What’s the point of environmental art?

What’s the point of environmental art?

Exploring authenticity in an age of climate consciousness

photo by emilija miluŠauskaitĖ

The themes of the climate crisis have been saturating current mainstream media for a while now, making it nearly impossible to ignore the buzz surrounding the environmental crisis. It’s a strange phenomenon - something I still personally struggle to respond to "correctly".

From the recent blockbuster success of films like Denis Villeneuve's "Dune" to the social media virality of activist figures such as Greta Thunberg, and the rise of high-quality soothing documentaries voiced by David Attenborough, not to mention the popularity of veganism, we witness the omnipresence of environmental consciousness in contemporary discourse. Caring about the planet has become “cool”. 

This trend extends into the art world, with major museums and cultural institutions significantly emphasising environmental themes. For example, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is currently hosting Colombian artist Carolina Caycedo's exhibition titled "Spiral for Shared Dreams," which asks how art can draw attention to models of resistance against environmental threats. In London, Barbican recently curated a major group exhibition exploring the intersection of gender and ecology “Re/Sisters”. This year, Indian sculptor Ranjani Shettar was invited by the institution to create a site-specific commission in their Conservatory, drawing inspiration from the intricate beauty of nature.

Even environmental organisations and non-profits leverage art to spotlight critical issues. The Oceanic Preservation Society, for instance, launched the "Projecting Change" initiative last year, illuminating the New York City sky with a series of drone shows designed to inspire and educate audiences about pressing environmental campaigns. Events like 'ECO ART WALK 2024' that took place earlier this year in Hong Kong showcase the intersection of artistry and sustainability, fostering dialogues and connections within communities while raising awareness about environmental concerns.

However, like any trend that becomes pervasive in society, the phenomenon of environmental consciousness also brings about immediate negative effects. A sense of fatigue is emerging, stemming from various reasons, from the prevalence of greenwashing to the hypocrisy of celebrities who champion environmental causes while taking private jets to give speeches at award ceremonies. No wonder we, “the public” feel tired, overwhelmed, cynical, and even hopeless.

Perhaps what's lacking is authenticity—a genuine connection to the issues at hand and a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths. Smaller initiatives can help bridge this gap. Artists, whether explicitly labelled as "environmental" or not, often draw inspiration from nature, raising questions about our relationship with the environment and shared responsibility. The Petersburg-based new media collective, Tundra, intertwines light, sound, and space in their works. The "The Day We Left Field" installation examines nature's role within contemporary urban landscapes. Known for his captivating video mapping series, Artist Philipp Frank, frequently gravitates towards nature, employing a multifaceted approach to explore its intricacies through site-specific light installations.

Hal.Studio founder Hal has been vocal about prioritising environmental care as a core value of the studio. In addition to eco-friendly business practices, she has recently launched a special initiative called “Cherish”. Inspired by the ocean's beauty and its profound significance in our lives, these limited-edition t-shirts aim to raise awareness and support for environmental preservation. All proceeds from sales will be donated to the Oceanic Preservation Society. Learn more and support the campaign here.

In a recent interview, Paul Murray, "The Bee Sting" author and the Booker Prize winner, said: “Climate worry is the unavoidable background for being alive in the 21st century.” I guess my point is that we cannot run away from the uncomfortable truth, instead, we must learn how to live with it, without growing indifferent. And with that, art can (hopefully) help.

words: Iga szczodrowska