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February 1999
A Change of Art

Environmental Art and Activism By Bill Meyer


When one thinks of art, images of galleries and museums, private patrons and rich collectors come to mind. Indeed, these days it often seems that art—and art criticism—is only interested in the self and its struggles rather than the pressing issues of environmental pollution and broader issues of social injustice. Environmentalist and artist Bill Meyer highlights those who are working in environmental art and how his own art is a form of activism

Born from the activism of the 1960s, the late 1970s and early 1980s was a time of great artistic activity in New York City, particularly on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There, artists were carving out spaces in which to live and work by reclaiming abandoned city-owned buildings. A vibrant community formed with significant influences from Europe—including Joseph Beuys, a two-time parliamentary candidate for Germany’s Green Party, and Christof Kohlhofer, another Berlin artist whose work focused on social issues. Spurred by activity and as a means to express communities’ ideals, the collective known as Colab formed. A significant exhibition organized by Colab, entitled “The Real Estate Show” was conceived as a direct action against the city’s Department of Housing, Preservation and Development, whose policies advocated the eviction of artists from these city-owned dwellings.

The event took place in an abandoned storefront on Delancey Street, which was taken over by the group on New Year’s Day 1980. Joseph Beuys’ presence at the event among other things helped to attract significant coverage in the press. Intervention by the New York City Police Department on the day of the exhibition caused a cascade of bad publicity for the city in the mainstream media. As a result, the city was forced to give an abandoned city-owned building to the collective. This building became known as ABC No Rio, and today, nearly 20 years later, it is still being operated as a center for art and activism.

From Smithson to Chin

Environmental art of the last 30 years has evolved from large earth-moving practices to more intuitive interpretation. Work such as Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970) and Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field” (1977) involved vast amounts of alteration of the natural world. Here, nature was being used as a medium for expression rather than being accepted on its own terms. The Southern Californian team of Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison first began to work on environmental issues in the 1970s and their work has been much less intrusive. They have explored different ecological systems in league with scientists, politicians and sociologists. One of their major works, “Sacramento Meditations” (1977) explored the irrigation of the Sacramento–San Joaquin watershed in Northern California. For this project, they used different media—billboards, graffiti, radio and television performances, and murals—to draw attention to the interruption and destruction of the natural systems. The Harrisons redefined what it means to be an artist. They involved experts and ordinary people, governments and institutions in a mesh of environmental, public policy, social, and aesthetic concerns that linked the process of making art to creating a healthier environment. Artist, writer, and educator Lucy Lippard is concerned that we have lost our connection to the Earth by becoming members of a transient society no longer in touch with where we live, thus having no reason to care about what we do to foul our place. One of her works uses massive stones to draw attention to the mysterious prehistoric stone mounds found throughout New England. This work highlights humans’ previous presence in the landscape and will itself become a record of place over time.

In the 1990s, art has begun looking at ecosystems and the way society interacts with the Earth. Mel Chin is a Chinese-American artist whose work explores the environment, human rights and our relationship to the planet. His project, “Reclamation Field” (1989-ongoing), highlights the process in which toxic heavy metals are removed from the Pig’s Eye Landfill in St. Paul, Minnesota. He defines this work as a reductive process similar to that used in painting and sculpture, with the intended resultant aesthetic being a revitalized Earth and the return of green growth to a place where there would otherwise have been none. The National Endowment for the Arts gave Chin a $10,000 grant for “Reclamation Field” and then rescinded it on the grounds that his project “was not art.” This decision was eventually reversed, but it demonstrates the conservative view that threatens activist-art.

The Art of Environmentalism

These days, more and more artists are looking at the Earth and its degradation and bringing material into the galleries. One of these artists is Judy Phaff, who has put tree sections in galleries and juxtaposed them with industrial materials that may have brought about the downfall of the trees themselves or have replaced them in the wild. Not only is the artist drawing attention to the beauty of the trees and what they represent, but she also seems to be highlighting a need to recognize the value of nature and at the same time societies’ role in the destruction or sanitization of the natural environment.

As an environmentalist and activist, I am concerned with the interaction of human society and the natural world. I draw upon the struggle of nature to continue to exist in the face of the onslaught of mining, pollution, over-development and other Earth-destructive practices. The human race is betraying the environment and I seek to represent that battle. And it is a battle. Shortsighted human activity is radically altering the planet’s ecology and its life-support systems, and we are seeing the ever more powerful backlash of nature’s fury. The strength of the world’s ecosystems is unmatched by anything we know. But collectively we can sense that if we do not learn to live in harmony with nature, it will ultimately win the battle.

In my art, I contrast natural, found material—stones, trees, earth—with post-industrial material. I bring the natural and the artificial together in a synthesis, creating three-dimensional images of living matter supported by chemicals and genetics, no longer existing in a natural form but in some horrific, unnatural, mutated form. Here there is an illusion of life, but life that is supported by artificial means.

Along with Lippard and Chin, I am concerned with how human activity is adversely affecting the planet. The representation and definition of how a particular action is creating a particular reaction on the planet and putting that together in an accessible public exhibition is, I believe, a strong form of activism. The knowledge that we gather from seeing these objects is not based on the intellectual study of art or an in-depth knowledge of the workings of the contemporary art world. All people really need to view and understand one of my works is an intuitive knowledge of the natural world and how society affects their lives. Using real, everyday objects for me provides a powerful illustration of the battle between human beings and nature—illustrating how in some cases life is losing out to Man’s artificial creation and how, in other cases, nature is fighting back, destroying the artificial that had been degrading its life force.

Bill Meyer is on the board of directors of Amanaka’a Amazon Network and Worldview. He lives in New York City.


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