The Rise of the Neo-Environmentalism Art Movement

Beatrice Rubio-Gabriel - Philosophy and Culture

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When Environmentalism erupted in the 1960s the Land Art movement emerged alongside it as a sensitive and conceptual consideration of our relationship with nature, as well characterizing a greater shift towards viewing the landscape as more than an ocular phenomenon. Also referred to as Earth art or Earthworks, it was forefronted by the likes of Robert Smithson, Walter de Maria and Agnes Denes, who drew attention to the neglected bond society had with the environment, using the land to create site-specific structures, installations and performances. As time passed with the continued ebb and flow of subsequent art movements, Land Art dissolved into the pages of art history. Nonetheless, traces of it remain in the minds of practicing contemporary artists today. As the planet persistently warms and climate cycles occur at an unprecedented rate, a new iteration of Earth art has begun to emerge. Too loose to be an actual movement, and too disparate to have any predominant collectives representing it, art practices are however undoubtedly responding in their own way to climate change. Systems of care are beginning to emerge both curatorially and artistically; natural materials are more thoroughly considered, propped up by facets of DIY and craft practices; and importantly, the necessity to listen deeply both culturally and ecologically can no longer be ignored. We are once more pressed to contemplate on what it is to work in harmony with nature.

This neo environmental art movement not only seeks to reconnect people with the earth but with each other. Within the local geographies of Australia, the matter of understanding how to work with the landscape moves beyond the single concern of learning to be more environmentally conscious. It is also the hard-earned result of decolonial and experimental art practices within artistic and academic institutions.

Bed, 2019 - Photo provided courtesy of the artist Juan Rodriguez Sandoval

Earlier this year, BLINDSIDE Gallery opened its doors with DEBUT XIV: To Love it All Again, which was an exhibition that critically engaged with “concerns surrounding current environmental and social climates” to "forecast hope, and make visible healthy, shared, liveable and breathable futures altogether.”Perhaps nothing better explains the ethos that subconsciously underpins the practices of many artists today - and not just those working with the environment. Better informed, more socio-politically aware and learning to build communities much more intimately, the art world is indeed looking at artists who are not only concerned with dangerous climate changes, but who have it within them to say and do something about it.

Juan David Rodriguez, one of BLINDSIDE’s exhibiting artists, ambitiously envelops a third of their second gallery. A large-scale wall work, it greets you slowly at first, and then all at once. Folding in on your vision just as the changes in our environment do. Rodriquez carefully works with the earth, taking the time to conscientiously gather soil himself from Country, and using it to create a clay that he relays onto the walls. A call to action of his own, imposed on the confines of institutions that should be doing better.

Bed, 2019 - Photo provided courtesy of the artist Juan Rodriguez Sandoval

Elsewhere, practicing diligently as an independent artist, Isabella O’ Leary is steadily moving forward in this new discourse of land art. Like Rodriguez, she employs natural materials, carefully gathering soil and leaves from geographies close to her heart. Then combining these with biodegradable materials from her own refuse, she creates her characteristic handmade paper sculptures (which marvelously won her an award for Banyule Award for Works on Paper in 2019), symbolic of her own labour of love. Here is the sensitive effort to reconcile with mother nature - a new direction of her own feminist sensibilities - as well as an acknowledgment of a much more critical need for self-accountability, forecasting the consequences of our own indifference to the changes happening within the environment.

The paper works: existentia, cycli, 2019 - Photo provided courtesy of the artist Isabella O'Leary

Although not particularly dealing with environmental conceptual concerns, Leonie Leivenzon is however, very ecologically minded. Almost the entirety of materials employed in her artworks are sourced from charity shops, nature strips and public call-outs. Her latest waxworks were melted down from a conglomerate of candles of the tired remnants donated from the households of those both inside and outside her art community. Leivenzon’s material concerns revolve around reinvigorating and exploring the past lives of what can be found, asking what it can continue to be. She keenly puts into practice the 3R mantra of reduce-reuse-recycle.

Birth, 2019 - Photo provided courtesy of the artist Leonie Leivenzon

Like every other facet of living within consumerist confines, it is no secret how wasteful an art practice can be. On a singular level, the consumption of first-hand materials and non-biodegradable products alone is dangerously high. But galleries are also guilty not being conscious enough of their waste, throwing out installations specifically produced for a single exhibition. Apparently wrestling with the relationship of an artwork’s value against its possessive value, for what else are they to do with such specific works? But it isn’t simply intangible materials that art and institutions can be careless with, but also the consumption of resources, namely electricity. A notable Melbourne exhibition had five screens and a media player running all day, every day, for months on end, for a single artist. An allowed practice when the technology is deemed unable (or too troublesome) to work any other way. Then there are also the artists who utilise LED or neon lighting in their installations and public sculptures. Like the rest of society, artists and art organizations continue to forget their own hand in dealing the mess at the table. And perhaps it is because we let them, under an assumed allowance for the sake of some unique and elusive creativity they possess.

However, art and life have always had a very cyclical relationship, constantly and endlessly influencing one other. So, what is it that we can hope for with this slowly growing community of artists who also do a little too well to stay hidden within themselves? Consider that what a green gallery looks like is exactly what any other green business looks like. It is self-sustaining, waste-conscious and a hub of the recycled and upcycled. With some manageable effort, it’s certainly possible (and some businesses are already doing it wonderfully). If enough artists exert pressure for this need, galleries will follow suit out of necessity. We can only hope that this change and introspection will hopefully trickle through to the rest of us to adopt.

It will come as no surprise if in the next few decades, being this environmentally-minded becomes common practice among artists – if it isn’t already starting to be. The handmade paper works of O’Leary and the installations of Rodriguez could very well still just be dirt on the walls to a general audience, and Leivenzon’s work might currently be seen as more of an economical response than an environmental one, but like every movement, it’ll eventually explode softly (or very loudly) into the rest of society.

In 1982, Agnes Denes planted a two-acre wheat field in downtown Manhattan. It faced the Statue of Liberty, a block from Wall Street and less than half a meter from the World Trade Centre, cultivated on the landfill from where the Twin Towers were built. From this, over 450 kilograms (more than 1000 pounds) of wheat were harvested which wove their way around 28 cities across the globe, both as an international exhibition within itself, but also as seeds for others to plant, titled International Art Show for the End of World Hunger. That field was a protest that “grew out of the longstanding concern and need to call attention to our misplaced priorities and deteriorating human values.” Over 35 years later, and the art world once again revisits this concern in the 89-year old’s artist’s 50-year retrospective. Importantly, the discourse surrounding the legitimacy and practicability of ecological artists and their environmental interventions is being re-examined. Wheatfield could be considered Denes’ Magnum Opus, but she has also worked with institutions to do much more. Commissioned with the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 11, 000 trees were planted with the help of 11, 000 people to restore land that had suffered the deforestation effects of resource extraction in Ylöjärvi, Finland. Perhaps it is time that the rest of the world begin to work together much more closely to do the same.

And I don’t mean to say we must now plant acres of trees and wheat, as admirable as that would be. Nor must we all begin hand-making our own paper, or even that it is abominable to buy anything new. But what we may learn from these artists is a greater sense of self-accountability, and the attitude of a deeper listening to our communities and environments. The change that not only we have been anticipating, but a change that the planet anxiously awaits.

Written by Beatrice Rubio-Gabriel

Beatrice Rubio-Gabriel is an independent curator, writer and performance artist based in Naarm/Melbourne. Centring around a collaborative and experimental practice, she has curated projects that aim to challenge current modes of exhibiting. She experiments with writing as artform and is now currently researching systems of care and inter-sectional spaces of Resistance Aesthetics.

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