts by looking at the work of three mission-driven artists that have taken the route of action.

Mary Mattingly (b.1978, Rockville, Connecticut; based in NYC, US)

This Brooklyn-based transdisciplinary artist creates participatory art projects that offer practical solutions to the climate crisis. Some of her works are what she calls “sculptural ecosystems,” and she also puts together self-sufficient architecture prototypes that explore different ways of living. The artist’s interest in pollution and global warming stems from a personal experience as the drinking water from the Connecticut farming town where she grew up was polluted. This awful experience explains why many of the artist’s projects are closely connected to water whether it be by creating collaborative projects that exist on the water or that clean it.

For instance, one of Mattingly’s projects is Waterpod (2009), a completely self-sufficient boat she inhabited next to other three people. Another one is Wetland (2014-2016), a self-sufficient learning and public eco-friendly vessel that docked in NYC. The artist also created Swale, “an edible landscape” constructed on a barge that traveled to public piers in NYC and allowed the visitors to harvest fresh produce from it. The project was a way to circumnavigate New York’s public land laws, which forbid food foraging in public spaces. Notably, the project had concrete results as it succeeded in creating the Foodway, NYC’s first pilot project for public foraging in one of its parks. It must be said that, while some of the artist’s projects bring to mind Robert Smithson’s idea of a floating island that would navigate around NYC (completed posthumously in 2005), Mattingly’s structures have practical and not purely aesthetic purposes. She transforms a wide range of recycled materials and recurs to simple filtering and farming methods as a means of demonstrating we could all contribute to the planet if we really wanted to.

Tony Albert (b. 1981; Townsville; raised in Brisbane, Queensland; AU)

Albert is a multidisciplinary artist that creates politically charged works that address the legacies of colonialism in Australia and the history and misrepresentation of First Nation Peoples. However, recently he has also created ecologically conscious projects that remain tied to his personal history as a descendant of Australia’s First Nation peoples (the Girramay, Yidinji, Kuku Yalanji, and Guugu Yimithirr). Such is the case of Healing Land, Remembering Country (2020), a sustainable wooden greenhouse placed at Cockatoo Island conceived for the Sydney 22nd Biennale, NIRIN. It all started when the artist took part in a climate school intensive on Heron Island, in the southern Great Barrier Reef, that inspired him to blend these two topics. For the biennale project, he chose to plant Kangaroo grass seedlings, which are common and native to the east coast of New South Wales, on sheets of handmade paper placed in weaved baskets hung around the greenhouse. The artist gathered the baskets from various Indigenous communities across Australia, each differing in the weaving technique and highlighting the cultural diversity of the country’s regions. The project was also participatory. The visitors were invited to write a wish or a memory on a piece of paper, sparking a “gifted memory.”

After the biennale presentation, the seeds were planned to be taken back to the Blacktown Native Institution, as a way of giving the land a helping hand towards “healing.” Interestingly, the project had other iterations, one of which was staged at Elizabeth Farm as part of the Sydney Living Museums. “My hope for the future is that through this artwork and the engagement with the community we can look for different ways of land management, change our practices and look for a more optimistic and brighter future,” the artist said in this video.

Tomás Saraceno (b.1973 Tucuman, Argentina; lives and works in Berlin, DE)

Tomás Saraceno has been described as all these things: arachnophile, artist, architect, activist, teacher, musician, and environmentalist. Much of the artist’s practice is inspired by the airborne lifestyle of spiders. For Saraceno, the networks they spin are symbolic of the interconnectedness of all living things and the whole universe. They are also a model of how we should live. “The human species has lasted 300,000 years, spiders, more than 300 million – it’s 150 million since they began to make webs,” he once said to the Financial Times. Adding, “They can adjust and live within the environment without harming it, in contrast to our stupidity.”

Parallel to his extremely successful studio practice, backed up by a staff of 50+, Saraceno also runs the Aerocene foundation, a crowdsourced global group that intends to answer the question: Is it possible to circumnavigate the world, using no other resource than the sun? As part of this project, he has put together a team of specialists that have made possible fossil-free balloon flights that are kept afloat by the sun and travel with atmospheric currents. In 2020 the foundation staged the first fuel-free human-balloon flight. Aerocene Pacha broke 32 world records and infused credibility and viability to a once far-fetched initiative as it was able to travel 1.7 km in 21 minutes. Piloted by Leticia Noemi Marqués, the balloon displayed the message “Water and Life are Worth More than Lithium” written by the local communities of Salinas Grandes, Jujuy, Argentina, where the flight took place. While apparently diverse, Saraceno’s spectacular hanging installations and his work with Aerocene are linked by his commitment to exploring alternate ways of living.

The multi-faceted projects of these three talented artists represent only a fraction of the countless ecologically conscious artworks that are being created as we write these words. However, we chose them because they reflect how art can actively contribute to bringing much-needed change. In the second part of this article, we will explore how the art world has systematically underestimated its own carbon footprint and we will name the initiatives that are striving to make the art system more sustainable. Just to get an idea of the situation: A 2021 report stated the art world emits more CO2 every year than the entire country of Austria—77 million tons to be exact…

Feature image credit: AIR 01 Mary Mattingly source

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