Critical Review

This is a version of my final critical review with some of the images removed for copyright reasons – for assessment, please see my submitted version with images included.

How do artists bring about environmental change?

Introduction

Environmental issues are important to me, they have influenced my choice of job, my lifestyle, my way of thinking. My artwork is beginning to address these issues and I suspect they will feature more and more as time goes by.

The Tate defines Environmental art as “art that addresses social and political issues relating to the natural and urban environment” (Tate, n.d.). Environmental art doesn’t necessarily mean artists addressing environmental concerns in the way I am interested in, it also includes artists working with the environment, but not necessarily in harmony with it. Indeed, some artists have been criticized for causing permanent ecological damage with their work (Pereira, 2016).

The art historian Suzi Gablik highlighted three characteristics of what would become known as ecological art (Kagan, 2014):

  1. cultivating empathy
  2. practices which aim to build sustainable ways of living by changing people’s views and actions
  3. ethically responsible to communities

In looking at how artists bring about change around environmental issues, I will take Gablik’s definition as a guide, in particular looking at how they cultivate empathy to change people’s views.

Living as we do with the sixth mass extinction underway (Morton, 2018), there has never been a more important time for these environmental issues to be addressed, and art plays an important role in getting that message across because it can be used to question the way we currently do things. The writer Ghosh argues that currently most forms of art and literature are “drawn into the modes of concealment that prevent[] people from recognising the realities of their plight” (Ghosh, 2017). In other words, artists are currently burying their heads in the sand in this regard and, once you realise that as an artist, you realise that you have to change what you are doing and address these issues.

Artists

I have researched three artists who produce work that resonates with me through the messages they are trying to convey.

Laney Birkhead – Swarm

Laney Birkhead is a printmaker and also a beekeeper. Her concerns over the plight of honey bees made her want to use her artwork to do what she could to raise awareness about this issue. This developed into a huge printmaking project, bringing together hundreds of people to create a ‘Swarm’ of honey bees printed onto fabric which was then sewn together to create a huge installation. The final work consisted of 50,000 hand printed bees printed using relief blocks. This number of bees represents the ideal number of bees in a healthy hive – without this number, a hive may not be strong enough to make it through winter. These prints involved thousands of people making & printing with the impact then amplified through the many visitors to the exhibitions.

Swarm, 2016’ Birkhead, Laney

Swarm, 2016’ Birkhead, Laney (detail)

Laney’s main aim has been to educate people about the importance of bees and other pollinators and ask them to act on this by making a personal pledge to do something to help (Birkhead, 2015).

Swarm pledge quilt, 2018’ Birkhead, Laney

I first saw ‘Swarm’ in its second venue at the Inspired by Gallery, Danby, North York Moors centre. It was a powerful combination of scientific information about bee decline and beautiful art created with this idea at its core. The installation is an immersive experience, walking through it impresses on you the scale of a hive, and the accompanying artwork from many other artists along with information on the decline of pollinators forces the viewer to stop and think about an issue which they may not have contemplated in any depth before. Visiting the exhibition directly impacted my own behaviour: my wife and I have chosen to plant bee-friendly plants in our garden. It also influenced my sculpture, focusing my attention on the fascinating forms of pollen grains. As a result I was fortunate enough to be one of the artists involved in the fourth exhibition.

Swarm display, Butler, Mark

I can attest to the impact ‘Swarm’ had on my behaviour. Witnessing some of the many conversations Laney has had with visitors and participants and the pledges people have made in the exhibitions, I have seen how it has had a similar impact on the behaviour of many people towards their local environment.

I think the installation works, not so much in raising awareness of an issue which is already quite well publicised, but in bringing the onus more directly onto individuals in showing how their input can directly affect their local environment. Research shows that gardens are an important sanctuary for pollinators in urban areas (Carrington, 2019), so the individual’s response to this can help.

I did witness some interesting discussions on the benefit of invasive species for bees. For bees these can provide an important food source when other plants are not flowering, but they do have other negative environmental impacts, showing that even what appears to be a clear cut case of individual action helping the environment could be fraught with issues.

Mandy Barker

Mandy Barker in her ‘Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals’ (Barker, 2019a) achieves beauty by blurring the ugly plastic waste she finds to bring an ethereal quality to them. Unlike Chris Jordan’s ‘Portraits of American Mass Consumption’ (Jordan, 2005), where he is making more of a record of our out-of-control consumerism, Barker’s work would comfortably hang on a wall in a house, but could then be used to open up discussions with others who view it. She states “I want people to be visually attracted to the images that I create, and then I want them to read the caption and be shocked by what they read, by what the image represents” (Barker, 2016).

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‘Ophelia medustica (Pram wheel), 2017’. Barker, Mandy

This is an approach where the message could potentially be lost if the captions are not read or understood, but it provides a means of exhibiting the work more widely in a way which probably would not be possible with documentary images.

I also like the scientific approach she uses, recording the objects like microscopic specimens to be catalogued and categorised, and relating them back to the scientific discovery of plankton which have now been found to be ingesting micro plastic. In her words, she wants “To represent scientific research and, in a way give science a voice” (Barker, 2016). This is recognised by the scientist Professor Richard Thompson, who writes “While academic evidence is crucial to indicate the way forward, it is the arts and humanities that are essential to communicate how the problem is linked with the individual choices we make” (Barker, 2019b).

The impact of viewing her work is to understand that we all need to use plastics in a more responsible manner. Plastics and their effect on our world has been an issue for many years now, with many people working to raise awareness and make people change their habits. The accumulation of manmade materials on the Earth’s surface, plastics being one of them, has resulted in us now living in a new geological era, the Anthropocene (Morton, 2018).

Plastic pollution is obviously a big issue in the world and one which needs to be addressed. However, the knee jerk public reaction against it may be worse and when the focus is single-mindedly applied to one issue, the solutions can often make matters worse:

“If our main concern is climate change, then we’re actually better off using plastic made from petrochemicals — either recycling or burning them once they have outlived their useful lives”. (Clark, 2018)

With less than twelve years left to turn around climate change (Watts, 2018), perhaps that should be our primary focus.

Jason deCaires Taylor

Jason deCaires Taylor produces large scale sculptures in non-toxic, pH neutral marine grade cement which are installed in ‘museums’ beneath the sea to form artificial reefs. They are sited in consultation with marine experts to maximise their impact on boosting diversity and aim to draw some of the tourists away from existing reefs which are under threat. There are additional benefits in providing local employment and using entrance fees to the sites to provide funding for marine conservation and enforcing protective laws (Taylor, 2019).

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‘The Raft of Lampedusa’ (detail). Taylor, Jason deCaires

The subject of his sculptures suggest we are blindly walking towards environmental disaster. A subject I have no problem agreeing with, but with no suggestion of a solution or ray of hope, I wonder what the benefit is in pointing this out? Research suggests that the depressing messages reduced the recreational experience of some visitors, or that they are “mixed, muddled, and interpreted differently by the divemasters and instructors they’re delegated to” (Meyers, 2018).

Taylor’s intentions certainly seem to be focussed on helping the marine environments, in an interview for the Sculpture magazine he said “Over the years I have tried to tailor each of the installations further for endemic marine life” and “the ecological aspect has been one of the major forces behind them” (Taylor, 2016). His work acts as a conservation project and could be viewed as a message of hope in showing that humans can directly impact the conservation of our environment. With predictions that more than 90 percent of the world’s coral reefs will die by 2050 (Becatoros, 2017), urgent work is required in this area to find a way of conserving this ecosystem.

Reading his website and the many articles written about his work, these sculptures would appear to be the most ecological art possible, both aiming to change people’s views and attitudes and actively working to restore ecosystems. However, research by Meyers on the effects of Taylor’s Museo Atlántico in Lanzarote suggest that this might not actually be the case (Meyers, 2018). Meyers argues that the attempts to remedy ecological damage caused by climate change through investment in development has resulted in an “explicit project of the Anthropocene”, and concludes that “as a tool for cultural change, there is little concrete for divers to take away”. This is not necessarily the fault of Taylor, his museum once complete has become part of the service economy, with its success now driven by the ability to generate income. 

Looking back at Gablik’s three characteristics of ecological art, it appears that this project may in some cases cultivate empathy, but Meyer’s research shows that it is not building a sustainable way of living, or being ethically responsible to the local communities it has displaced during its construction.

Conclusion

Art tackling environmental issues can be fraught with difficulties as demonstrated by considering the work of these three artists. That is not to say that it shouldn’t be attempted though, and living in the age we find ourselves in, I think artists have a duty to address and communicate these issues.

The three artists investigated here each tackle a different environmental issue, using different mediums and approaches and I think there are lessons to be learnt from each of them, both about how these issues can be approached and the potential pitfalls involved.

Mandy Barker’s approach of producing visually attractive images with powerful messages in the captions to them is an approach I am employing in my recent drawings on ash dieback, producing images which are visually interesting and attractive, with the message in the caption getting across the environmental concern by describing how the holes burnt out of these maps mark where the ash trees will be lost from the landscape due to this disease.

‘Barden Bridge, 2019’ Butler, Mark

Artists can provide a way in to complex scientific issues which allow non-scientific viewers to gain understanding and empathy with the subject. There are no shortage of ecological facts available but not ways of dealing with them, art can give us a way to “live ecological knowledge” (Morton, 2018).

Gablik states, “The effectiveness of art needs to be judged by how well it overturns the perception of the world that we have been taught, which has set our whole society on a course of biospheric destruction” (Gablik, 1991). In tackling environmental issues, artists also need to consider the most effective methods of communication to spread their message to a wide enough audience to be able to make a difference.

References

Barker, M. (2016). Mandy Barker – Biosphere Talks. [online] YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oG609A4pETg [Accessed 13 Apr. 2019].

Barker, M. (2019a). Beyond Drifting by Mandy Barker. [online] Mandy-barker.com. Available at: https://mandy-barker.com/project.php?gallNo=9 [Accessed 12 Apr. 2019].

Barker, M. (2019b). Altered Ocean. Overlapse.

Becatoros, E. (2017). More than 90 percent of coral reefs will die out by 2050. [online] The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/environment-90-percent-coral-reefs-die-2050-climate-change-bleaching-pollution-a7626911.html [Accessed 24 Jul. 2019].

Birkhead, L. (2015). Swarm Printmaking Project – Laney Birkhead. [online] Laneybirkhead.com. Available at: http://laneybirkhead.com/Swarm-Printmaking-Project [Accessed 16 Apr. 2019].

Carrington, D. (2019). City bees: allotments and gardens can help arrest decline – study. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/14/city-bees-allotments-gardens-help-arrest-decline-study [Accessed 24 Jul. 2019].

Clark, R. (2018) ‘The great plastic panic’, The Spectator, 20 January 2018, pp. 10-11.

Gablik, S. (1991). The Reenchantment of Art. London: Thames and Hudson.

Ghosh, A. (2017). The Great Derangement. The University of Chicago Press.

Gocova, A. (2013). Artlantis. Alternatives Journal, 39(3), p.36.

Jordan, C. (2005). Chris Jordan – Intolerable Beauty. [online] Chrisjordan.com. Available at: http://www.chrisjordan.com/gallery/intolerable/#cellphones2 [Accessed 12 Apr. 2019].

Kagan, S. (2014). The practice of ecological art. [online] ResearchGate. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/274719395_The_practice_of_ecological_art [Accessed 14 Apr. 2019].

Meyers, R. (2018). Bodies of water: designing resilient dive tourism through underwater sculpture. MA. University Of Rhode Island.

Morton, T. (2018). Being Ecological. Pelican Books.

Pereira, L. (2016). 7 Environmental Artists Fighting for Change. [online] Widewalls. Available at: https://www.widewalls.ch/environmental-artists/ [Accessed 14 Apr. 2019].

Tate. (n.d.). Environmental art – Art Term | Tate. [online] Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/e/environmental-art [Accessed 14 Apr. 2019].

Taylor, J. (2016). Interview with Robert Preece for Sculpture Magazine, 35(9), pp.19-23.

Taylor, J. (2019). Underwater Sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor. [online] Underwater Sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor. Available at: https://www.underwatersculpture.com/ [Accessed 24 Jul. 2019].

Watts, J. (2018). We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/global-warming-must-not-exceed-15c-warns-landmark-un-report [Accessed 23 Apr. 2019].

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