Ecology as a theme in contemporary art

Ecology as a theme in contemporary art

Artists – growers, environmental barometers, public space ecologists…

Ecology as a theme in contemporary art [download .pdf]


Posted 27 July 2011, by Lenka Dolanová, SurvivArt,


Recently, we have seen (in our region as well) increased interest in ecological issues in contemporary arts. The approaches and projects vary and are not connected in a clearly defined theory. They differ with respect to tools, aesthetics the subjects the artists deal with, and the problems they approach. Despite this, however, one can find a common lineage among them, and label them with the broadened term of ecological art.

Of course, ecological art already has its history, and its canonical works – coming especially from the Anglo-American region – have defined the relationship between ecology and art since the 1960s and 1970s. Contemporary artists are partly followers of this lineage, but they situate their art into a larger environmental context. They often call attention to the simplified concept of the artecology relationship constituting eco-mimetism, a mere imitation of nature with artistic means.

Using various (new) media, techniques, and procedures, they reveal new aesthetic possibilities. In contrast to a certain anti-technological approach, influencing the relationship between art and ecology since the 1960s, they do not resist using – often DIY-adapted – technology. Their works sometimes approach eco-activism, and pursue the methods of dialogical art. Ecological art is situated at the borderline between aesthetics and the broader social, political, cultural and natural worlds.

To make it clearer, we could use Matthew Fuller’s term media ecology.1 In his view, ecology is the most suitable term for describing the dynamic interconnectedness of processes and objects, beings and things, patterns and matter. Ecology thus creates a certain framework for eco-artistic research. Media ecological art is an interdisciplinary, intermedia field which involves a critical reflection of information technologies, the social sphere and the living environment. To broaden the term ecology, we could also consider the book The Three Ecologies by Félix Guattari.2 His ecosophy points to the intertwining of three related fields of ecology – environmental, mental, and social. Only by broadening our point of view and considering the three ecologies will we be able, according to Guattari, to achieve permanent changes in our social / cultural / natural environment.

And aesthetics can play a key role in shaping our surroundings. The classical land art works created since the end of the 1960s have mostly taken the form of an intervention in the landscape. Robert Smithson was interested in geology and natural processes in corrupted industrial zones. He interconnected the natural with the industrial. Around this time, artists started to use living organisms in their works, and often made growth their subject. Agnes Denes, a pioneer of ecological art, became famous with her project of sowing a grain field in the middle of Manhattan. Hans Haacke investigated natural processes, e.g. the growth of grass, in the gallery environment; he was also one of the few to connect new media with ecology. Joseph Beuys proclaimed environmental events to be art, in a way similar to Hungarian-born artist, designer and theorist György Kepes, who in his text Toward Civic Art (1970) pointed out that the artist’s imagination should be situated in a broader and changeable field of nature and society. In a situation where we are facing ecological catastrophes and social unrest, art should take on a more active role. The main aim of art, in connection with science, should be the revitalisation of society as a whole.

Art actions in the Czech landscape

In our country, land-art developed in reaction to the political situation. Events taking place in nature were closely connected to action art, and often took the form of (ritualised) meetings of (and for) a close circuit of allied visitors/participants. One of the aims of these events was to disrupt the lethargy of the time, stemming from the disconsolate situation in society, with the incursion of an unexpected, absurd activity into everyday life. The land-art events by Zorka Ságlová, such as Házení míčů do průhonického rybníka Bořín (Throwing Balls in the Bořín Pond in Průhonice, 1969), were gentle interventions in the natural environment; in her Seno-sláma (Hay-Straw, 1969) event, she brought an ill-suited waft of the rural in the gallery space. Street events for invited or incidental visitors have been the domain of Milan Knížák and a few others since the 1960s.

One of the first examples of a site-specific project in the former Czechoslovakia was an event called Malostranské dvorky (Malá Strana Courtyards) in 1981, an exhibition taking place in the several courtyards in Prague’s Malá Strana district. Another atypical (refugee) space for art was a hop field in Mutějovice, where in 1983 a short symposium took place with installations all around the field. Among the participants was Magdalena Jetelová, who later – starting in the 1990s – began to develop the language of temporary interventions, reflecting the memory of the landscape using lines of projected light. For example in her event Doly / Projekt Tabebau (Mines / Tabebau Project, 1998) she visualised the old roads, villages and cities of the Ruhr mining region. Jiří Černický, in his performance in the brown coal mines of Předlice in 1991, dealt with modifications of the body in relation to the surrounding environment. Ivan Kafka is concerned with the relationship of contemporary civilisation to nature, the natural with the artificial, and the public with the private, as in his installations with meteorological wind sleeves (the cycle Prostor volnosti i skleslosti / The space of latitude and abjection, 1975). Another artist with a longstanding interest in environmental issues is Miloš Šejn, who in his recent multimedia installation Gardening (2009) for Školská 28 Communication Space metaphorically revealed the possibilities of communication between humans and plants. Of great importance were the handful of projects since the beginning of the 1990s which have introduced the international context into the local environment. Series of international symposia took place between 1992 and 1999 in the Plasy monastery, in which the ecological theme was more or less explicit. The exhibition POLITIK-UM / New Engagement at Prague Castle in 2002 in a certain sense rehabilitated political art and artistic engagement in the Czech Republic. Site-specific projects, often taking place in industrial zones (e.g. the old Mayrau mines in Vinařice near Kladno and various activities by the group mamapapa, a pioneer of the site-specific approach in the local context), mix local histories, psycho-geographies of place, and emerging art forms in various proportions.

Art – (activism) – science

The initial, in a certain sense naïve, phase of ecological art began to change in the 1980s with the rising professionalisation of ecological movements, the politicisation of artists’ tools and approaches, and a broader cooperation between artists and scientists. Beatriz da Costa symptomatically defines her own difficulties as an activism-oriented artist dealing with science and technology whose aim is to develop a language of art that is attractive for the scientific community while remaining accessible to non-experts. She thus operates at the border of the academic and non-expert spheres, and calls her practice public amateurism. From this borderline position she also gains a certain freedom, suitable for pointing out various social-environmental problems and finding tools to solve them.3 In addition, artists are increasingly taking up the roles of intermediaries, context creators, and initiators of cooperation – be they those who create open networking projects, develop software and other DIY tools, organise discussions about (and in) public space, or provide access for other artists to scientific laboratories, necessary tools and education. They draw attention to the danger of the industrialisation of agriculture, and address questions of genetic modification and domestification. Since the 1990s, various interactive installations have appeared in galleries using plants, sometimes even animals, although their ecological context is often very problematic (the mere use of a living organism of course does not qualify the work as ecological). More sensitive artists critically examine, for example, the gradual implosion of the categories of nature and culture, and the intertwining of the organic and the digital.

Biopolitics. Art, Activism, and Technoscience.

Artists dealing with bioacoustics reveal heretofore unheard sounds. Artists have learned how to use the story and aesthetics as powerful political instruments for implementing their visions. Their work mutates in (often very extensive) research, and one of their aims is to propose solutions for improving the specific situation of a certain place (thus no longer the total transformation of society). The various forms of genetic art, among others, bring ethically motivated evaluations and approaches into the aesthetic domain.

Ecology of public space

Also in the Czech Republic we can see artists penetrating into the public domain, and interest in ecological issues is growing slowly – although there have not been many interesting projects in this area thus far. Several artists demonstrate a longer-term interest in monitoring the pollution of the environment. One of the recent examples is Art Pollution Kit, an artistic instrument by Michal Kindernay and Guy Van Belle containing sensors for measuring temperature, humidity, pressure, light intensity and pollution. In a similar way, Radka Peterová works on her mobile tool DIY Environmental Monitoring, designed for cell phones. Hanka Nováková has long been interested in the relationship between humans and animals, and in her recent activist “eco-terrorist” documentary she concentrates on the situation in Šumava National Park with its problematic approach to nature protection, and on the related topic of wilderness in the city.

Other initiatives are devoted to various interventions into public space. In May 2011, the Street for art festival took place in Central Park in Prague’s Jižní město district (organised by the association that operates the successful Zahrada cultural and community centre). In addition to discussions, it also consisted of workshops on making benches and portable gardens, movement in public space, and guerrilla gardening.

Another example of a local-improvement project is the “socially-agricultural documentary” by Jan Freiberg, who elaborates the regional history of orcharding using photographs and audio recordings. Pilgrim is an NGO aiming to cultivate our relationship to landscape by re-establishing the pilgrimage paths through the landscape. Ládví, an artists’ group, operates at the border of art and community service, and was active especially in 2005 and 2006 in the Prague 8 – Ládví and Ďáblice districts. Here, through activities like re-planting trees, renewing the drying room, and trimming bushes, they aspired to re-establish citizens’ responsibility for their environment.

Other artists are examining the possibilities of renewable energy (e.g. wind and solar energy). One exhibition project dedicated to solar energy was initiated last year by the Faculty of Fine Arts at Brno University of Technology (SolArs 2010 – Art in Public Space).4 Among the more interesting projects was a sound installation by Jiří Suchánek, who deals with the relationship of sound and its environment. The soundscape of Prague is monitored by the project Favourite Sounds of Prague,5 which allows an open user group to upload and share favourite sounds of the city. The issue of cycling as a means of transport is the focus of the NGO Auto*mat,6 which is connected with Nadace Partnerství (Environmental Partnership), and which also participated in the recent exhibition Velocypedia (by curators Lenka Kukurová and Milan Mikuláštík). The exhibition assembled works by artists, designers, and various tinkerers inspired by the bicycle.

Ecologically targeted projects situated somewhere at the social, natural, and cultural frontier usually emerge as an initiative by a few individuals and institutions (e.g. Školská 28 Communication Space, the Dox Centre for Contemporary Art, and until recently also Galerie Klatovy / Klenová). Support for environmental public initiatives (and not only artistic ones) comes from organisations like Nadace Partnerství (Environmental Partnership), Ecological Institute Veronica, the VIA Foundation, the Open Society Fund and others. The event Artists in laboratories, organised in cooperation with the Academy of Sciences in 2007, was an attempt to connect artists with scientists. Bio-art in the Czech context is promoted above all by Prague-based CIANT – International Centre for Art and New Technologies.7 An example of an academic unit with an environmental focus also initiating research at the frontier of art/culture and ecology is the Department of Environmental Studies at Masaryk University in Brno. Activities at the convergence of art, pedagogy, and social work, often in the form of interventions into the city, are also frequently initiated by the Faculty of Art and Design at Jan Evangelista Purkyně University in Ústí nad Labem, in cooperation with the local Emil Filla Gallery.

In general we can dare to conclude that the individual approach prevails in the Czech Republic, although often limited to the safe gallery context. Only a handful of artists engage in the larger interdisciplinary cooperation which ecological art requires and presupposes, and such cooperation is not supported by most art schools. The traditional idea of ecological art as metaphorically referring to the natural, or mimicking it without touching the art material itself, still prevails as well.

1 Matthew Fuller. Media Ecologies. Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture. MIT Press, 2005.

2 Félix Guattari. The Three Ecologies. Athlone Press, 2000.

3 Beatriz da Costa. Reaching the Limit. When Art Becomes Science. In: Costa, Beatriz da; Philip, Kavita. Tactical

4 A problematic aspect was support from ČEZ Group, the largest electricity producer in the Czech Republic, which sponsored the event and enabled the organisers to purchase several solar panels.

5 See

6 See

7 For example during the Enter festivals, where this year also several ecologically motivated projects appeared, see

Ecology as a theme in contemporary art [download .pdf]


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