While art with a cause is hardly new, a movement is emerging that seeks to not only raise awareness but engage communities by creating art that contributes directly to the solution, writes Anne Fullerton.
Lynne Hull doesn’t mind that her sculpture is covered in bird poo, but then Lynne Hull is not your average artist. She’s one of a growing number of conservationists who are using art to counteract the destructive impact of humans on the environment. Her work, Lightening Raptor Roost, atoned for the loss of the Ferruginous Hawk’s nesting ground to utility poles by providing the birds with a safe place to build homes and raise their young.
Sam Bower, Executive Director of online art gallery, Green Museum, says this kind of environmental art is becoming more visible and mainstream.
“These past five years have been extraordinary in terms of the growth and interest in this type of work. More and more artists doing it, more and more galleries (exhibiting it)… everyone seems to be interested in this type of thing now. It’s very exciting and it’s happening internationally,” he says.
Bower began the Green Museum in 1992, after finding through his own work that the traditional arts infrastructure wasn’t equipped to accommodate the varied experience of environmental artists.
“I was involved with a project out on an island – a wildlife reserve off the coast of San Francisco. We worked with scientists there to create a sculpture that would create habitat for endangered seabirds, and also allow scientists for the first time to study the nesting behaviour of the seabirds from inside their burrows. We were working on something that would be pretty much impossible for the general public to visit so we wanted to create an online museum to address that.”
Green Museum now showcases the work of over 130 artists whose work is often large scale, site-specific or ephemeral. One of these is Lynne Hull, who also creates what she terms “Trans-species art,” art which addresses the aesthetic concerns of humans while providing practical assistance to wildlife. In addition to the eagle nesting sculpture, she has also carved rock formations in the desert to act as water catchments for animals, and is currently working on “Migration Mileposts,” a project linking communities that share migratory bird passages.
The practical nature of such works means eco-art continues to make a difference long after an exhibition has closed or the issue has dropped from the headlines. Lightening Raptor Roost was home to hawks for three consecutive summers, while Bower says that the first year the sea bird nesting habitat was erected, 20 of the 32 boxes were occupied.
“The second year it was full up and then they found birds living in places that we hadn’t designed as access points. So the thing has been quite successful,” he says.
Many of these projects are long term, large-scale constructions that involve different parts of the community – wildlife authorities, local councils, scientists, artists, architects, volunteers and school groups. Bower believes this is one of the advantages of environmental art over other types of one-off events and campaigning.
“One of the things about environmental art and why it’s so powerful and effective is that it can address the needs of communities and ecosystems in a way that is fun and engaging and that invites people to participate. There are people who do things that are functional and useful but don’t engage the public in inspiring ways,” he says.
While few would argue that raising community awareness and attempting to limit ecological damage are worthwhile causes, some might wonder what makes an igloo-shaped birdhouse a piece of artwork, rather than just a birdhouse. While most eco-art goes beyond pure functionality to incorporate elements of design and aesthetics, these can often be secondary concerns. For Bower the answer lies in the underlying conceptual framework and the ever-mutating definition of what constitutes art.
“In the art world there are so many things that can be and are considered art now,” says Bower. “There are people doing all types of different things and I really see art as an invitation to think a certain way. For us the bird habitat sculpture first and foremost had to work as effective bird habitat and it had to work for the scientists, so that is a type of aesthetic choice.”
The green philosophy is translated into material practice, and work either benefits or has a minimal impact upon the environment in which it’s placed. Hull often uses materials that she finds in the natural world in her sculptures, while Bower’s birdhouse was constructed from the concrete rubble of abandoned buildings. Even the decision to create an online gallery addressed some of the environmental issues associated with transporting and lighting art in a traditional gallery or museum, as well as increasing accessibility to the public.
Hull and Bower are working beyond the confines of a gallery setting to create work that is almost organic in appearance. While many draw on the beauty of the natural world, Byron Bay-based artist John Dahlsen does just the opposite, using a palette of rubbish and waste. Though he started out making driftwood furniture and sculptures, he began using human debris after finding it far outweighed his organic material supply.
“As I walked along collecting bits of driftwood I just started pulling out a plastic bag and filling them with ropes, Styrofoam, plastic bottles and buoys and plastic bits and pieces,” he says. “At the beginning I was just going to take it to the local recycling centre at the tip. Then after I’d collected maybe five, ten of these jumbo bags I realized I can imagine using this stuff in some way.”
He has created a number of public sculptures, including “Guardian,” a large public sculpture commissioned by Brisbane City Council and made from abandoned roadwork signs and a series of landscape “paintings” constructed entirely of plastic bags. He also speaks about his work at universities and is involved in public art collaborations as part of raising awareness of environmental issues.
Though he is making something beautiful from human wastefulness, for him there is a message inherent in the use of recycled materials.
“There’s the obviousness of the fact that I can be collecting that amount of rubbish off beaches. There’s just so much of it!”
In an age of organic clothing lines, celebrity-endorsed hybrids and concerts for climate change, artists have a cynical audience to contend with.
“Even in the art world I find these areas are viewed almost with a bit of disdain,” says Dahlsen. “Why don’t you become a politician?’ or ‘why don’t you become an environmentalist?’ That’s a question that’s been asked of me any many times.”
Bower says he’s seen artists have a lasting effect on both the environment and also on human consciousness over the last two decades. “One artwork made in 1979 helped save Mono Lake,” he says referring to artwork by Deborah Small which was part of the campaign to stop Mono Lake being pumped dry by Los Angeles City. Small sent a decorated, porcelain brick to California state officials responsible for water policy, wildlife, parks and forests. They read, “one brick in every Los Angeles toilet could save Mono Lake.” The work gained media coverage and launched a public hearing.
“The victory provided a foundation for a very important public trust law case that protects wild lands throughout the United States. So this is one artwork that influenced legislation directly,” says Bower.
For environmental artists the physical product is just one element of the artwork. The process, which encompasses community involvement, education and participation, is just as important.
“People tend to think that art is really about a thing, about a decorative commodity,” says Bower. “What’s happening now with environmental art is that we’re starting to see art as service. To see art as a better way to do the things that are good for us by also making them beautiful.”