The rebirth of Eco-Art

Direct encounter with the natural world is one of the primordial facets of what makes us human. In the 1970s, the interaction between nature and culture became a primary concern for many visual artists such as Robert Smithson, Walter de Maria and Dennis Oppenheim.

Direct encounter with the natural world is one of the primordial facets of what makes us human. In the 1970s, the interaction between nature and culture became a primary concern for many visual artists such as Robert Smithson, Walter de Maria and Dennis Oppenheim. Ana Mendieta immersed herself in the substances of nature, documenting the traces of her body’s imprint in the landscape. Nancy Holt constructed tunnels from which the sun, moon and stars could be mysteriously perceived.

We are now witnessing a rebirth of eco-art across the world. Stepping out of an uncanny Northwest downpour of rain, I sat down in the studio with three of the most perspicacious women involved in the field of environmental art. Rhoda London is a visual artist and curator of the current exhibition Art & Ecology in the 5th Quadrant, at the Portland Art Center until Feb. 24. Terri Cohn is a writer, curator and art historian based in San Francisco who is most interested in the context for current art practices. Christine Baeumler is an environmental artist based in Minneapolis. Spanning the country, these women are outstanding examples of how artists, critics and curators are engaging in work outside the conventional spheres of art practice.

Where do you turn for inspiration in your work?

Terri Cohn: I get inspiration from all parts of my life: Listening to NPR, I read dozens and dozens of books on tape every year, literature and all kinds of writing. I get some of it from art and some from the world. I also take copious notes about everything. I sometimes stop the car because I have to make notes about something I’ve heard on the radio!

Christine Baeumler: The greatest source of inspiration in my artwork is my direct experience of the natural world. I have been really fortunate to travel many places, but it comes even when I walk my dogs around a park. I feel that direct experience has the greatest influence on my artwork.

Rhoda London: I have an ongoing register. When I’m driving in North Portland I could have an orgasm when I see shipping boxes, stacked on top of each other. Everywhere I go an idea gets formed, and I store it someplace in my brain. Sometimes I’ll sketch, but it’s really a visceral thing, a visual cataloguing of the world.

Chris, when you select a site such as the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary in St. Paul, how does your art project develop when your direct experience of the natural world is full of toxins and pollution?

CB: What’s interesting about my reclamation projects is that I can enjoy a landscape filled with buckthorn and other invasive plants. A lot of people can’t tell the difference. There is an appreciation of a place even in an ecologically degraded condition. There is a spirit of a place. If you go there, there’s something about the combination of the terrain, its location and the animals that live there.

How do you decide what to leave and what to remove?

CB: Research. Is this place functioning on an ecological level? In terms of biodiversity it’s important to have a lot of different plants. If toxic substances are removed then things can be living in a healthier condition. That is where the process of collaboration comes in with people who have all kinds of knowledge. What is really exciting about that is how things come full circle. To see as one goes through this restoration process you start to see animals and different species come to inhabit this place where you haven’t seen that before. You just created this condition and then it creates these other results that you couldn’t have anticipated.

There is a certain element of sculpting the landscape and another element of leaving it as it is.

CB: Exactly. An invitation. You are setting up conditions to allow something to happen, which you don’t necessarily have control over.

Terri, I want to ask you about your idea of “balance.” You mentioned eco-artists are always seeking a sense of balance in their work, and I’m wondering what you meant by that.

TC: I was referring to the balance between doing work that is socially conscious and has little material form, and doing work where the artist has an aesthetic relationship with a discrete object. Historically, most artists who work in public places have also made discrete objects. Even somebody like Richard Long, whose work manifests as walking in the natural landscape, still has a desire to work with materials like stones that allow him to bring the work into more traditional contexts. We are material creatures and maintain a desire to manifest that as some tangible form we call art.

Social engagement in environmental art is a fairly new idea, where do you think it is headed in the next five to 10 years?

TC: The definition of a social context in which artists create work is interpreted in many different ways. It can be something like creating dinners or salons, or doing something in the landscape. If you are going to participate in the art system, there has to be some way to exhibit work created outside traditional forms, or to communicate it because most people won’t ever go to remote sites. There is generally something that remains, and that brings to mind the gist of Walt Whitman’s saying, “When all is said and done, nature remains.” For the artist what remains? Is it just a video? is it just documentation? Is that the trees planted at a site? What is the art? The future holds a lot of questions concerning the materiality of art.

CB: I’m interested in the role of the imagination. Imagination as differentiated from fantasy. Not an escape from reality, but a way to deal with reality. I feel imagination is crucial to us as human beings for our own survival because we have to be able to imagine what is it going to be like if our planet is several degrees hotter, or what will happen if the ice caps melt? To work with people as an artist I feel I can be a facilitator for people’s creativity and I can assist them to use their imagination. I don’t want to tell them how to use it. I do feel a strong desire to assist people to use their imagination because I feel it is crucial to us at this point and I think it’s something artists do really well.

RL: Environmental art and other socially engaged practices go in and out of fad. It is quite fashionable to be involved with environmental issues now. From my own personal experience I use feminism as a benchmark, and it has gone in and out of style several times in my life. It’s a good parallel for people working with the environment.

So there is a difference between what is en vogue and genuine involvement with the environment.

RL: There is an eco-feminist group of artists in the Bay area who have been combining the two things quite passionately with good results, but to my mind no far-reaching results. Maybe that is the answer: people have to stay local, which is what Chris does. You can actually effect a change in something.

TC: I agree with you, and it goes back to “think globally, act locally”. We have to do both.

CB: I was invited to do a couple of projects in other places and I made a decision that there has to be a deep connection to a place and its people. There is a Japanese adage that you should see a site through its four seasons. With the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary I was watching it, looking at it and becoming a part of it for years. Not rushing it. Not putting lipstick on a pig. That’s one of the things I’ve heard about taking a toxic site and just cleaning it up to make it palatable. Really understanding through these deep relationships. These projects take at least a decade, to get them up and going. We have such a narrow sense of time in this culture.

How do you know when to not go ahead with a project in a new place?

CB: I made a decision that I would just work on projects where I live. I did a symbolic project “Dreams for a Pure River” in China. I worked in collaboration with other artists creating a piece about making wishes for the cleanliness of the Fu Nan River. It was a performance where we built a huge floating sculpture and we asked people to take a lotus flower and make a wish for the river. It had candles in it and we had a calligrapher that wrote people’s wishes down and gave it to the environmental protection agency in Chengdu. We floated this sculpture down the river. What was interesting about that project was what a political risk the Chinese people were taking because they were speaking publicly, criticizing their government, about the pollution of the river. We were asking people to do something very dangerous, and we didn’t fully appreciate that. That was one of the things I felt later, not that anyone was arrested or got in trouble.

RL: Bring it local. What I learned in the ’80s was that the most important thing when you work with people is the relationships. You cannot have a relationship in a few weeks. In many ways I think it’s harmful.

You are presenting an alternative to the work of earth artists in the ’70s that sculpted the landscape in a domineering manner.

CB: They were using the landscape as a backdrop. My work is about transformation of ecological conditions. It’s not about imposing one’s way on the landscape.

What is the role of women in contemporary environmental art?

RL: Women are caretakers. They are going to take care of their children. Chris cares for a ton of children that are not hers in her reclamation projects, making sure things are good for the next generations. That’s why the long-term projects work. It’s not just about what works this minute, it’s about what you are leaving behind for the rest of humanity.