Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Some thoughts on Environmental Art

Jeanne Jaffe - Little Red Riding Hood as a Crime Scene (Schuylkill Center)

I was able to spend the day earlier this week at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education and spend some time taking in Facts and Fables: Stories of the Natural World, their new art installation. The installation explores how stories - narrative - affect our understanding of nature. The artists are Jeremy Beaudrey, David Dempewolf, Brian Collier, Chad Curtis, Susan Hagen, Blane De St-Croix, and Jeanne Jaffe.

The environmental art department at the Schuylkill Center is a truly important and unique component of Philadelphia's cultural scene - bringing together artists with the resources of naturalists and environmental educators to use art to raise awareness of the environment. Kudo's to Mary Salvante for founding this program, to Jenny Laden for leading it now, and to the Center itself for sustaining this commitment to the role the art can play in fulfilling its mission.

The art is definitely worth a visit, and if you have not yet been to the Center, make the trip. Yet another hidden Philadelphia gem and evidence that this City is filled with more green space and "wilderness' than any other major American City. While there we had an interesting dialogue about the different variations of "art and the environment" - from art that may comment on or illuminate an environmental issue, to art that may actually use the environment in the execution of the piece, or art that is designed to actually impact the environment in a positive way.

A great example of the last category is Mel Chin's "Revival Field" piece, that involved constructing an installation of plants in a contaminated field, plants that were specifically chosen due to their scientifically researched capacity to leach certain contaminants from the soil,  naturally, over time.His more recent Fundred Dollar Bill Project, to address soil contamination in New Orleans, while more conceptual and playful, still has as its ultimate goals CHANGING for the better our environment.

Mel Chin - Revival Field

Another example of art that does more than comment on the environment but actually interacts with it would be Soil Kitchen, the temporary installation by the artist collaborative FutureFarmers that the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy brought to Philadelphia earlier this year.

FutureFarmers - Soil Kitchem study

It is important to distinguish this work from the land art movement, like Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (Smithson in fact coined the term "land art"). Not to do diminish the value of this work. Works like Spiral Jetty and Roden Crater by James Turrell, can have an extraordinary majesty and mystery, and an intimate relationship with nature and light. They are designed to change based on environmental changes and time. But they are not designed to specifically change the environment in a positive way, or even make an environmental statement. My conversation with Jenny Laden and Theresa Rose from my staff got me thinking about this important distinction.

Smithson - Spiral Jetty (from Wikipedia)

The role that artists can play in helping to address environmental and sustainability issues is something of great interest to me and my Office. We have been in discussions with the Mayor's Office of Sustainability about a deeper partnership, and have also been in discussions with the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation about how temporary public art can help raise awareness of, and interest in, the Delaware waterfront, which could also involve exploring wetlands and water quality issues. It is great to have so many great partners and organizations of like mind in Philadelphia (like the Schuylkill Center) - look for lots more great project to come in the coming years!


  1. Gary sheds light on great examples and important distinctions. When we think of green or environmental art, we often lump these all into one big category.
    Just to mention, the most sustainable art is that which beneficially transforms the environment in some way, does not deplete our natural world, nor add to our waste problem.
    Yes, the Office is inspired by this work!

  2. Our work at The Schuylkill Center brings public awareness to environmental concerns, which like it or not, do actually affect us all. As environmental perspectives shift, the art reflecting our relationship to nature also deepens in its definition. I look forward to many more visits, conversations and exhibitions which put the notions of sustainability into useful art practice which can inform, delight or challenge audiences and help improve the natural world. Many thanks for the visit and this wonderful post! Come visit us again and again.

  3. Perhaps the most compelling piece in Facts and fables (all are worth seeing) is "Nature Study: An AmbivalentGuide" where the crux of the discussions are about our separation from nature, or our inability to fathom nature. The idea of us and it, as though nature were a pet or a piece of property that we need to tend, shows how far we have tried to remove ourselves from nature. No doubt many of the world's ills are a result of this.