Humanity’s impact on the environment is evident in the very first drawings 64,000 years ago and as sustainable culture moves into frame, can art finally help us see the bigger picture?

Depictions of flora, fauna and hunting painted on cave walls document our existence with nature as far back as the last Ice Age. Ironic then that as we hurtle towards a self-imposed climate crisis, art is once again poised to illustrate our relationship with the earth and its other inhabitants. Well the ones we haven’t already killed off that is!

Art’s relationship with sustainability and environmental activism is confusing.

Sustainable movements

decry the wasteful use of oil- based paints, galleries binning artworks and carbon footprint of exhibitions and their fossil-fuel funded benefactors. However, on the flipside the awareness raised by powerful, provocative and timeless works of art can have more impact

on the global consciousness than any politician or protest. Was Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch a wakeup call for all who saw it, or a frivolous waste of carbon to transport 30 icebergs from Greenland to London?

Eliasson has made a huge impact, his recent In Real Life retrospective at Tate Modern brought glacial melting and our interconnection with nature into…well, real life. His Weather Project drew more than two million people

to the Turbine Hall in 2003 but are people truly taking on the messaging or are they fake sunbathing on a day trip to London before an obligatory Nandos?

Commenting on the value of arts and culture on our future, Arts Council England states: “When we talk about the value of arts and culture to society, we always start with its intrinsic value: how arts and culture can illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional world.

“However, we also understand that arts and culture has a wider, more measurable impact on our economy, health and wellbeing, society and education. It’s important we also recognise this impact to help people think of our arts and culture for what they are: a strategic national resource.”

Looking at it this way, with humanity’s footprint on the earth being one of the greatest threats ever faced, arts and culture are now a strategic international resource. The art world’s environmental focus needs to be front and centre to ensure the widest

‘measurable impact’ and that’s where sustainable art comes in. Sustainable art understands the wider impact of the work and its reception in relation to its environment, be they social, economic, biophysical, historical, or cultural. It is a growing movement using visual impact, education and awareness of resources to ensure that every picture does indeed tell a story.

Artists combining narrative action with emotion are growing in number and most importantly, in impact. Portuguese-born Artur Bordalo, aka Bordalo II, has created vital and provocative works utilising 62 tons of reused materials since 2012 conjuring up giant trash animals with unusual and unique raw materials across the globe. These works not

only force us to confront our colossal waste but also its impact. With so much focus on fast-fashion Bordalo’s approach is pushing the envelope for sustainable artists to say no to ‘fast- art’, instead using recycled paints, canvases, materials and even waste products in their works.

Art is well documented as providing a window into the world, allowing a deeper knowledge and empathic understanding of nature than any biology book can ever dream of. Sustainable artists today are allowing us to interact, engage and understand our impact on the natural world like never before. Natalie Jeremijenko’s Amphibious Architecture installation allowed New Yorkers to experience the diverse ecosystems under the

East River through data, coding and SMS texts with their underwater neighbours. The artist continues to work with nature highlighting what she describes as a “crisis of agency” for humanity to interact with its neighbouring species. Her subsequent work, including a ‘mussel choir’, only further her focus on public art which engenders “collective action and measurable environmental gain.”

Public art itself has also transformed in 2020 as visual content for Instagram and other platforms play a huge part in environmentalism, Black Lives Matter and other societal issues. A powerful illustration, piece of graffiti or work of art can now travel the globe, ensuring a lasting focus on the issue and providing a vital emblem. UK-based artist Louis Masai is a key proponent in vibrant imagery, environmental subject matter and human references being combined with online technology to reach the widest possible audience and truly make a difference. “My recent documentation of endangered creatures and raising of awareness of statistics has on occasion been associated with activism,” he explained. “I find this a bit daunting as I only see myself as an artist but I definitely see the power of visual language and I’m enjoying using that power via my murals and the modern world of social networking.”

Masai’s intuitive blend of natural world and 21st century society has resulted in powerful works such as ‘Conservation – Conversation’. The series documents critically endangered species painted directly onto reclaimed zoo animal travel enclosures, and 3D patchwork trophy heads (fauxdermy) questioning the conflicts of what conservation can be. The conversation allows for the exploration of how one views the position both trophy hunting and zoos have in our modern day conservation. Both of which contribute “vast” amounts of money to the protection of the species in the wild. This is something that troubles the artist and one he openly explores as a way to evaluate public opinion on the matter.

Whether it’s conversations with fish, ‘garbage’ art or even thawing ice sounds used to make lo-fi beats, our relationship with nature is at the heart of culture and change. Who knows if art can help us shift the climate crisis, solve racism and lead us to become a more sustainable species? But if so, maybe in a few millennia’s time future generations will look back at our art as we look back at neanderthalic cave drawings and discover we didn’t paint ourselves into a c te corner. Ars longa, vita brevis!