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Art as Apparatus: Perceiving Fragility in our Environment Curated by Anna-Marie Babington


Olafur Eliasson, Beauty, 1993.

“Nature is beautiful because it looks like Art; and Art can only be called beautiful if we are conscious of it as Art while yet it looks like Nature.” –Immanuel Kant

John Constable, Study of Clouds, 1830. Iber Bierstadt, Merced River, 1866 . Claude Monet, Nympheas, 1906. Ansel Adams, The Tetons and the Snkae River, 1942. Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Andy Goldsworthy, The Neuberger Cairn, 2001. Antony Gormely, Horizon Field, 2010 .

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“To appreciate the beauty or the fragility of our environment and our cultural responses to it, we need to understand how artists have portrayed the environment in the past and how they are continuing to portray it in the present.” 1 Though appreciation for nature exists as a theme in some of the earliest art, Romantic painters John Constable and Joseph Turner receive credit for the roots of environmental art with their representational paintings of the natural environment. 2 The Hudson River School followed, glorifying the newly discovered splendors of America. Around the same time, the Impressionists also took their easels out of the studio, painting en plein air and paying attention to light in the environment. Monet, in his series of Lilies and Haystacks, highlights both the affect of nature on a landscape and the particular sensations of a viewer through color-choice and style. In the 20th century, photographer Ansel Adams displayed the untainted beauty of Yosemite National Park in high-resolution. Beginning in the late 1960s, land art, earthworks, and site-specific art emerged with artists such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Morris, and Michael Singer. These early notions of environmental art, all found either in or on land, were not

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Christo and Jean-Claude, Wrapped Trees, 1997-98, polyester fabric and rope, Fondation Beyeler and Berower Park, Riehen, Switzerland.

necessary ethical or sustainable 3 but were heavily influenced by the advent of conceptual art.

In the works of Christo and Jean-Claude, objects, buildings, monuments, and nature take on new forms and draw attention to overlooked aspects of aesthetics and scale. Wrapped Trees provokes a strong sense that we must not take our environment for granted. The transformation of unfettered nature into a concealed object parallels the consumer culture in which our society is submerged. The wrapping of trees causes one to reminisce on all the objects typically found in wrappers or packages. Following this trajectory, one must also realize that this concept of “wrapping” constantly evolves and has become so pervasive in our era that we have become immune to purchasing commonplace objects triple-packaged. What belongs in a package? How necessary are such measures and why do we accept them as protocol?

Wrapped Trees.

In more recent years, artists have departed from thinking about environmental art as something that must occur outside in nature. Displaying their works in museums and galleries, these artists create mixed media works, photographs, sculptures, and installations that either mimic the forms found in nature or feature materials that come directly from nature. An increased emphasis on sustainability also characterizes contemporary works evident John Dahlsen’s approach to making art with “found and recycled objects,” 4 while Olafur Eliasson stresses the impact of global warming with large-scale installations including The Weather Project. “Environmental art is therefore a very useful overarching term that encompasses works of art that have been composed or displayed, in or out of doors, and concerned with the environment.” 5 In exploring the work of some of today’s environmental artists, we discover the role of art as an apparatus in which we may uncover our perception of the environment. By altering the context of natural forms, these artists stress the temporality and vulnerability of nature and allow viewers to conceive of their relationship to the environment in new ways.

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Wrapped Trees also brings attention to the role of light in our environment. Whereas we typically see a tree as a silhouette against or illuminated by light, a wrapped tree seems to hold the light inside, emphasizing preciousness in the symbiotic relationships found in nature. The dynamic volumes of light and shadow and sensational scale captivate the viewer while the temporality of the work is consistent with that of nature. The works calls to question our relationship with nature outside of a philosophical or formal context—how do we regard our natural environment on a daily basis? Christo and Jean-Claude give the viewer a new lens to look through while keeping nature in its natural environment. Tara Donovan, Untitled (Styrofoam Cups), 2003, styrofoam cups, hotglue, 183 x 61 x 46 cm.

Artist Tara Donovan transforms “huge quantities of prosaic manufactured materials –plastic-foam cups, pencils, tar

paper—into sculptural installations that suggest the wonders of nature.” 7 In Unititled (Styrofoam cups), the man-made cups capture a play of light and ironically evoke the interactions occurring in the natural world. By keeping consistent with the forms found in nature but portraying them in a disposable material, Donovan reveals the transience of all structures on earth. Her method of production also resembles that of the ecological process: she develops a sort of aesthetic rule and repeats it, delicately constructing in imitation of nature.

Nobuhir Nakashani, Layer Drawing: Aomori Sunrise, 2007, laser print mounted with plexiglass, acrylic, 22 x 28 cm.

Nobuhiro Nakanishi “creates movement between the artwork itself and the viewer’s experience of the artwork” 6 in his work Time + Space. Rather than showcasing a single drawing of a landscape, Nakanishi displays a series of successive images separated by gaps, which lend the work an ephemeral quality mirroring that of nature. “The void and image alternate depending on the viewer’s changing point of view and perception;” 2 thus, the arrangement alters the viewer’s experience and

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Jason deCaires Taylor, Vicissitudes, 2008, concrete and steel, depth 5 m, Grenada, West Indies

draws connections to the character of the physical world. We are forced to look beyond the flat values and consider the time and space of a landscape.

Man on Fire, Cancun / Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

Jason Taylor’s underwater sculpture, as seen in the film The Silent Evolution, elicits a strong emotional response. By placing a colony of human sculpture underwater, Taylor succeeds both in calling our attention to the environment and our interactions with other humans in this environment. Appropriately named, the figures exude an eerie sense of silence, almost an appeal to the observer to speak out for them. The camera circles around the figures as a diver would underwater. This surreal experience illuminates the fragile nature of the sculpture subject to erosion. We know that, with the passing of time, the sculpture will evolve into a reef as the ocean displays its dominance. Exploring the concept of temporality by underlining the ecological process, Taylor points to the importance of protecting nature visible to us in our daily lives as well as the uncommonly viewed natural world.

Maya Lin’s Landscape creates ambiguity between water and land with its amorphous presence. This topographical represen-

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tation of the natural world allows us as viewers to examine the shapes of our environment on a new scale while utilizing materials from nature. This gives us the ability to think about the land as a particular entity rather than an unchanging foundation. In this way we can sense the preciousness of something as pervasive as land. Lin states that her works “are a response to that beauty” 8 of the environment which she respects and loves. She strives to allow viewer to experience inaccessible or impossible landscapes in an unfamiliar perspective.

Maya Lin, Systemic Landscapes: Blue Lake Pass, 2008, wood, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

In exploring the works of environmental artists, we are called to question the relationships between society and nature. Their art serves not solely as an aesthetic reminder of the physical world surrounding us but also as an apparatus awaken the audience to observe themselves seeing everyday parts of nature and not take them for granted. 9 Their creations allow us to perceive the oft-overlooked fragility in our environment and fathom the delicate interconnections occurring all around us.

Notes 1-2. Wildenstein, Pace. “Maya Lin’s ‘Three Ways of Looking at the Earth, Selections from Systematic Landscapes’.” AO Art Observed. Web. 14 Dec. 2010. <http://artobserved.com/2009/10/go-see-new-york-maya-lins-threeways-of-looking-at-the-earth-selections-from-systematic-landscapes-at-pacewildenstein-through-october-24-2009/>. 3-4. Allen, Carlson. “Is Environmental Art an Aesthetic Affront to Nature?” Canadian Journal of Philosophy. 1986. Web. 14 Dec. 2010. <http://www. canadianjournalofphilosophy.com/>. 5. Thornes, John E. A Rough Guide to Environmental Art. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol 33:391-411. Nov. 2008. 14 Dec. 2010. 6. “Layered Landscapes (6 Pics).” My Modern Metropolis. Web. 14 Dec. 2010.<http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/layered-landscapes6-pics>. 7. Carol, Kino. “The Genius of Little Things.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 23 Sept. 2008. Web. 15 Dec. 2010. <http:// www.nytimes.com/ 2008/09/28/arts/design/28kino.html?_r=1&ref=tara_ donovan>. 8. Wildenstein, Pace. 9. Thornes, John E.

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© Anna-Marie Babington, vlst 102 / Fall 2010, University of Pennsylvania

Art as Apparatus  

project for Visual Studies class

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