Earth Day: These five works of art make striking statements about the environment

From eco-feminist pyrotechnics to melting Greenland ice blocks, these artworks ask us to think about the relationship between humans and nature

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Artists have long been looking at the way we live in the world and how we treat its natural resources. The emergence of land art in the 1960s and 1970s reflected the growing ecological concerns in the West, for example.

The issues of climate change, as well as the industries that fuel its effects, have been documented and tackled in the practices of contemporary artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Tomas Saraceno and Allison Janae Hamilton.

On Earth Day, here are five works of art that have addressed the state of the environment and our role in it.

Atmospheres by Judy Chicago

A beacon in feminist art, Chicago has embodied the eco-feminist agenda since the 1970s. She developed her practice in a male-dominated art scene, which informed the works that she created.

While artists of the Land Art movement in the 1960s and 1970s looked to reconfiguring landscapes, Chicago's pyrotechnic performances called Atmospheres interacted with nature in such as a way as to emphasise its beauty. Using dry ice, flares and fireworks, she produced seemingly ritualistic spectacles of colour that stood for femininity and ecology.

On Tuesday, the artist launched the Create Art for Earth project with Greenpeace, actress and climate activist Jane Fonda, and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. It asks artists to submit works that envision a more sustainable world, and selected works will be displayed in London’s Serpentine Galleries.

“Over the course of my career, I have seen the power of art to affect change, which is what we need now more than ever as we face an incredible climate crisis and this terrible pandemic that has grown out of our hideous treatment of other creatures,” Chicago said in a video on Instagram.

Ice Watch London by Olafur Eliasson

Collaborating with geologist Minik Rosing, Scandinavian artist Eliasson transported 24 large blocks of ice from the fjords of Greenland to the city of London for this installation.

The ice blocks, which have been around for centuries and some of which weighed up to six tonnes, were collected from the sea after breaking away from the Greenland ice sheet. Displayed outside the Tate Modern in London and other parts of the city, the ice could easily be approached by the public, which was the artist’s intention. The blocks also produced popping sounds, thanks to the bubbles trapped inside the icebergs over thousands of years.

Some criticised Eliasson for transporting the pieces around the world, including Paris and Copenhagen, stating that this simply added to the carbon footprint. Rosing, however, has pointed out that awareness that spurs environmental action could offset this.

The Sovereign Forest by Amar Kanwar

Filmmaker and artist Kanwar's ongoing project The Sovereign Forest contains films, images and mixed media installations that investigate the impact of extractive industries on communities. The Sovereign Forest was presented in NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery in January and was meant to run until the end of May before closures due to the coronavirus outbreak took place.

Amar Kanwar's 'The Sovereign Forest'. Courtesy the artist and NYU Abu Dhabi

The show specifically focuses on the Indian state of Odisha (formerly Orissa), where local activists have been fighting for land and environmental rights for years.

One section presents a community-created archive of the villagers’ struggle against mining companies. In another installation, hundreds of varieties of rice highlight how indigenous knowledge of land is often overlooked. More broadly, Kanwar’s work contemplates social justice and acts of violence in the context of man’s exploitation of the nature.

Aging Ruins Dreaming Only to Recall the Hard Chisel from the Past by Otobong Nkanga with Emeka Ogboh

Otobong Nkanga and Emeka Ogboh's 'Aging Ruins Dreaming Only to Recall the Hard Chisel from the Past' (2019). Courtesy the artists and Sharjah Art Foundation

Created for the Sharjah Biennial 14, Nkanga's installation reflects on the relationship between mankind and ecology. The work was recently acquired by Sharjah Art Foundation and will now remain in the courtyard of Bait Al Aboudi in Al Mureijah Art Spaces. Nkanga's practice is rooted in the ways that communities engage, focusing on elements and resources such as soil and water.

It comprises a multimedia garden, with a talking tree, light and sound installations, and carved-out pools filled with water. Recorded audio pieces give the elements, including the tree and the earth, their voices. The former laments it addiction to saltwater, while the latter cries out in thirst.

In response, a rain song by Emirati schoolchildren, recorded for the work, rings out through the space.

Western Flag by John Gerrard

Production still from John Gerrard's 'Western Flag'. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Simon Preston Gallery, New York

In this digital simulation, Irish artist Gerrard has created a flag of black smoke billowing over the Lucas Gusher, the site of the world’s first major oil find, in Spindletop, Texas.

The work was commissioned by Channel 4 with Somerset House in 2017 and broadcast on Earth Day. Playing on a loop online, it mirrored the environment in Spindletop in real time, with the sun setting as it did in Texas and the days shortening or lengthening according to the seasons. The work was also included in last year’s Desert X, where it was screened at the Coachella Valley in California.

The artist has addressed problems caused by the oil industry before, such as his 2015 and 2017 series Flag and World Flag, which featured iridescent shapes floating on bodies of water around the world, including the Amazon and Nile rivers. In reality, glistening colours represent a gasoline spill, digitally simulated by the artist and programmed to change according to the cycle of night and day over a year.


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