Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Melting arctic ice blocks in front of the Tate Modern, trash fashion shows, pictures and installations about our fevery planet. As the climate crisis roars on, the phenomenon of environmental art has become more and more present in the culture sphere. Environmental art, in its various shapes, forms, colours and materials, has swamped the art world. But is it art? Or a form of protest and political statement? Maybe both. Or neither? You are right. Who am I to tell and what am I even doing, trying to put art into boxes.That is impossible and even the most pretentious art critiques rarely dare to define art. Nonetheless, I want to reflect upon environmental art, its purpose, effects and cultural value. This is not supposed to be a critique of any particular artwork, nor of any arbitrarily defined category of art. It is merely supposed to be a concretisation and scriptification of my thoughts.
For quite a while, I felt anxious and slightly upset whenever I saw climate change taking over art spaces. To me, these spaces were about escaping my reality, immersing myself into an excitingly convoluted world of creativity and experiencing something outside my ordinary life. Environmental art disrupted my search for artistic relief. I judgmentally belittled it as not very creative as it is most powerful when it is a bleak and unfiltered report of tragic realities and grim future predictions. So when encountering environmental art, any imaginative inspiration was missing and I felt weirdly betrayed. To me, it was a failed art.
What about the political protest aspect? Quite frankly, it seemed utterly useless as a tool to raise awareness. Your typical art audience, being educated, politically aware and progressive people, certainly ought not to be the primary addressee of environmental protest. If primarily pursuing a political purpose, it should have been exhibited in Whitehall, Westminster and Brussels. To me, it failed as an effective method of protest as well.
Clearly I had many reservations and for a while environmental art was rather uncomfortable and unsettling to me. Yet, upon reflection, it grew on me. I was converted and now I am an affectionate warrior in favour of the existing and uprising of environmental art, whether it is within the walls of an art gallery or outside in a public space where it is inescapable for the daily commuter. Let me explain this U-turn of sentiments.
I have come to realise that its position between the two chairs of protest and art opens exciting new doors and is a rather suitable manifestation of the fact that climate change touches upon manifold aspects of our lives. In regards to the above mentioned discomfort, without meaning to trivialise, I must admit that climate change is uncomfortable.Therefore it is quite logical that environmental art ought to be uncomfortable somehow.
Moreover, art is undeniably a fantastic channel and preservative of its time. We get to experience snippets of the Zeitgeist of past decades through expressionism, surrealism and the like. Fast forward 100 years (hoping we got our sh** together and human kind is still around) we want the future generations to be able to feel what it was like to live in London in the 2010s and 2020s. Preservation of the pollution, the heat, the dryness, the protests, the uprising of indigenous communities whose livelihood is being stolen by Western lifestyles and ruthless capitalism, as well as the growing environmental anxiety is key to capturing the spirit of our generation. Art is not apathetic or a detached parallel universe. It mirrors societal progress or regress and is a memory of its time. So how can contemporary art not be about our changing climate? Besides preserving a spirit and functioning as a revelatory mirror of society, I am convinced that art can inspire social and political change. Its forces are unique and as unquestionable as they are unmeasurable. I believe that art has the potential to contribute to what the rational appeal to reason has, until now, failed to do - wake up humanity and mobilise it for the sake of its own survival.
So after all, the verdict is that I feel a great appreciation for the discomfort that environmental art has brought upon me and I hope it will spread its wings further and further into our contemporary cultural scene in order to unleash its full transformative potential.