Art and Sustainability

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Getty Images Creative Planning Manager, Pamela Grossman looks back at the representation of sustainability through various art movements from the 1960s until now.

The “Land Art” movement started in the late 1960s, and consisted of artists who used natural elements as their primary medium, often embedded right into their landscapes.  The most famous piece from this period was arguably Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” of 1970: a 15-foot wide coil built from rocks, mud, and water on the short of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. 

This artwork (or “earthwork” as Smithson named it) was powerful, not only for its beguilingly simple beauty, but because it existed outside the confines of collection and commerce.  After all, how does one come to “own” something that is both of and within nature itself?  And if an art piece isn’t built to last, but rather is meant to erode or drown with time, does it have worth, in the capitalist sense? 

Of course, these questions have much larger resonances when viewed from the convex lens of the very planet we inhabit.  Environmentalism is, to put it bluntly, nothing if not a way to stave off the Earth’s ruin – whether by man or via its own inherent decay and destruction.  Our homes, our very lives, are ephemeral, and Land Art reminds us about both how fleeting life is, and how splendidly mutable our world is. 

This work interacts with weather, wind, sea changes, animals, insects.  It changes form, marks time.  And its value is that, like our planet, it can’t be possessed in the traditional sense – hung on a wall or put on a pedestal.  It is communal, shared, and thus belongs to everyone.  Spectacular in the literal sense of the word, much of its majesty comes from the fact that it will indeed someday disappear -- so we’d better appreciate it while it’s here.
Over four decades later, Smithson’s legacy - alongside that of his colleagues Walter De Maria, James Turrell, and the other Land Artists – is felt very much today, as a new crop of nature-based creatives has come to the fore.  Andy Goldsworthy creates jewel-like, zen-esque sculptures out of leaves, stones, and twigs, often sourced right on the spot from where he’s building, and then left to blow away or rot. 

Earlier this year, Wolfgang Laib did a long-term installation at MoMA, where he painstakingly sifted hazelnut pollen all over the museum’s atrium, filling it with bright yellow granules.  It was later swept away, like some sort of organic Tibetan sand mandala.  And multimedia artist and musician, Cynthia Hopkins, recently performed her song cycle “This Clement World,” in front of footage she took of the Arctic and its startling melting glaciers.

On the flip side, there’s also been an upsurge of contemporary artists who take waste and debris, and turn it into something magnificent.  Sayaka Ganz creates enchanting sculptures of beasts using nothing but plastic flatware. Li Hongbo’s surreal, three-dimensional beings are made from common white paper that’s been glued together, waffled, and cut into surprising anthropomorphic shapes.  And the Brooklyn Museum’s current show of El Anatsui’s work has been lauded by critics and visitors alike: he makes giant, shimmering tapestries and stacked totems using only bottle caps, discarded wood, and wire. 

These pieces are all examples of “upcycling” at its best.  They remind us of the adage that “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” and inspire us to not only repurpose our used material goods, but to elevate them to the level of the sublime.

See a selection of images that reflect artistic interpretations of sustainability here

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