Nature has a seemingly endless history of portrayal in art. Landscape art thrived in sixth-century China, with shan shui, a form of ink and brush art, leading the boom. Inspired by the philosophical tradition of Taoism, it presented the idea that humans and animals must live in balance with the natural world. Centuries later, the presence of nature once again found its way into the work of Renaissance artists. Although the most well known of these works intended to highlight the individual, many of the paintings’ artistic “stories” were told on a backdrop of natural scenery, which was revolutionized by the new techniques of perspective and proportion.
From its origins in Ancient China, to the Renaissance, to the modern day, landscape painting has gained a permanent prominence in the world’s culture. Drawing artistic inspiration from nature not only provides a way to connect with the world around us, but also to honor it. So as climate change and global warming are taking their toll on our planet, how is art shifting to capture the crisis we face?
As the Earth drastically changes, artists across the world have changed their perspectives as well. The fate of the world quite literally rests in our hands, and spreading awareness of this is more important than ever. Here are three artists who are actively producing work that reflects our world’s unstable condition.
Olafur Eliasson is a renowned Icelandic-Danish conceptual artist widely acclaimed for his experimental work involving elemental materials to enhance the viewer’s experience. Some of his most iconic projects include Your Rainbow Panorama, an elevated 360-degree walkway glazed with rainbow-coloured glass, Fjord House, an architecturally complex lighthouse metaphor, and Symbiotic Seeing, a light illusion composed of lasers and swirling fog. Although all these pieces inspire a significant sense of awe and appreciation for the artistic properties of space, light and design, a more recent project of Eliasson’s has gone even further to inspire a sense of urgent necessity for climate activism.
Ice Watch was first installed in Denmark in 2014, and then moved to Paris and London as well. The piece consists of 30 sizable blocks of Greenland ice displayed in a prominent public place. It aims to raise awareness of climate change by providing a tangible experience of the melting arctic ice. “By enabling people to experience and actually touch the blocks of ice, I hope we will connect people to their surroundings in a deeper way and inspire radical change,” Eliasson said in an interview.
In addition to his creative work, Eliasson also founded a non-profit solar energy company in 2012 called Little Sun. Little Sun solar lamps provide clean energy to electricity-deprived people in Africa. Over one million have been distributed.
Mary Mattingly is an American visual artist based in New York City whose works explore issues of sustainability, climate change and displacement. She combines techniques of architecture, photography and performance to create striking works of art that make bold statements about the world and the nature of humanity. Such work include her House and Universe series, a collection of photographs that portray the detrimental weight of possessions as they amass over time. In one picture, a scrap bundle sculpture is placed in front of homes, representing the connection between climate change and material consumption.
However, Mattingly is best known for her work Swale, a vigilante garden grown on a barge that launched in New York in 2016. When designing this piece on the water, Mattingly was able to evade the local law that bans growing food on public land. The public landscape invites visitors to board and pick their own produce and addresses the limited access to fresh food in the city. Mattingly hopes that Swale can pave a pathway to cultivating public food in public places.
Agnes Denes is a Hungarian-American artist whose works span numerous mediums. For over 50 years, she has created land art, drawings and sculptures that advocate for planet awareness. Among her most riveting works is Wheatfield—A Confrontation. Although originally composed in 1982, the message its memory conveys still rings of the hard truths of industrialization, now with a melancholy sense of nostalgia for the time we have wasted not bringing about change.
For the project, Denes was granted funds to plant two acres of wheat in downtown Manhattan at an old landfill. For four months, the artist and her team worked hard at sowing the grain, and the urban garden thrived. It purposefully created a sense of tension between the field and the city surrounding it. Denes’s intention was to create “an intrusion of the country into the metropolis.” It became a protest for environmental awareness.
The land of the wheatfield has since been built up and developed into Battery Park City, a residential community. But the meaning of Denes’s work still has not changed. It continues to resonate with the unresolved problems of the world today.
There are countless more artists who have used their work as a primary means to promote the planet’s wellbeing and challenge the norms society has constructed in terms of industrialization, consumption and conservation. Olafur Eliasson, Mary Mattingly and Agnes Denes are just a few whose work struck me in new ways. As artists continue to take a stand for change in our sickening world, they invite the public to join them in raising questions about the ways we are giving back to the planet which has hosted us for hundreds of thousands of years. How can we rethink how we live from day to day to decrease our carbon footprint and thrive on it for many more? These artists have joined the movement in taking the first step to raise awareness about this real-world issue we face.