Long before Olafur Eliasson, Extinction Rebellion, and Greta Thunberg, these were the people trying to warn us about the precarious future of our planet
In recent years, anxiety about the environment has stood at the forefront of contemporary culture, with figures like Greta Thurnberg and Extinction Rebellion rightfully pushing the issue into mainstream consciousness and demanding immediate political action.
The Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson is known for exploring the processes of nature to create an ecologically-minded, sensorial practice, one which proposes that the museum should be a vehicle for social change, seen in Tate Modern’s retrospective: Olafur Eliasson: In real life. Beyond Eliasson, other institutions are now prioritising such themes, with the Royal Academy opening Eco-Visionaries: Confronting a planet in a state of emergency this week.
But before climate change became a central marketable subject matter for major blockbuster exhibitions, there were artists creating a visual vocabulary for the perilous effects of human action on the environment years ago. Initially stemming from the aesthetic principles of minimalism, environmental art, earthworks, or land art, first emerged as a concept in the 1960s and 1970s, when artists like Walter De Maria, Nancy Holt, and Robert Smithson, among others, approached landscape as a raw, sculptural material.
In the same decades, a movement of artist-activists began creating ecological work, which not only highlighted the fragility of our environment and its ecosystems but provided creative solutions. We should remember their practices and legacies as we engage with and appreciate contemporary eco-art. Below we spotlight some of the artists who predicted the climate crisis through their work.
Nils-Udo once wrote in his 1984 book Nils-Udo: Art in Nature: “The idea of planting my work literally into nature – of making it a part of nature, of submitting it to nature, its cycles and rhythms – filled me on the one hand with a deep inner peace, and on the other with the thought of seemingly inexhaustible new possibilities and fields of action.”
Born in 1937, the German artist Nils-Udo has been active in the field of environmental art since the 1960s. Beginning his career as a painter, he abandoned the easel to work directly in nature, with “To Gustav Mahler” (1973) being one of his earliest outdoor installations. A sculptural montage of trees, plants, and organic materials, the “unpolluted” work was made without technological intervention, and was destined to disappear over time.
Since the 1970s, Nils-Udo has been creating work that sensitises viewers to the ephemerality and endangerment of nature: “art always deals with reality”, he said in a 2003 interview with John Grande. “Those who shut their eyes to reality are liars and deprive themselves of any meaningful possibility of acting in society and (in the history of) art. What are we working for, if not for man, for society?”
This message feels particularly pertinent in today’s world where despite verified scientific evidence, right wing political parties continue to deny climate change.
HELEN & NEWTON HARRISON
A married collaborative pair, Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison are two of the earliest ecological artists who often worked with biologists, urban planners, and architects to create dialogues about how art can work with science to promote a sustainable future. Rising to prominence in the late 1960s, their work was initially responding to texts like Rachel Carsen’s Silent Spring (1962), a book that exposed the harmful effects of pesticides. In the following decades, the couple’s practice evolved to encompass climate change, seen in works like “The Survival Pieces” (1970–1972) or “Greenhouse Britain” (2007–2009) – an exhibition about rising sea levels. Helen passed away in 2018 at the age of 90, though Newton is still alive today.
The New York-based artist Alan Sonfist’s wide-spanning ecological practice is particularly concerned with botany and the protection of nature against human intrusion. In 1965, at the age of 19, Sonfist first conceptualised the idea for “Time Landscape” (1965–1978–present), a ten-year project that acted as a “living monument” to the indigenous botany of New York. In 1978, he replanted the native undergrowth, wildflowers, shrubs and saplings, once found in central Manhattan.
Sonfist explained in his 2004 book, Nature, The End Of Art, that the motive of the work was to get “an idea of how the city looked prior to man’s interventions”. Over 50 years later, “Time Landscape” is still one of the few green spaces open to the public in Greenwich Village. In 1989, it was placed under protection by the Parks Department of New York.
An overlooked figure in the history of environmental art, Toronto-born artist Betty Beaumont created her most significant work “Ocean Landmark” between 1978 and 1980. She transformed 500 tons of coal-waste – an ocean pollutant – into a lush underwater ‘fish garden’ for marine life off the coast of Long Island, New York. For Beaumont, art should “re-examine our own beliefs, actions or inactions, tolerance of misinformation, and potential to effect change”. Besides highlighting the disastrous effects of human waste on the ocean, Beaumont’s work provided an effective means of promoting new marine ecosystems. Now buried beneath the sea, “Ocean Landmark” still exists and evolves today – 40 years later. Today, in her seventies, Beaumont continues to create ecological work inspiring solution-based, sustainable strategies.
Considered a pioneer of conceptual art – performance and installation – Joseph Beuys was also a precursor of “ecological” art, championing what the artist called “social sculpture”. In 1978, Beuys published “Aufruf zu Alternative” (“Appeal for an Alternative”) in the Frankfurter Rundschau, a manifesto against capitalist consumer culture, and proposed policies now adopted by Green political parties.
In time for documenta 7, Beuys created “7,000 Oak Trees” – a self-explanatory work that was planted throughout the city of Kassel in 1982. Regarded locally as “green urban renewal”, the work took five years to complete. For Beuys, trees symbolised the concept of time, but also had a direct function: “I believe that planting these oaks is necessary not only in biospheric terms, that is to say, in the context of matter and ecology, but in that it will raise ecological consciousness... in the course of the years to come, because we shall never stop planting.”
Sometimes described as the “the queen of land art”, the Budapest-born artist Agnes Denes is an important figure in the history of socio-political and ecological art. In her celebrated work “Wheatfield – A Confrontation” (1982), the artist planted wheat on two acres of uninhabited land valued at $4.5 billion near New York’s Wall Street (the World Trade Center pre-9/11 can be seen in the background).
For Denes, the work represented a capitalist, profit-driven economy against a broader backdrop of world poverty and hunger – a system of inequality that has been the driving force behind global warming. On 16th August, she yielded over 1,000 pounds of healthy, golden wheat, which eventually travelled to 28 cities around the world where the seeds were replanted.
Denes’ work has always looked towards the future. Now 88 years old, she is working towards a project called “Future City” which, she explained in an interview with Apollo this year, will “create structures that will withstand further flooding and drought and other disasters.”
Since the 1970s, Buster Simpson has been creating environmental artwork whose aim is not just to present problems but to offer ecological solutions. In 1991, he created his most famous work, “Host Analog”. It is made up six segments of an endangered thousand-year-old Douglas Fir tree that had been left to decay in a forest in Portland.
Simpson extracted the decomposing log to the Oregon Convention Center, providing optimum conditions to conserve the indigenous plant forms of the ancient forest. When an ‘alien’ plant host began to envelop the log (to Simpson’s surprise), the artist allowed nature to take its course, rendering the work a metaphor for the cyclical death and rebirth of nature.
Simpson’s work points to the rapid extinction of many forms of plant life, another result of pollution, spreading diseases and climate change. Environmental scientists published evidence this year claiming that 571 species of plantlife have been wiped out since 1750, with others saying “one in five of the world’s plant species is at risk of extinction”.
In the 1990s, the American multidisciplinary artist Mel Chin turned his attention to ecological art. “Revival Field” (1991) was a result of his growing concerns with environmental pollution and the concept of using plants as ‘hyperaccumulators’ – cost-efficient means to soak up toxins in the soil. Following his belief that “the most important artefact is the creation of a scientific technology”, he collaborated with a team of research scientists to test the soil in a hazardous waste landfill, to see whether plants could absorb harmful toxins such as zinc, cadmium, and sulphur. His environmental investigations and “green remediation” were later used in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when it was discovered that lead – another toxic metal – was in the soil after the storm.
At the heart of Diana Burko’s practice is the question: “how can art or design communicate issues of climate change?” An artist and climate activist, since 2006, Burko’s photographic and painterly practice has used scientific data to show the rapid disappearance of glaciers and coral reefs all around the world. While at first, her art explored the subliminal aesthetic qualities of the American landscape through aerial photography – following the traditions of 19th-century romantic landscape painting – Burko later shifted her attention towards the urgency of climate change, thus becoming a climate activist.
Her series Politics of Snow created stunning visual representations of glacial geological data, offering audiences a glimpse into a dystopian future. Today Burko continues to collaborate with climatologists, using her art as a vehicle to raise discussion and awareness about what lies ahead.