Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Preposterous Ecological Art discussed at MIAD

Andy Goldsworthy
 The concept of Ecological Art means something different than the more inclusive term Environmental Art. The latter is most famously embodied by the "Earthworks" of the latter third of the Twentieth Century. Artists such as Smithson and Heizer created sculptures that went beyond "site specific" to incorporate the land itself into the work of art, often with little regard to the destructive nature of the work. As the movement evolved artists like Goldsworthy became more sensitive to the impact their work had on the land and attempted to leave the environment unharmed.

Ecological Art is generally understood to go even further. There generally are two ways this is done. Some Eco-Artists use art to repair or restore damaged environments, as exemplified by Betsy Damon, who recently gave a talk at UWM about her remarkable work with Keepers of the Waters. Others create work that draws attention to ecological principles or deals with issues related to environmental relationships, sustainability, and the like without affecting them directly. A talk entitled "Preposterous Propositions" at MIAD last night by Linda Weintraub emphasized this last type of approach.

I was drawn to the talk by the topic, which is dear to me and is a common theme in my own work both as an artist and writer devoted to what I call the "Urban Wilderness." (See my Urban Wilderness blog or my website.) I found the presentation enlightening in the sense that I learned about the work of artists with whom I wasn’t familiar. But it was ultimately disappointing because most of those artists seemed so disengaged with the real world. If any artist should be engaged it is one who specializes in Ecological Art. I don’t think it’s enough to be provocative; that’s such an easy way out of real substantive creative power.

The title set the stage: “Preposterous Propositions” refers to artists who, according to Weintraub, deliberately try to "create chaos" or disturb the existing order. Of the works cited I found “Cloaca,” by Belgian artistst Wim Delvoye the most preposterous. Delvoye created an elaborate machine that replicates the human digestive system (above). It is “fed” food and it “excretes” feces. Weintraub described with glowing admiration how it defies assumptions: that engineered solutions are more efficient than biological ones; that elaborate machinery must produce a valuable end product. Never mind that the assumptions themselves were unchallenged (has she never encountered a Rube Goldberg invention?) or that feces could actually be used as manure to benefit something that needs nutrients to grow. Delvoye’s manufactured feces never return to earth. They are shrink-wrapped and sold for exorbitant sums to art collectors (below). Thus, not only is this work useless in the sense of having positive utilitarian value, it perpetuates the fetishization of art and the commodification of the creative endeavor. It is the very antithesis of Ecological Art. 

I was heartened during the question and answer period to find that I was not alone in questioning the value of these works. Judging from the questions, the audience of mostly MIAD students was equally skeptical. Someone asked, “How do these artists pay for their work?” The answer: “they have day jobs.” Asked how these artists expect to reach a broader audience, Weintraub shrugged and gestured back to enlist us – admitting that it would be a tough sell. Her answer to the burning question of whether she thought that these mostly resource intensive constructions were worth their expense in money, materials, and energy, was the classic pedagogical ploy “that’s a good question.” (I know it well.) Apparently generating that very question justifies the work.

There was one artist who excited me. Shai Zakai, an Israeli, is described on an eco-art website as an “artist, photographer, green activist, producer, curator, [and a leader] for environmental and social change.” Weintraub showed us “Repainted Painted Tree,” a “work” in which Zakai went to a forest preserve near her home. There she carefully simulated the bark of trees with paint overtop of orange spots spray painted onto them by foresters intent on cutting them down. The artistic endeavor was conceptually clever, beautifully executed, and reportedly effective in saving the precious stand of trees.

Never doubt the power of art. But do question its intent.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting discussion! Thanks for summarizing it for those of us who couldn't attend. You might also be interested in the science and art discussion at science online 2011, It's all archived at http://scienceonline2011.com/watch-2/.