Ecological Art: Pushing the Limits of the Exhibition

Does the gravity of ecological content exonerate artists from having to be concerned with form? The formal meagreness of some exhibitions “dedicated to the cause” might lead one to think so. These assembled ecologically virtuous or activist artworks, extremely informative, wavering between ethical duty and emotion, have long not known which drummer’s beat to follow. Have recent events demonstrated a new direction curators are taking? Are they forever trying to open the eyes of a public still presumed ignorant of the real environmental issues? Or have the stakes evolved, what with better media coverage and a greater intellectual partiality for the subject?

Along with the birth of “ecological” art in the 1960s in the United States came the delicate question of its presentation. The first group exhibition, Fragile Ecologies, which Barbara Matilsky mounted much later, in 1992, at the Queens Museum, featured artworks that seemed particularly unsuited for display in a usual museum space. Ironically, of course, today in discourse the analogy of an exhibition space to an ecosystem has supplanted the supremacy of the white cube! But at the time, the intention of land art was to restore ecologically and socially dysfunctional polluted lots in the urban milieu and thus had a hard time playing the game of institutional museum art. Reduced to photographic documentation, diagrams and a few replicas with testimonial value, the ecological actions of Patricia Johanson, Mierle Ukeles, Alan Sonfist, and the Harrisons – to name only the pioneers of this movement, which is poorly understood even today – were limited to a particularly inefficient mode of exhibition.

Why use the adjective “inefficient” here? Because ecological art, being used to develop a remedy in and for the environment through ways – sometimes ingenious – that propose to re-establish equilibrium in an ecosystem and to make particularly complex systems intelligible to as broad a public as possible through mediation, has been positioned in the field of useful action. It is therefore engaged in a problematic relationship with how it is appreciated, between aesthetic norms and scientific reason. And this problem is of constant concern to curators and artists, because it unfailingly infuses any attempt to exhibit ecological art. Like political art and “contextual” art, ecological art is regularly confronted with the need for an exhibition form that is as powerful and effective as the place where it is usually made.

For instance, Danish artist Tue Greenfort, one of the most insightful artists in the field of new ecological art, encountered many difficulties when exhibiting the result of his 2013 residency, in collaboration with SculptureCenter in Long Island City (Queens).1 How could a community-based, collaborative art project extending into the wet zone of Jamaica Bay, a fragile ecosystem adjoining JFK Airport, be presented? The visual and formal display for which Greenfort opted was not without its faults. Adopting alternatively the classic form of the taxonomic table of specimens harvested in the field, documentary videos, and cartography, the exhibition stood out from this habitual science-inspired paraphernalia, however, by including a large sculpture. A sort of model of the territory, the waist-high triangle made of rough plywood contained plastic drop sheets, green spangles, fluorescent plastic tubes and orange plastic mesh, and jars and barrels full of water connected by pipes to a large metal-grid container – an ironic minimalist cube in this rather improvised space. It was difficult to discern the intentions behind The Great Gateway (2013), however – somewhere between simplified educational structure and decadent ecosystem in which water streamed along laminated depressions.

Usually, Greenfort excels at flushing out the contradictions between discourses and actions perceived and claimed as ecological and at deconstructing “green virtues” (for example, how the recycling industry and organic milk production are energy guzzlers). Here, his undertaking seems to have been caught in the trap of the residency – of the artist’s involvement with his subject. As is often the case in exhibitions of ecological art, everything is specially encoded, requiring the visitor to have gathered information, to actively enter the circle the work orchestrates. Of course, such involvement may be considered a success, but it happens rarely. The other aggravating factor is the extreme localism of the work. Although older New Yorkers may have no difficulty remembering that Jamaica Bay was long saddled with the nickname Garbage Bay before it was cleaned up, younger people may know nothing about this history, nor will they, in their relationship with the works on display, take into account that in the 1950s, Jamaica Bay had transitioned from a dump to a protected beach and municipal park, thanks to a major effort at reforestation and sometimes drastic protective measures.

In the collective imagination, Jamaica Bay is a cesspool and not a “green” destination, and this connotation is tenacious, Greenfort seems to be saying. But is the purpose of the exhibition to renew the cultural value of this park, which has become a model of rehabilitation, a natural fauna reserve that attracts scientists? His intention is far from clear – a point common to many exhibitions in which the underlying goal is always evasive; viewers, curators, and artists always hesitate to expect any particular designated virtue, perhaps for lack of a form appropriate to the subject and the process that is concentrated within ecology. Without an in-depth reading, visitors will skirt the inextricable interconnections inherent to ecology, which weaves together science, society and political philosophy. As the DNA of these exhibitions is often based on that of ecology, they often inherit the difficulty that ecology has in being synthesized without leaving aside one of the factors that compose it.

Greenfort, often at ease with the paradoxical conditions of ecological virtues, has himself fallen into the trap of a sort of rectitude linked to the format of immersion in the local that a residency entails, and he downplays the powers of form in favour of a predominance of the content’s pertinence. He portrayed the situation of this particular ecosystem rather than metabolizing it into more generic forms. In contrast, in Milk Heat, produced in 2009 on the Wanås estate in southern Sweden, he managed to create the perfect formal equation to address the pitfalls of the virtues of everything organic by placing a cast-iron radiator on the side of a small road. The domestic object seemed to be fed by an agricultural building in the background – in this case, a barn. Because the milk organically produced on this property had to be cooled before shipping, the farm consumed far more energy than appropriate to its organic principle. Greenfort had imagined that by circulating the milk outside, he could cool it while finding a visual metaphor with a bit of humour to address the issue of global warming and energy waste. In the end, the purchase of a litre of organic milk doesn’t shrink consumers’ carbon footprint. Greenfort’s deliberately binary art of flushing out ambiguities in the ecological discourse had thus, up to then, led him to propose forms that were liberated from the ecological “model” of the pioneers in the 1960s, which was unsuitable for exhibitions. But in Long Island City, the formal arrangements in the space did not overcome this hurdle. Between the visual presentations worthy of a natural science display and the visual anecdotes, the exhibition did not deliver its content; it was not intriguing enough for visitors not living near Jamaica Bay to want to get more involved in the situations, to become aware of and responsible for the implications of their presence in the world. Forms of ecology are decidedly very resistant to change.

This pitfall was shared in World of Matter’s exhibition,2 a collective whose approach, first developed on the web, and that Gentiane Bélanger analyses elsewhere in this issue. In the spaces of the Leonard & Bina Ellen Gallery, the collective lost some of its communication effectiveness in the conversion from offshore digital format and variable geometry to the more standard and embodied format of the exhibition space. Using methods of cartography, statistical graphs, showcases and very long legends, the exhibition also included a large number of films in which the formats exceeded the duration of a normal visit, even a conscientious one. In fact, from Judy Price’s White Oil, which took sixty-five minutes to watch, wedged into an armchair and wearing headphones as one faced a monitor, to the small screening room where Episode of the Sea (a sixty-three-minute film Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan directed) was projected, in addition to the forms for tablets (Landrush, an investigation Frauke Huber and Uwe H. Martin directed), Uwe H. Martin’s multi-projector White Gold and Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares’ film installation (Forest Law, 2014, 42 minutes), visitors had to accept not gaining full knowledge of the exhibition unless they camped out for the day, the whole show verging on potential overdose.

The ubiquity of informed films in which the aesthetic positions range from mannered black and white to “talking-head” interviews to subtitled off-screen voices, formalizes quite appropriately the illusive flows of data that must be mastered simultaneously in order to understand the complex interweaving of economic systems with environmental problems. However, such a strategy remains counterproductive. We know the deleterious effects of shock strategy – the reflex of disengagement that an image of a disaster may provoke. The strategy of sublimating pollution, quite common in environmental photography, is just as contentious. The choice of excessive immersion may be perfectly appropriate in relation to the tentacular reality of the subjects addressed, but it is debatable in terms of reception. To whom are such formulations addressed in this particular case? The absence of a precise definition of the expected skills of the visitor-interlocutor, here, leads to considering the offering inefficient. What does pointing out to visitors the impossibility of really informing themselves and controlling certain aspects of the ecological problem produce except a feeling of powerlessness, which, one may suspect, is not likely to generate a burst of awareness? Are the forms of ecology thus doomed to remain incompetent and impotent?

Popularization and philosophical adoption of the concept of anthropocenic geology, the brainchild of meteorologist and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, could change the game not only on the ecological level, but also on the artistic one. Indeed, as international bodies admit that humanity is leaving the Holocene Epoch, in which we has lived for more than ten thousand years, to move on to the Anthropocene Epoch (they have yet to agree on an inaugural date, either 1790, marking the entry to the industrial era with its consumption of fossil fuels, or 1945, the year that the atomic age began), we must totally revise the standards of ecologies and the protection of nature. This would mean, in effect, that nature no longer exists intact, the presence of humanity now having had an influence even on the Earth’s geological strata.

The philosopher Bruno Latour is among those who are thinking about the Anthropocene Epoch and the intellectual revolution that it implies: putting a definitive end to the dualism between nature and culture, precipitating a redefinition of the legal and moral qualities of plants and animals. Latour sees art as the ideal mediation instrument, the fertile ground for imagining this revolution that may already have arrived decades ago and that is suitable to visualize in hindsight. That is the fertile paradox that would flow from this scientific decision. In October 2014, Latour stated, during a conference associated with the exhibition Anthropocène Monument,3 which he co-directed with Bronislaw Szerszynski, director of the Lancaster University sociology department, and Olivier Michelon, head of the Musée des Abattoirs de Toulouse: “Faced with this reality, any individual might feel frightened and confused. Only artists can intensify and make this scientific data perceptible, dramatizing it and making it less alarming, taking us past the demobilizing effect of astonishment.”4 And Olivier Michelon added, “There is a true crisis of representation; artists feel that they no longer have the necessary skills to think of the world globally; all that remains for them is to understand it poetically. Whence this renewed interest, in art, for all types of shamanism and animism. Beyond ecological art, another means of illuminating knowledge is arising.”

In fact, the retrospective exhibition Anthropocène Monument did not necessarily lead to considering new forms, as it also mixed in maps, showcases and revised taxonomies. It was in the main nave of the museum that the search for a monument found a certain resolution: Tomas Saraceno and a cohort of volunteers set up a sort of hot-air balloon made of dozens of plastic shopping bags. A strange proposition, somewhere between raft of consumerism and utopian vessel seeking to distance itself from the terrestrial aspect (the form having been filled with hot air), the balloon (designed in consultation with an aerospace lab) created a connection between history and projection. Thus, the Anthropocene Epoch remains entirely to be imagined, to be endowed with a history. That it has already started is fortunate; it allows for the triggering of an unprecedented retrospection within which forms of ecology will have to be redefined, and the automatisms of reception and formulation that, up to the present, have formatted practices and usages will have to be dismantled. The duo Allora and Calzadilla’s work, central to the exhibition Rights of Nature, Arts and Ecologies in the Americas, curated by T. J. Demos and Alex Faquharson in Nottingham, Great Britain,5 would be a perfect symbol of this: a fossilized gas pump. Simple, almost simplistic, the work finds a ground in the Anthropocene in which this form thwarts its fixedness and constructs a mythology. The forms of ecology definitely need new stories in order to be regenerated.

Translated by Käthe Roth

 

Bénédicte Ramade devoted her doctorate to the proposition of a critical rehabilitation of American ecological art, and her new research explores the intersections between the ethics of care and environmental art practices. She has curated two exhibitions and edited the accompanying publications on, respectively, the phenomena of artificializing nature (Acclimatation, Villa Arson, 2008–09) and of recycling (Rehab, Fondation EDF, Paris, 2010–11), and is currently organizing an exhibition on climate change in the Anthropocene Epoch for Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto. An art and exhibition critic for fifteen years in France and then in Quebec, she teaches art history at UQAM and Université de Montréal.

 


  1. Tue Greenfort, Garbage Bay, SculptureCenter, Long Island City, November 10, 2013–January 27, 2014.
  2. World of Matter: Exposing Resource Ecologies, Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery (Montreal), February 20 to April 18, 2015; curators: Krista Lynes and Michèle Thériault.
  3. Musée des Abattoirs de Toulouse, October 3, 2014 to January 4, 2015.
  4. Bruno Latour, statements reported by Emmanuelle Lequeux, “Nouvelle ère, nouvel art,” Le monde, November 28, 2014, 19 (our translation).
  5. Nottingham Contemporary, from January 24 to March 15, 2015, with Allora & Calzadilla, Eduardo Abaroa, Ala Plástica, Darren Almond, Marcos Avila Forero, Amy Balkin, Subhankar Banerjee, Mabe Bethônico, Ursula Biemann & Paulo Tavares, Center for Land Use Interpretation, Minerva Cuevas, Jimmie Durham, Harun Farocki, GIAP: Grupo de Investigación en Arte y Política (with Beatriz Aurora), Paulo Nazareth, The Otolith Group, Fernando Palma Rodríguez, Claire Pentecost, Abel Rodríguez, Miguel Angel Rojas, and Walter Solón Romero.