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Collective action: environmentalism in contemporary art


The Riparian Project, Stitching the Landscape, 2013, concept sketch, permanent public artwork for the Yea Wetlands, Victoria; ©Jen Rae

Throughout the history of art there has been a tendency for artists to explore the natural environment in their work, and examine humanity’s relationship with nature. In recent decades, however, a profound shift in this practice has taken place. The emergence of climate change has inevitably altered the way we perceive our relationship with the environment, and consider the impact of our way of living. On an international scale, our changed awareness of environmental issues has had significant political, social and economic ramifications. In previous decades it was generally accepted that the changes to the natural environment as a result of human life and activity on earth were reversible; that they could be addressed and rectified. However, the scientific research and quantifiable data available today have led us to question whether these changes are in fact irreversible. This marks a dramatic revision in the way we perceive the future of humanity, the environment and ultimately life on earth, as an environmental crisis becomes apparent.

In this context environmentalism and ecology have emerged as prominent themes in contemporary art. Art critic Yates McKee wrote on this topic in his response to the ‘Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’’ in October in 2009, establishing it as one of the central issues in contemporary art.1 Its significance is further exemplified by the plethora of environmental art exhibitions that have taken place internationally in recent years.2

For the purpose of this article contemporary environmental art refers to a particular strand of art produced in recent years that takes issue with the complex relationship between humanity and the natural environment. The first definition of the term ‘environmental’ listed in Oxford Dictionaries online is: ‘relating to the natural world and the impact of human activity on its condition’.3 Environmental art operates in terms of these notions and more broadly in relation to the Anthropocene, the geological epoch in which we live where humans have become a dominant force in nature, driving change at a planetary level.4

The prevalence of environmental themes in contemporary art incites questions relating to the purpose of creating and exhibiting environmental art in the context of climate change and potential ecological catastrophe. On a fundamental level, a precondition for the existence of environmental art is the threat of ecological crisis. Environmental art operates in terms of this threat and responds to it to such an extent that if the threat did not exist environmental art would have no meaning. Accordingly a conundrum emerges: if the threat that environmental art is based on is real, what is the point of creating and exhibiting environmental art? If humanity is realising its finitude in the face of climate change, why create art rather than directly undertaking action to address the threat and potentially avert the environmental crisis? Is contemporary environmental art created in lieu of true action, or can it actually make a difference?

One of the key implications of environmentalism and ecology for contemporary art is a tendency to go beyond art monthly AUSTRALIA

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