Art and climate change: a selection of works and artists engaging with the ecological question

Art and climate change: a selection of works and artists engaging with the ecological question


In addition to raising their voices on social matters such as justice and identity, many artists and institutions have been engaging with the environment from an explorative approach to a more ecological standpoint. From a market perspective the expression of nature as a collective space and the gigantism of landscapes-embedded works make it hard for private collectors to define the price record. At the crossroad of many practices including theater performance, photography, video, landscape architecture, engineering and coding, from land art in the 70’s to more recent engagements, artists have discovered a crucial role for themselves, making an issue that sometimes seems abstract instead feel emotional and urgent.

Art and Landscape

Environmental art is not new to our millenium. In the 60’s the Land Art movement started to expand artistic boundaries through the use of natural materials such as soil, rocks, vegetation and water found on-site. Striving to oppose itself to urbanization, landscape destruction and mass consumption, artists such as Richard Long, Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Walter de Maria, Michael Heizer and Dennis Oppenheim developed landscape projects which were beyond the reach of traditional transportable and commercial art. In the 1970s, Robert Smithson created a 460 m long and 4.6 m wide counterclockwise spiral of local basalt rocks and mud, forming a jetty that juts from the shore of the Great Salt Lake. In 1977, Walter de Maria raised 400 stainless steel poles arranged in a calculated grid over an area of 1 mile × 1 km into the New Mexico desert which changes depending on time and days. It takes its most impressive form during thunderstorms. In the same period in Europe, the German artist Nils Udo quit traditional mediums to plant his artistics creations. He was essentially putting his art in nature's hands to develop and disappear, using photography to keep track of his work (similarly to Smithson and Maria). Among many projects, Udo responded in 2013 to a tender launched by the community of d’Éguzon-Chantôme and Crozant aiming to initiate cultural projects in the French rural area. The work called Radeau d' Automne, a massive sculpture of 6.80 meters long and 3.90 meters high, had been shaped in natural materials from the local land to crystallize the territory’s identity grounded in nature and culture. In his own words, the artists says “Being a part of nature, being embedded in it and living on it, it appeared to me that acting in compliance with the laws of nature was something self-evident and necessary for survival". Udo is currently showing fragments of his monumental art by displaying paintings and pictures at the EDF foundation.

Digital art & climate activism

Collectors are quickly snapping the smaller works artists produce to complement their statement pieces. In 2015, a print from Eliasson was sold for 23K€ at Christie’s charity auction coinciding with the climate summit. The question of art as a commodity is also challenged with digital creations. Since the 90’s many artists have been using technology to reflect upon the third industrial revolution, the future of humanity, the limits of capitalism, and ecology. Due to the difficulty in monetizing it, those works remain in the institutions’ collections more than in the hands of private collectors. For instance, Barcelona's Centre of Contemporary Culture set an exhibition in 2018 - Win-Win, at After The End of the World - curated by the climate philosopher Timothy Morton to show digital and performative artworks from artists who have been raising their voices for the environment. Among others, Rimini Protokoll, a collective of artists were invited. Their artistic practice is aiming to reflect upon individualism and populations’ future at risk due to climate change. Through video installations and urban landscape embedded artworks they display the loss in biodiversity and unprecedented regime shifts. For this show, they created a video projection, an audience interaction, and a two-way mirror to show the projected evolution of the jellyfish and human demise.

Activism in art

“Today’s artists are dealing with more expressly sociopolitical concerns, they have more of an activist bent than the earlier generation, who were more interested about creating art in remote landscapes ” claims Alexis Lowry, curator at Dia Art Foundation in NYC. Bearing the land art legacy with enforcement happening artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Shepard Fairey and Tomás Saraceno took advantage of the Coop 21 in Paris to display artworks throughout the city as part of an initiative calling for a global commitment to climate action. For instance, Thomas Eliasson placed 12 ice blocks on the forecourt of the Pantheon which were melting in real time to get world leaders to commit to meaningful change and increase citizen awareness in order to save the world from global catastrophe. “The purpose is to engage a wide audience to offer a new perspective on the world in which we live,” says Tanya Bonakdar, Eliasson’s New York dealer. As an artist who embraces technology and experimentation in his practice, John Gerrard used a highly sophisticated technology to simulate the actual movements of the sun, moon, and stars across the sky, as they would appear at the Nevada site in his video-work Solar Reserve (Tonopah, Nevada) 2014. He sought to highlight “the historic representations of the sun and the manner in which petroleum eclipsed the sun as an energy source in the 20th century”. One of the questions he is seeking to ask is the potential of solar facilities to address the energy crisis. To what degree will the energy crisis be addressed by solar facilities, and to which extent can renewable energy handle our growing energy consumption? Tomás Saraceno, also working with complex models and technology, invites us to reflect upon our energy and resource consumption. In his open source project named Aerocene, a series of airborne sculptures, he envisions a new epoch of Earth’s planetary history where environmental awareness, ethics and politics would be critical social values. Also taking place in the sky, the artist duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude make a stark distinction between the highly engineered, man-made materials of their work, and the organic "canvas" of the site. This is in opposition to Land Artists of the past who were emphasizing the blurring lines between their work and its natural environment. It was therefore hugely important in redefining not only the scope of large-scale, site-specific installation art, but the medium’s capacity to address themes of sustainability and environmentalism.


Allison Tickel, director of Julie’s Bicycle, a charity supporting artists and creative initiatives holding an ecological message, says that “over the last two years we’ve seen this wave of creativity and commissioning around climate”. As we have seen throughout this article, there have been many efforts from artists, collectors and collectives to become carbon-free, to create a link between the climate crisis, biodiversity and inequity, and of course to highlight the issue of climate change to the general public. Even fairs have been publishing annual reports on their emissions, in response to the criticism of climate activists like Extinction Rebellion and several projects that have addressed the crippling effect of fair-related activities on global warming. Overall, art continues to be an ideal form of communication, particularly when it comes to the most pressing and global questions of our times.

February 5, 2020