Art Criticism

Towards A New Utopia
Public and Land Art

The 4th November was the Saturday before the UN Climate Talks (COP 12/ MOP 2) in Nairobi (6th-17th November). There were demonstrations demanding urgent action on climate change all around the globe. Those taking part believe that only coordinated international action can avert the massive threat posed by climate change and that the failure of world leaders to act – especially the US under George Bush who failed to sign the Kyoto Protocol agreement – is threatening the very existence of life on earth.

Amy Balkin Public Smog
Amy Balkin Public Smog

Can art do anything to change the mindset of politicians or entrepreneurs who seem to care more about the status quo and making big bucks than carbon emissions? Or does it merely provide an impotent side show producing sanctimonious truisms for a middle-class audience not prepared to change their lifestyles? It’s one thing to nod approvingly at a work in the Tate, quite another to forgo that cheap airfare. To look at art seriously means a willingness to be changed but such epiphanies tend to be personal. Is Jerry Saltz, critic of the Village Voice, right when he says “Art can opine about hierarchy and demagogy, it can be a critic of the state of the world and the human condition. It can ask political questions… however it cannot …turn back global warming; it cannot change the world except incrementally and by osmosis.”?

The solipsistic theories of late modernism now appear to lie exhausted as a beached whale, while the tired irony of the YBAs – a largely metropolitan group with concerns that really only refer to a very narrow arena of artists – appears to be running out of steam. For as the American artist Peter Halley wrote in his essay Notes on Abstraction “… the 70s represented not the last flowering of a new consciousness but rather the last incandescent expression of the old idealism of autonomy. After this no cultural expression would be outside the commodity system…capital is, in fact, a universe of stasis…governed by immutable self-perpetuating principles… The world of essences turns out to be dominated not by spirit, but by commodity.” And so, it seems, that the problem for contemporary art is the very same as that faced by the environment – vested interest.

The idea of art as the beleaguered vehicle of spiritual value in a secular age is not something that should be left examined by contemporary critics and artists. At the end of the last war the theorist George Steiner said that art had failed because it had not been able to civilise enough to prevent the holocaust. Even camp commandants, he reminded us, had listened to Bach. Perhaps that was the beginning of the loss of faith in high culture. For there has quite simply been a death of high culture in favour of a one that promotes celebrity over seriousness, ease and surface over complexity and depth; the agenda of success overrides any moral agenda. Who now reads writers such as Simone Weil or even Sartre? It is as though nothing existed before notions of deconstruction. There is no sense of history, of how culture fits together, how it is a continual reaction and debate to what has gone before. I have taught students who do not know the difference between Romanticism and Rationalism between the Gothic and the Baroque. It is high time that art was reclaimed as an arena of seriousness.

Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey Cape Farewell Project Ice Lens
Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey Cape Farewell Project Ice Lens

The 60s, when I grew up, is seen now as a Utopian decade. But the loosening of the reigns of old structures and the celebration the contemporary weren’t meant to detract from the canon that had gone before; happenings did not mean that we no longer had to look at Rembrandt or read Shakespeare. There is a difference between high and low culture between Big Brother and Bach. We have lost a sense of history, of what has gone before and culture’s importance in the order of things. We no longer know what art is for. And that is what, after I have finished speaking, I want us to debate. As Susan Sontag wrote in her collection of essays Where the Stress Falls, ‘there are two poles of distinctively modern sentiment – nostalgia and Utopia. The interesting thing about what we now label the sixties is, she said that there was so little nostalgia. In that sense it was indeed a utopian moment. But the world that we attempted to create then no longer exists and the age we are living in now feels like the end of something. The end of idealism, the end of altruism, of morality, of political systems, of history, even if, global warming continues, of the planet or at least life organised within culture as we know it. This is an age of endless endings and very little becoming. Sontag also suggested that there could be no true culture without altruism and that is what I also want us to discuss. What does it mean for you today to be artists? Why have you chosen to become artists rather than estate agents or restaurateurs? In the sixties we believed we were on the threshold of a huge transformation of culture and society. We believed in liberty but that liberty has simply become licence, and those freed from the confines of repressive regimes such as communism, have not in any true sense become free but simply fallen prey to the demands of the free market. Everything has its price or to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, we live in an age where we know the price of everything but the value of nothing. The sixties have been relegated to an object of nostalgia as the triumphant values of consumer capitalism continue to promote a travesty of what was being fought for then. There has been a sea-change in the culture, what Sontag calls a ‘tansvaluation’ of values – for which there are many names. One, she suggested was Barbarism, another, to use Nietzsche’s term, is nihilism. Though, I would say that we are in danger of entering an age of post-morality and that artists are every bit as culpable as everyone else.

For when I have been teaching, all too often the question that young artists ask is how can I get Saatchi to visit my studio, while the real question they should be posing is what do I care about, what do I know, what do I want to say? Art does not always have to be about self expression. This is something that we have come to accept from Romanticism onwards and reached it apotheosis in Modernism. In earlier epochs the role of art was mostly religious or perhaps a commission to paint a portrait of someone else, a simple act of craftsmanship and commercial transaction. It wasn’t though essentially about the artist or how she or he felt.

Mine is not a fashionable notion. It is one as I have said that owes more to the romantics than to the post modernists. The romantics saw the artist and poet as a seer, one who has a sensibility that allows him to see what others can not. Modernism also saw the artist as a form of hero but one concerned with the arguments, forms and structures of the things he (and it was usually a he) that he was making, rather than an engagement with social issues. (Joseph Beuys is, perhaps, here an exception as was the whole movement of arte povera) There are many things that art can be about and we currently live in a world of political instability, where there is a threat to the very fabric of our existence through global warming, where we need artists to care and to take a stand. So what now is the role of the poet and artist as the world hots up and religious fundamentalism stalks all corners of the globe?

Joseph Beuys 7,000 Oaks
Joseph Beuys 7,000 Oaks

There are artists working on the peripheries blurring the boundaries between art, science and practical engagement often doing very small and practical things as in the case of the American Brandon Ballengée who, collaborating with The Gia Institute and The New York State Museum, has worked to populate waste water management sites with native amphibians that will control mosquito populations and act as health monitors for the wetlands. While in this country Jeremy Deller, recent Turner prize winner, is working with the Arts Council and the Bat Conservation Trust to design a bat house at the London Wetlands and Wildfowl Centre. Heather Ackroyd & Dan Harvey are two artists who have been collaborating since the 1990s and have recently been involved with Cape Farwell, when scientists, writers, artists and filmmakers spent a week on board an old Dutch schooner in the High Artic in order to make work that draws attention to rising CO2 levels. Working closely with the Cetacean Stranding Programme at the Natural History Museum, they removed the skeleton from a minke whale washed up in Skegness, cleaned and immersed the bones in a highly saturated alum solution, encrusting the skeleton with a chemical growth of ice-like crystals. As the work progressed so did their understanding of how the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuel and how in the last two hundred years the chemistry of the ocean has changed for the first time in millions of years.

Their current project, Fly Tower, which involves covering the North and West face of the Lyttleton Theatre on the South Bank with clay and grass seed, has had to be temporarily halted due to potential problems from hose pipe bans and droughts. On discovering excess ground water in the car park they are now laying pipes to use this forgotten source to irrigate their installation. “We have often worked with grass in the past,” Heather Ackroyd says “to investigate processes of growth and decay but these are difficult times and we need to ask serious questions about what we are doing, how we are doing it and who we are doing it for. This has lead to reframing the way we work. Now we have to think where the water comes from.”

The feminist critique of land and environmental art of the 1970s significantly contributed to new approaches in sustainable art practices. In addition to criticising the effects of patriarchal thinking in art and society, the first generation of eco-feminists set out to establish relationships based not on traditional hierarchies but on a sense of respect, awareness and interconnection. Renata Poljak’s film Great Expectations, suggests through a story of overbuilding on the Dalmatian coast and the resulting disruption to the local, organic architecture, the existence of a link between patriarchy and environmental degradation. Social critique and cross disciplinary research are also the catalysts for American conceptual artist Amy Balkin. Her work asks “how people can live together and share common resources”. Her project Invisible-5, an audio tour of the highway corridor between San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles, articulates how historic geopolitics impacts on the health and welfare of local people through the distribution of toxic risks. This is the Public Domain, 2003 involved the purchase of a parcel of land in Tehachapi, California, to be held in common for public use; “we are,” she says, “still trying to find a judicial framework for its public handover”. Existing in a space between art and activism hers is an attempt to construct new narratives that allow the ecologically disenfranchised a voice. With Public Smog, she has been buying and withholding carbon gas emission credits from international markets to create a temporary clean-air park and intends to submit an application to qualify the entire atmosphere as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Walter De Maria Lightning Field 1977
Walter De Maria Lightning Field, 1977

A quick search on the web reveals a host of sites where artists and scientists come together to work across disciplines. The greenmuseum.org. aims through artistic and educational outreach activities to increase awareness of ecological issues, while the RSA is working in partnership with the Arts Council to create a programme of events involving artists, ecologists and scientists. And for over 20 years PLATFORM has brought together environmentalists, artists and human rights campaigners to create innovative projects driven by the need for social and environmental justice.

For artists in the 1960s working with the land symbolised a separation from the spatial autocracy of the white cube, a breaking free from strict modernist aesthetics along with the financial hegemony of the fine art market, which fitted in with the iconoclastic mood of the times; for this was a utopian moment when students and artists believed the world was on course to a better future and working outside the gallery gave a chance to experiment in democratic non hierarchical spaces. Joseph Beuys, the founder of Germany’s Green Party and the creator of that seminal work 7000 Oaks, a project begun at Documenta in 1982, is usually cited as the catalyst. In America artists such as Robert Smithson, who built Spiral Jetty, 1970, an earthwork that juts into the shallows off the shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake and his partner Nancy Holt, along with Agnes Denes, Betty Beaumont and Walter De Maria, best known for his Lightning Field, 1977 built in New Mexico, were all engaged in opening up this field.

In this country Richard Long and Hamish Fulton have turned the walk into an art form, while Andy Goldsworthy’s ephemeral constructs (which are then photographed) have been described by fellow sculptor, David Nash, as a bridge between the public and art’s more “astringent practitioners”. In 1967 Nash, himself, moved to North Wales where he has worked with that most natural of elements, wood; hacking, splitting and charring it into Pythagorean forms, the harmony of which echoes something of his anthroposophical concerns. His ring of 22 ash trees, tended over a thirty year period to form a natural domed cathedral, is typical of the ongoing nature of his work. By contrast Peter Randall Page’s recent piece for the Eden project, a hewn Cornish granite slab, is set not within the wilderness but surrounded by the possibilities of eco-technology. While Chris Drury looks at the body as landscape, finding equivalents with ecological systems in the workings of the heart in his Systems in the Body and Systems in the Landscape and Planet.

David Nash Ash Dome
David Nash Ash Dome

Although this ‘first’ generation of land artists would probably not consider themselves eco-warriors, their work within the natural world and outside the galley space (though not always beyond its monetary reach) has created a climate for younger artists to experiment across the boundaries between science, research and activism.

So what power can art have as a catalyst for change? A turning away from the metropolis (and the gallery/museum/investor matrix) to work on the ecological margins is for many artists a statement that not all art has to be driven by the market and vested interest. An aesthetic response to the natural world is, in the end, a barometer of a society’s sense of universal connectedness and directly related to the future strategies it chooses to take for the planet’s environmental sustainability. It is often said that forests are the lungs of the earth; perhaps artists, may, yet, become the keepers of its soul.


Amy Balkin’s project curated by MA Curating Contemporary Art students at the Royal College of Art at Peer, Hoxton, London until 7 November 2006

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2006

Image 1: © Amy Balkin
Image 2: © Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey
Image 3: © Joseph Beuys
Image 4: © Walter De Maria
Image 5: © David Nash

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