Sustainability and Art — Part I
The environment has been one of the most talked-about topics in recent months, or even in recent years, to anticipate and prevent latent climate change. This was the most urgent issue before the pandemic. The effort to mitigate the consequences was already being made. Sustainability has been recurrent since the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, although there is no exact definition of sustainability. Some say it is a form of development in line with the needs of the planet, without questioning the needs of future generations. Sustainability is the ability to meet our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. In practice, sustainability is a development based on five principles: quality of life, justice and equity, participation, respect for the environment and its limits, and thinking about the future without compromising it. In this scenario, and taking into account that it affects every element of the society in which we live, it is important to understand the role of art in sustainable practices and what role the various actors and agents can play. What is the role of art in sustainable practices? And what is the role of sustainability in art?
This macro reflection makes more sense today than ever. First of all, we live in unprecedented times in this pandemic. Therefore, it is possible to aggregate many examples of large-scale practices, implemented by several cultural institutions around the world, including museums and galleries, shaping types of widespread behavior – in particular, the online realm. Secondly, Lisbon was the European Green Capital 2020, marking its position in the fight against climate change. This programme included exhibitions such as Gabriela Albergaria’s A Natureza Detesta Linhas Retas and O Mar é a Nossa Terra at CCB’s South Garage.
To understand the concept of sustainability, we must understand the quest for this concept, which begins in the 1970s, after several environmental disasters. Among them, the Minamata Bay, in Japan; the Bhopal gas tragedy, in India; and the nuclear accident in Chernobyl, in the former Soviet Union. All of these have brought about a great increase in awareness of environmental problems in Europe. It is from this moment that we begin to think about sustainability in a more globalised and less local way, emerging alternatives to society’s relationship with the environment. Finally, the perception of the relationship between environmental problems and the development process, which we already know today to be a key point. Because it is a complex and long-lasting process, there are currently different approaches to sustainability. However, there are common points among almost all the concepts presented and studied: the existence of unmet needs and physical limitations to meet those, making this concept complex, dynamic and impregnated with value.
Art plays a decisive role in the formation of behaviours and thoughts from an early age. It is necessary to understand art as a historical factor, which contextualizes different cultures throughout the centuries for the process of understanding a society. Thus, art has had a journey from Antiquity to Contemporary. Over time, its systems have been adjusted, reaching what we know today. A long road has been traveled to the awareness of the need for sustainability and concern for the environment.
On the one hand, information is communicated through art, which has in itself the capacity to create knowledge, for the general public, and through education; a second path is to create compassion and empathy for nature, stimulating people to reflect on their behavior and their relationship with the environment; finally, economic and community development to ensure environmental sustainability.
Sustainability and Art Markets
The arts sector also adopts more sustainable practices. In this context, the two worlds are often interconnected – like John Gerrard’s Western Flag (2017), presented at the Madrid COP25 Conference (Ocean and Climate Platform, 2019) by the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum. Together with the UN, the work of the Irish artist was installed at the entrance of the museum, recreating the space where the first oil well was, in 1901, in Texas, USA. The installation replicates a blackened smoke flag over images of the real Spindletop, conveying the atmospheric changes felt, in a critique of resource exploitation. Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza says that “art is an agent of change, relevant as we speak carrying a fundamental role. Artists manage to create images that tell the whole story, as exemplified by Western Flag. The image of the flag was the hallmark of the COP25 Conference, showing the power and versatility of art” (Climate Change Conference, 2019). Art can intervene and create dialogues by asking questions. That is why we have seen the theme of Art and Sustainability increasingly approached.
Some artists who have been praised for their artistic expressions on sustainability and the environment include, for example, Eve Mosher (who put flowered roofs on over a thousand buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn), Mary Miss (who marked buildings with the water level of the last floods, showing the need to prepare for the next disasters). This kind of art has no simple rules or a way to identify it, unlike other movements. But they share the ability to make people reflect on a more ecological world and a social and environmental problem. It creates empathy with the environment and communicates relevant information.
In the new millennium, artists have started to worry more and more about their ecological footprint, aware of their social and environmental impact. One example is sustainable architecture, which seeks to harness the surrounding natural resources to optimize their creations and reduce their environmental impact.
In the Waste of Time project, Olafur Eliasson shows us that his art is about accountability – he created an installation made up of fallen pieces of a glacier in Iceland, placing human behavior and its consequences in the face of global warming. This artist, along with names like Shepard Fairey and Tomás Saraceno, filled Paris with installations during an initiative that demanded from the UN actions on global warming. Iceberg, by Olafur Eliasson, is also an example of the interference of sustainability in artistic exercise. He also created the Ice Watch series, where he puts these same icebergs in a clock shape (“time is ticking!”), so that the audience can have the experience and the awareness that they will eventually melt right there, in front of the Tate Modern. While the activists protest with words, the artists protest through the visual and sensory realms, and in this case the tangible.
It is not only museums and artists who are committed to bringing sustainability to the art markets. Art fairs and galleries are also starting to do the same. In 2019, at Art Basel, it was possible to see more artistic works on the subject, as well as conferences such as Let’s Talk About the Weather and The Carbon Footprint of Contemporary Art. With less impact, but also commendable, the food & drink establishments at the Swiss fair do not use plastics and the walls and plywood used in the stands have been reused as a form of upcycling (reuse of objects). The suppliers of the fairs have also realized the importance of the moment we are living. The founder of Rokbox started to invest in the creation of regular use boxes to transport works, when in the past one box was used per work, becoming obsolete righter after. Marc Spiegler, global director of Art Basel, says that every change is important. Although trade shows are not intrinsically sustainable, everyone can take steps to mitigate the consequences. In the environmental movement, the arts and culture sectors have a key role to play in accelerating change, because of their ability to reach people through their emotions and beliefs, with new ways of seeing problems and presenting possible solutions.
Art has become an important channel to communicate and reach the public. To make us aware of some issues that would not reach us otherwise. The joint efforts between sustainability and art are much needed today, given the huge repercussions of global climate change and also the difficulty of this being understood by people. Artists can present these problems and solutions in a more comprehensible way.
Without artists, people do not follow the recommendations of scientists. Only creativity and communication through art allow us to see what is happening and act. Gerrard tells us: “Art can have an effect and it moves the audience!”