Balancing Art and the Environment

A young generation of artists are delving into the realm of sustainability.

Sustainability is an emerging philosophy for a new generation of artists who are invested in the environment, their communities, and pushing the boundaries of art and design. Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design brings together 13 artists and artist groups from North America and Europe, all of whom incorporate sustainable thinking in their art and social change in their message. The result is a compelling two-floor exhibit of installations, sketches, videos, photographs, and hands on multi-media platforms.

It has become increasingly commonplace for architecture and design fields to consider environmentally and socially sensitive structures and objects, however, the idea of sustainability is relatively new to the fine art world. Beyond Green is one of the first exhibitions to focus solely on artists who are seeking sustainable ways of creating, presenting, and considering art. While projects range from whimsical to utopian, it is clear that each artist carefully considered the environmental, social, and aesthetic impacts of their piece. This is most clearly seen in Michael Rakowitz’s paraSITE series, an ongoing project since 1998 that provides the urban homeless with inflatable structures that are cheaply produced with readily available materials and, when installed, seem more like futuristic public sculptures than homeless encampments.

Another highlight of the exhibit is the artist group Free Soil (Amy Franceschini, Myriel Milicevic, Nis Rømer) and their approach to disseminating information about food systems. By using oranges as an example, they track just how far food travels to feed urban populations. Their dynamic installation utilizes three main components: framed graphics and flow charts cheerfully map out the produce’s journey, a computer console allows curious viewers to visit Free Soil’s interactive website, and a sculptural element features a handsomely made fruit cart presenting oranges wrapped in Free Soil’s logo. Free Soil succeeds in bridging the idea of sustainability, multi-media art and design, and socially conscious dialog. As their website states, Free Soil “believe[s] art can be a catalyst for social awareness and change.” Perhaps it is this multi-faceted look at art making and consciousness raising that best describes the future of sustainable art.

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While much of Beyond Green seems extremely futuristic in aesthetic, some of the artists do give a nod to recent art history, especially that of the earthworks movement—a recognized forefather of sustainable art. An enthralling example is Allora & Calzadilla’s videos, Returning a Sound and Under Discussion, both beautifully reminiscent of Robert Smithson’s 1970 film, Spiral Jetty. The film Under Discussion utilizes aerial and cut-away shots to follow a sole protagonist as he navigates the pockmarked landscape of Vieques, a former U.S. Military testing ground in the Caribbean. Allora & Calzadilla document the environmental changes that have taken place at Vieques and instill a sense of solitude and solemnness to what would otherwise be a lush tropical destination.

While the theme of sustainability remains consistently strong through the entire exhibition, many of the artists featured in Beyond Green rely on the context of the museum to elevate their projects from industrial design to place them squarely in the fine art realm. It is dependent upon present and future generations of artists to decide if sustainability in subsequent work is an important element to their craft or merely a passing buzz word.

Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art is on view through May 7, 2006.

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