Today I would like to reverse my usual tactic. Normally, I plead on behalf of eco artists, asserting their leadership position among environmental advocates, providing evidence of their imaginative solutions to environmental problems, and demonstrating their capacity to inspire environmental reforms.
Today, I am offering a plea for leniency regarding their critics.
I am taking the side of scientists, politicians, educators, and others who refuse to entertain the possibility that artists can make significant contributions to resolving current environmental disruptions and avert pending environmental disasters. They have every right to ask us (proponents and practitioners of eco art:
Why do you feel insulted and rejected when we co not include art in interdisciplinary environmental ventures?
Why should we include artists when we make lists of those who are eligible for funding, or those who merit comment in media reports?
“We have forgotten 10,000 words for our landscapes, but we will make 10,000 more, given time and inclination.” This statement was made by Robert Macfarlane, a leading nature writer who has been collecting unusual words for landscapes and natural phenomena. The extraordinary richness of the forgotten words from the English language is a clear indicator of our culture’s disregard for the non-built environment, and the bankruptcy of the spiritual depths and sensual pleasures these words once afforded. They once belonged to the language of ordinary life experience. By contrast, the expansive poetry inferred by single words reveals the uninspiring banality of contemporary modes of speech.
Here are some examples:
Caochan is a slender moor-stream obscured by vegetation
Feadan is a small stream running from a moorland lake
Fèith is a fine vein-like watercourse running through peat that is often dry in the summer
Rionnach maoim refers to the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day
èit refers to the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”
Eiscir is a ridge of glacial deposits marking the course of a river that flowed under the ice of the last glaciation.
Smeuse means the gap in the base of a hedge made by the passage of a small animal.
Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter.
Has the apogee of human ‘progress’ coincided with the collapse of civilization?
Is the imminent collapse of global ecosystems accompanied by a comparable collapse of the human spirit?
The immense roster of international artists who are addressing prospects for the future of planet Earth demonstrate that there a manifold answers to these questions. Since they are based more on belief systems than verifiable facts, those at one end of the spectrum might be called “opti-mysticists” and those at the other “pessi-mysticists”. It is yet to be determined which side will win the tug of war between those who cite promising behavioral reforms and beneficial new technologies and those who focus on evidence of mounting system failures.
Paul Crutzen, who was awarded a Nobel prize for research on depletion of ozone layer, coined the term “anthropocene” in 2000 to identify the most distinguishing characteristic of the current era – humans have become most powerful geological force on planet. Human-induced events occurring at the present time loom as the dominant forces on planet Earth. In other words, humanity’s impact on sedimentation, for example, causes more geological shifts than the oceans’ tides or the movement of mountains.
Furthermore, humanity’s impact is not limited to global warming and climate change. Global geological conditions are also being affected by deforestation, acidification of ocean, mass extinction, urbanization, relocations and dislocations of living populations, homogenization of environments.
Happy World Soil Day!
Today the United Nations launched the International Year of Soils 2015. The formal launch event will occur during the 69th session of the UN General Assembly to coincide with the first official World Soil Day. Concurrent events will take place around the world.
It seems timely that soil is finally receiving worldwide recognition. Cosmic travel and undersea adventures have inspired theme parks, computer games, and Hollywood films, but the dramatic invasions, combats, and reconciliations that transpire under our feet have mostly been ignored. Few current humans pay heed to soil, and they are even less likely to relish soil.
Despite our dependence upon soil for survival, most contemporary humans are oblivious of its elaborate structure, diverse populations, and multi-millennial history. This underground universe exists ‘out of sight’ and ‘out of mind’. No 4-H Club provides ribbons to youngsters who raise excellent breeds of dirt. There is no holiday honoring the founder of soil science. If Muhammad, the Buddha, Jesus, and Moses are revered for saving peoples’ souls, it seems Vasily Vasilievich Dokuchaev (1846 – 1903), the pioneer soil scientist, merits veneration for his role in saving life on Earth.
The following text was drafted for my upcoming book, co-authored by Natalie Jeremijenko, entitled Studio Art Environmental Health Clinic. Comments are welcome:
‘Land’ connotes soil to a farmer, property rights to a lawyer, a commodity to a developer, a voting district to a politician, habitat to an ecologist, a yard to a suburbanite, natural resources to an economist. Yet members of each profession have claimed space under the umbrella term, ‘environmentalism’ even as they adhere to their specialized agendas. What they share is an abiding commitment to the well-being of planet Earth
But what is ‘land’ to an artist?
The long history of Western is imprinted with three land-related narratives. One account tracks those artists who frame a vista and record its visual contents. These artists define ‘land’ as scenery, a source of visual stimulation, a repository of bounteous optical evocations. The second version is occupied by artists who, instead of representing the optical manifestations of land, conscript these visual elements into the service of symbol and metaphor. These artists strip the elements of ‘land’ of their authentic identities and recast them as symbolic representations of phenomena that are not elements of land. Trees, for example, may convey knowledge of good and evil, or communion with the spirit world, or the human brain and spinal cord. The third artistic approach to land is emotionally-charged. Artists who pursue this approach forego compliant observations and the active construction of symbols. They manipulate the components of ‘land’ so that, through such distortions and exaggerations, they register personal passions and sensitivities. In this instance, ‘land’ becomes a vehicle for expressing terror, awe, tranquility, etc.
In the 1960s and 1970s and new movement was launched added a fourth accounting to the art/land legacy. Indeed, it was called ‘Land Art’, a designation that was well-earned even though its practitioners rejected their predecessors’ strategies of interaction, depictions and interpretations; Land artists located their artworks outdoors. Furthermore, they dispensed with neutral mediums, like paint and crayon, to manifest their creative endeavors; instead, they worked with the actual materials of the land. Michael Heizer, for example, used a bulldozer to displace 240,000 tons of earth from the edge of a Nevada mesa, and Robert Smithson laid six thousand tons of black basalt rocks and earth along the shore of the Great Salt Lake to create a peninsula shaped like a counterclockwise spiral.
Asphalt Rundown has acquired unsettling implications that its creator, the artist Robert Smithson, never intended. In 1969, the year this iconic earth work/art action was created, observers, colleagues, and critics generally concurred with the artist’s own explanation – the work made entropy visible. Entropy envisions a final state in which all matter has become inert, all structure has succumbed to disorder, and all processes have ceased. Smithson manifested the ubiquitous, but under acknowledged principle of entropy in terms of the second law of thermodynamics. The law asserts that energy is easier lost than obtained. For this reason, the universe is slowly devolving and will eventually burn out, succumbing to an inert, all encompassing sameness. In this manner, Asphalt Rundown fulfilled one of art’s age-old roles as the visualizer of invisible forces.
Asphalt Rundown was Smithson’s first “flow” work of art. The action took place in a gravel and dirt quarry in Rome that had been abandoned after it was depleted. A large dumptruck loaded with hot asphalt backed up precariously to the edge of the steep incline of the denuded hillside where the former quarry was located. Its bed was raised and hundreds of tons of hot asphalt were dumped down the embankment, forming a massive black swath as it ‘ran down’, yielding to gravity. The sea of the dark ooze slowly made its way down hill, filling in crevices in the eroded, gutted and gullied cliff.
Within the art community, this gesture seemed a heroic enlargement of the spontaneous drips that distinguished Jackson Pollock’s renowned abstract expressionist paintings. The work monumentalized”action paintings”. Asphalt Rundown was honored as the ultimate expressionist mark. Glue Pour and Concrete Pour followed in 1969. In each of Smithson’s pours, the earth served as the artist’s canvas. The glue, asphalt, and concrete were corollaries to paint. The massive pour replaced the paint stroke.
The dialogue that follows was generated by colleagues who accepted my invitation to comment on a statement I had drafted. This text attempted to differentiate ecocentric beauty from anthropocentric beauty. Their questions, comments, and challenges were so insightful, I am sharing them in the hope that they will spark new discussions regarding a fascinating topic that has not earned consensus.
Aesthetics, in my opinion, evolves in tandem with cultural developments. That means the definition of ‘beauty’ can take many forms and refer to many formulations. What is consistent from era to era is that ‘beauty’ embodies a culture’s most esteemed values.
Currently, environmentalism is spurring a radical reconsideration of the relationship between humans and ecosystems. It is revising the anthropocentric definition of beauty that has prevailed for hundreds of years, replacing it with an ecocentric characterization of beauty.
May I propose the following comparisons:
– serves the needs and desires of humans
– refers to strategies that assert control over non-human entities, materials, and conditions
– privileges appearance
– approaches nature as an obstacle to overcome, a territory to acquire, a resource to consume, or a condition to control
A formal expression of these values: rigid geometries based on mental constructs
– promotes responsibility for the welfare of all forms of life, not just humans
– protects and enhances ecosystem functions
– privileges function over appearance
– involves responsive interactions that protect and enhance ecosystems
A formal expression of these values: evolving forms based on interactions between materials, conditions, and forces.
Although ‘sleeping under the stars’ offers a romantic allure that is missing from ‘sleeping on the ground’, the practice of sleeping outdoors has recently earned its own name; it is called ‘earthing’. Proponents assert that the Earth’s subtle electrical fields are essential for proper functioning of our immune systems, circulation, synchronization of biorhythms and other physiological processes, and may actually be the most effective, essential, least expensive, and easiest to attain antioxidants. Even the diseases associated with aging can be reduced or prevented by grounding your body to the Earth.
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Today I learned two botany lessons. The first lesson came from a veteran farmer. He told me that the first root developed by every plant points north! He said that if, when that plant is transplanted, it is placed in the ground in a manner that deviates from the original orientation, the plant behaves as if it is disoriented throughout its life. Such a minor modification of the plant’s inherent mode of operation causes stress. We humans may be clever. We certainly are willful. Nonetheless, he insisted, plants are most likely to thrive if their care-givers yield to the plant’s own ways of conducting the affairs of its life: growing, resisting blight, managing insects, utilizing nutrients, blooming, etc.
The other botany news was a featured report on NPR that Van Aken, a New York artist, planned to graft 40 different fruits on a single tree as a work of art. Further evidence that this story was considered ‘newsworthy’ is that six different friends forwarded it to me.
In ancient times, finger nails, teeth, fingers, and tongues comprised the anatomical tool chest that performed every life-sustaining function. Humanity might have remained dependent upon this set of tools were not for the existence of human cognition which soon invented ways to expand the tool kit with sticks, stones, plant fibers, hides, sinew, and bones. The work performed by tools received a massive boost when the mind’s analytic powers discovered mechanics, levers, screws, gears, wheels, and pulleys. Even greater tooling potentials were unleashed when the mind’s inventive powers harnessed non-human sources of power. That is when cattle, water wheels, wind mills, steam engines, internal combustion engines, electricity, jet engines, rocket technologies, and nuclear power were successively enlisted to serve the human demand for tools. By augmenting both precision and power, these energy upgrades extended the range of human manipulation both microscopically and macroscopically. Today, robots assist micro-surgery, rigs drill two miles into the earth, cranes lift massive weights into the air. The stirring narrative of humanity’s tooling history can be summarized by comparing the carving potential of finger nails, stone flakes, metal blades, power saws, dynamite, sand blasting, pneumatic chisels, hydraulic excavators, and laser beams.