Posted on 14 October 2011 | By Elaine A. King
The Utopian desire of 1970s ‘Land’ artists, who broke away from the stranglehold of the art market by producing earthworks far removed from cities, has given way to new projects that demonstrate a global ecological awareness through cross-disciplinary investigations concerning environmental sustainability. artes fine arts magazine
The expanding term of environmental art today encompasses a vast scope of territory and issues. Just as certain earthworks in the deserts of the American West, grew out of ideas of landscape painting, the growth of public art stimulated artists to engage the urban landscape as well as other environments as a platform to present ideas and concepts about the natural world to a diverse audience. According to John Beardsley, “Many environmental artists now desire not merely an audience for their work but a public with whom they can correspond about the meaning and purpose of their art.”
In our day, certain artists persist in moving away from single-issue approaches toward a rising energetic hybridization of art, activism and engineering. The notion of sustainability has spread from the field of environmentalism to many areas of human activity, including art and culture. Some refer to this as sustainable art and this perhaps might be an alternative term to environmental or green art, in recognition of the challenges that sustainability brings to contemporary art as a whole. The co-curators stated “In fact, the closeness to sustainability of much challenging contemporary art practice owes more to the legacy of 1970s conceptualism, and even primarily the non-market East European variety of conceptual art, than for example to Land Art.” Artists now have an impulse to grapple with pressing social issues as a means to enact communal change through new modalities of working that include working outside the usual art community and often collaborating with scientists.
The exhibition Too Shallow for Diving: the 21st Century Is Treading Water, guest curated by artist and educator Carolyn Speranza for the American Jewish Museum of the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Greater Pittsburgh, was a testimony to this emergent direction that artists are developing and their desire for social engagement. This wide-ranging show is emblematic of an upward thematic trend as evinced in numerous films, writings and exhibitions over the past decade. Once more the Fowkes stress, “There is a rising understanding that radical change is required, if we are to find a way to ‘meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The perils of nature and environmental consciousness have become a cultural barometer globally. Our daily engagement with recycling contributes to a sustainable environment, and progressively more households engage in this act. Artists cannot but take into account the crisis facing our planet given the escalating daily news about the dangers threatening our environment as depicted in CNN’s documentary, Planet in Peril and in such films as, The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and I Legend (2007) that address an inevitable doomsday. In recent years, the topic of environmental crisis has been explored in several notable exhibitions. Unframed Landscapes, curated by the Fowkeses in 2004, offered a reassessment of landscape in contemporary art aiming to focus on humankind’s relationship with nature across the full range of media. Other significant exhibitions include Lucy Lippard’s, Weather Report: Art And Climate Change (2007), Mass MoCA’s, Badlands: New Horizons In Landscape (2008), Stephanie Smith’s, Beyond Green (2008), EPA: Environmental Performance Actions (2008) curated by ecoartspace with Exit Art, and Criteria (2009), curated by Jimena Acosta and Emiliano Godoy, at Chicago’s Columbia College Art Gallery.
The exhibition, Too Shallow for Diving: the 21st Century Is Treading Water reveals the increased interest of cross-disciplinary artists whose innovative work evinces the critical situation facing our planet. Artists, scientists, writers, community leaders and others in the past decade have focused on this topic and are increasingly bringing an important message to a larger global audience. Too Shallow for Diving specifically focuses on problems surrounding water and its impact on our natural world, human health and public welfare. According to its curator, Carolyn Speranza, “…the sixteen artists aim to provide viewers with new insights and perspectives about our existing world and the enormity of the dilemma facing our water supply.” Several fuse aesthetic concepts with scientific findings as a catalyst for viewers to consider the future of water sources. However, in choosing the artists, Speranza was less concerned with aesthetics and more with concepts about acute water issues.
The investigations of the artists range from the macro to the micro and from local water topics to those in Africa. Each artist, in a unique inquiry, explores the implications of the ‘hard realities’ and ‘new materiality’ for political action, artistic theory and practice and sustainable living in the 21st century. They are working with transformative approaches and processes towards a new vision that is ecological and participates with the living cycles of nature. This work covers an array of responsiveness in which the artists tackle different topics including oceans, climate change, water quality, recycling, water purification and plants for restoration. Artists today are finding inventive ways to call attention to the problems facing our environment, as corporate greed and profit impose destruction on our planet. Each artist works very differently and explores viverse territories; yet they share an awareness about the critical loss of natural resources and a desire to save the planet from human destruction. Many of these artists have been aligned with the nonprofit organization, ecoartspace, founded in 1997 by Patricia Watts and New York City curator, Amy Lipton, who joined Watts in 1999. This was one of the first Web sites online dedicated to art and environmental issues. For over a decade they have curated exhibitions and programs, providing a platform for artists who are working with scientists to address our global environmental issues. In 2002, Amy Lipton and Sue Spaid co-curated the exhibition titled, Ecovention, for the Contemporary Art Center (CAC), in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Grant Kester, one of the leading figures in this emerging critical dialogue around “relational” or “dialogical” work, has expressed that “Art takes its form not from a final object but through play forms, process and dialogue.” Many of the artists in the exhibition Too Shallow for Diving work along similar lines and incorporate sustainable thinking in their art and social change in their message. Additionally, several credit the collaborative team Newton Harrison and Helen Mayer Harrison, the leading pioneers of the 1970s eco-art movement, as being especially prominent to their thinking and methods.
This is primarily apparent in the projects of the team of Tim Collins and Reiko Goto, who often work with government and environmental groups on ecological restoration-based projects. Their installation is comprised of in-depth photographic documentation, booklets filled with statistical data and charts from two projects titled, Nine Mile Run Greenway Project (in collaboration with Bob Bingham and John Stephen), (1997-2000) and 3 Rivers 2nd Nature (2000-2005), left. Through their research, Collins and Goto address the meaning, form and function of public space and nature in Allegheny County of southwestern Pennsylvania. These multi-year projects include extensive research and public educational components as well as brown-fields restoration projects, and their gallery installations highlight images and data about the cultural and ecological history of the region. They raise questions about nature and post-industrial public space; the focus of their work is always to benefit the public realm and to create outreach programs intended to enable creative public advocacy and change.
(above) Tim Collins and Reiko Goto, Documentation of the artists’ projects (detail), Nine Mile Run (with Bob Bingham and John Stephen). 3 Rivers: 2nd nature. All photos that follow, except Vanessa German, Love Song for Water Operetta, credit: Jenny Jean Crawford.
Felix Guattari in The Three Ecologies, published in 1989, anticipated many of the issues facing the globalized world of today and laid the blame squarely at the doors of what he called, “Integrated World Capitalism.” Guattari’s focus in ‘The Three Ecologies’ is his conception of ‘ecosophy’— the three related ecologies of environmental, mental and social worlds and their amalgamation into a methodological practice. His argument, and it is rather simple, is that we have an erroneous conception of ecology, of environmental struggle, and that only by broadening our views to include the three ecologies will we be able to affect any enduring changes in our social/cultural/natural environment. A number of the artists in this exhibition illustrate these concepts.
This is especially noticeable in, Requiem for the Netmakers (2011), Carolyn Speranza’s impressive multi-screen, mixed media collaboration with sonic artist Frank Ferraro occupying two large walls (right). Floating in front of an irregularly shaped parchment-like blue background, a transparent sheet resembling a wall hanging discloses quotes a section of President Richard M. Nixon’s State of the Union address of January 27, 1970, and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, as amended by the Clean Water Act of 1977. The president states, “With the help of people we can do anything, and without their help, we can do nothing. In this spirit, together, we can reclaim our lands for ours and generations to come.” Contrasting this idealist rhetoric, numerous monitor screens continuously display changing videos and still imagery capturing the actual realism of water today; images of catastrophic affects of oil damage to our oceans and environment, along with scenes of families struggling to make their livelihood from the fishing industry unfold. This assortment of imagery came from the artist’s online archive taken from the Associated Press Archive (media licensed for this exhibition), Library of Congress Archives, National Archives, Environmental Protection Agency’s Documerica project and photographs made available through Creative-Commons licenses. Filling this space is a musical composition produced by Frank Ferraro inspired by conversations with Speranza about environmental calamity. Peculiarly this installation evokes a mode of poetic beauty spiked with an appalling realism about water and the catastrophe facing our environment today.
Prudence Gill, too, is concerned about the fragile ecology of the Gulf of Mexico and the potentially devastating consequences of the oil industry’s negligence. In Gill’s cerebral minimalist text piece As Heard on NPR April 18, 2011, she paraphrases reporter Scott Tong’s commentary that “The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform killed 11 people. And, enough crude to fill maybe 10,000 or more average-size swimming pools gushed into the deep, dark sea.” An abridged version of this poignant message spans across the three large windows overlooking the JCC’s swimming pool. It states in blue vinyl, framed by a continuous black grid band of squares representing globs of oil, “…10,000 Swimming Pools of Oil Flowed into the Deep Dark Waters….” Incorporated within this streaming text installation is a small sign with alarming information: “1 1/2 cups of crude oil will kill all life in one swimming pool of ocean water.” Across the hall is a seemingly whimsical window box titled Wishes for Water & Memories of the Deep (2011). In this fantastical mixed media installation of suspended, floating, enigmatic star-like shapes and lights, Gill has manufactured an under-the-sea glittering world. Notwithstanding its lyrical elegance, the diffused and murky visibility of this setting devoid of any life forms suggests a haunting mystery about life in the underworld of water.
The art of Jim Denney focuses on the natural and social history of the Pacific Northwest, especially in Oregon around the McKenzie Bridge region of the state. Frequently, the subjects of his dynamic environmentally rooted work include river dams, the distress of fire on the landscape and animals. Denney’s strong views about nature and his sensitivity about man’s destruction of the western environment stem from a deeply rooted personal connection. A native of Oregon–this is where he grew up and continues to live, however work part of the year he resides in New York City.
His large-scale, richly colorful paintings illustrate the ongoing manipulations of nature. He expressively portrays and captures the tensions existing between nature and society in the hope of sounding an alarm about the seriousness of this critical problem. In both works, Obstacle (2011) and Abandoned (2011), Denney points to a bleak future of the western landscape.
Richard Harned directs viewers to the importance of water and air on this earth in his conceptual sculptural installation, Laws of the Earth and Air (2011). His four-part construction consists of a map of the USA, a globe, a video and a silver plane resembling a 60s peace sign. The video, produced by his brother Douglas Harned, continually shows beautiful views of Yellowstone National Park; Glacier Park; and Great Falls, Virginia, while the sounds of Mocking Birds and the Ocean, recorded by another brother, Thomas Harned, fill the space. The artist calls our attention to all the available freshwater in the United States by placing red dots denoting FINE their locations throughout the wall map. The globe sits, encased in a transparent dome, and underneath it sits a tray of clear marbles intended for visitors to take away. The gem-like marbles, in scale to the globe, represents the 21-mile diameter sphere of all fresh water on the planet. Visitors are invited to take one with them as a reminder of the urgency of water issues. The blue blown-glass marble attached to the globe is made to scale with all water of any description on earth, comprising an 860-mile diameter sphere. One of the lessons to be had perhaps from this multiple part work is the importance of specificity and place and the reality of limited natural resources we easily take for granted.
On the lawn of the JCC sits a bizarre skeletal structure titled Glut Hut (2011) that resembles a small mobile home made of found and discarded objects and equipped with the amenities of a house. Roger Laib is known as a master wood craftsman; however, in this one-of-a-kind, eccentric looking large-scale shack and transparent soft sculptural atlas, refinement is not an issue! Manufactured from diverse recycled objects, this construction is intended to catch rainwater and brim over. With sufficient rain, the water will eventually leak and spill out of the hut and onto the lawn, demonstrating to observers how water is wasted and how it could be saved and put to good alternative use, such as watering lawns. Laib highlights how environmentally friendly choices can make a difference if one bothers to pay attention and make the simple effort to recycle rainwater.
Notes on Water (1940-2011), a selection of predominantly black and white a selection of photographs by Jamie Gruzska, is reminiscent of cherished snapshots found in a household album. The place, date and reference to a person are written under each of the fourteen images. The importance of water to Gruzska’s personal history is highlighted in this memory record of times shared and past. What we are witness to are uncontaminated scenes—no factories—only trees and water. These are places preserved and held in respect for enjoyment and solitude, yet one cannot assume from these bucolic images whether or not the water is contaminated.
Conversely, environmental activist artist Wendy Osher’s communal project, resulting in a floor sculpture titled, Something in the Water (2011), is opposite in meaning from the sublime portrayal of water depicted in Gruzska’s work. This collaborative eco-project connected women from around the globe by using plastic bags to crochet breast-like shapes. Osher joined each component to fabricate a sizable, eye-catching, colorful and organic shape intended to call attention to toxins seeping into international waters. A map of the world hangs on an adjacent wall to this arresting textural form. Framing this atlas are portraits of the women who participated in this worldwide project along with a list of names and locations of the crocheters. Dots placed on the map indicate the origin of each participant. Whereas this is an artwork in an exhibition, it is concurrently a public advocacy project intended to raise social awareness about the importance of rectifying water contamination. Jointly, the women point out how plastic bags are linked to poison that leaks into one’s bloodstream and directly affects women’s breast milk and the future of generations to come.
Ann T. Rosenthal and Steffi Domike have been collaborating on environmental installations for years. Rosenthal refers to herself as an eco-feminist artist and Domike is an activist artist who is inspired by real world events. Their most recent wall installation, Watermark: Wood, Coal, Oil, Gas (2011) consists of four panels that illustrate an evolutionary timeline of energy resources—wood, coal, oil and natural gas—and a delicate blue linear wall drawing depicts a local watershed. Regardless of being on canvas and hung like ancient Chinese scrolls, these color-field compositions amidst Technicolor blue, green and yellow graded tonal backgrounds, with a photomontage containing the silhouette of a bass (wood), an eagle (coal/mountaintop mining), turtles (oil) and a child (natural gas), in no way should be perceived as decorative pieces. The artists do not endorse beauty for beauty’s sake through conspicuous paintings; rather, their art is about the idea and an environment in decline. The silhouettes are life-size, and within each shape are scenes of the landscape and of water. Even though this salient metaphorical piece is perhaps the most aesthetically gratifying in the exhibition because of its rich color, facade and composition, it commands an edge that peels back the veil on mankind’s abuse of natural resources and the environment’s vulnerability. The message alludes to our culture over time and America’s conflicting use and relationship to water and land for energy.
Vanessa German, the youngest artist in the show, is a nationally recognized performance poet and multidisciplinary artist who, in her spoken autobiographical word poetry, bring into play the transcendent and indefatigable power of the human spirit. In her expressly orchestrated live performance operetta, Love Poem for Water , exclusively performed the opening night of the exhibition, she stunningly shared with her audience emotional episodes from her life and the mixed experiences she has had with water, ranging from terror, to love and respect. Her striking words, powerful gospel-like -music and projection of water textures onto a huge skirt, which takes up an entire dramatically lit stage, provides a platform for the contemplation of both destruction and hope. German’s bellowing words and bigger-than-life theatricality command attention, and this work signals its own illusion through a series of overlapping colors that unfurl as the message of her performance evolves. German’s powerfully gestural poetic essay addresses the precariousness of life and the involvement of water with all living things on earth.
The celebration of water is very much present in numerous cultures manifested in diverse myths and folklore. Working in a highly personal manner, Maritza Mosquera utilizes myth and photographic documentation in the multiple-component piece Body in Water, composed of mythic text and digital prints depicting her treading water. After reading the wall allegory, it is apparent this artist comprehends the allure of water. She demonstrates that there are many connections between water and spirituality in her ritualistic performance, alluding that water is the central source of our being and it is part of every cell and fiber in us; it is our very essence. As I walked away from this piece, I asked myself, “Could water be the common denominator that weaves us all (earth, animal, human and plant) together as one? Is it the ultimate connector?
Lisa Link, an artist and web designer at the University of Massachusetts for the past thirteen years, has been creating artworks that address critical social issues. The focus of her work is directly political and activist rather than aesthetic. Link aims to give people voice and acts as a catalyst for conversation and connections because she understands solutions can only arise once disaster is recognized. Through her undertakings, she desires to make a positive impact that perhaps can influence public policy for the improvement of Boston Harbor and drinking water. The project, Water Ways (2010-2011) developed out of a series of conversations she had with scientists and residents throughout the Boston area, including Dr. Anamarija Frankic and Dr. Sarah Oktay of Boston’s University of Massachusetts. In this multi-component wall installation, consisting of twelve 21 x 21 inch digital photomontages and detailed text as well as an online map, the viewer becomes informed of the critical situation between water and humans. Pervading throughout the densely layered compositions is an eerie calm, perhaps because of the stylized organization resembling posters or advertisements. Nevertheless, on closer inspection, the juxtaposition of text against the visual image reveals the urgency of its message.
David Stairs is the executive director of Designers without Borders, a consortium of designers and design educators working to assist institutions in the developing world. He believes everything is connected and that we are all part of the problem and the solution. In his explorations of Africa’s water crisis through maps, photographs and statistics, he illustrates the culpability of global human behaviors. In both large inkjet images, Powerless: Lake Victoria at Source of the Nile, Jinja (2011)  and Powerful: Proposed Hydro Site at Bujagali Falls (2011) , he presents two water scenes in Uganda that have been exploited. Stairs expresses, “Water and power are inextricably linked in Uganda. Most of the nation’s electricity comes from the facility on the Nile at Jinja, and more dams are planned. Trouble is, 30 million poor people depend on this source (Lake Victoria), and it is unstable and shrinking.” His contrasting photographs, with the titles Powerless and Powerful, are most telling given the history of Uganda and the lack of consideration of both water and the people of this region!
It is overwhelming to think that during the past 85 years, human beings have imposed so much pollution on the earth’s water. As a civilized and informed society, it is now our obligation to become water’s caretaker and to cause it no further harm. On the other hand, this is a difficult task given the intertwined uses of water, issues of benefits and costs and the vested economic interests of numerous individuals and governments. Still, the real connection with our environment can only be found when individuals in unison feel their sense of true belonging. Today, we are in vital need of artists who can provoke this sense of attachment and stir up volition to act out and bring forth social, political and environmental changes. Artists are catalysts for change, and this “change” takes place when we feel deeply for a precious cause. The artists in Too Shallow for Diving: the 21st Century Is Treading Water without a doubt are noticeably reacting to news about the perils distressing our natural water resources. Their intersections between globalization, ecology and contemporary art tackle the shifting ecological and political dimensions of water.
Recalling Milton’s Paradise Lost, and also perhaps regained, the question for our era is: where are we now, and what is the proper balance between nature and civilization? Or, is this after all a divine comedy performed before an audience that is too afraid to laugh? The hope for those of us who see the glass as “half-full,” yet awaiting the fulfillment of the empty portion, is that when destiny closes a doorway of one view upon nature’s garden, she always opens a window of opportunity to further explore “where no one has gone before” in placing the creative machinery of the one at the service of the needs of the many. With the growing privatization of water and impending global warming crisis, it seems more reasonable than ever that artists’ voices not only are heard but also that their work is seen and experienced by diverse audiences. It takes the unusual vision of artists to inform and alert us, and most importantly, to propose innovative ideas as to how we can aesthetically reclaim, restore and co-exist within our natural environment.
By Elaine A. King, Contributing Writer © 2011
Professor, History of Art, Criticism/Theory & Museum Studies
Carnegie Mellon University
 After months of preparations, in May 1982, a 2-acre wheat field was planted and harvested on a Battery Park landfill in lower Manhattan, two blocks from Wall Street and the World Trade Center, facing the Statue of Liberty. Two hundred truckloads of dirt were brought in and 285 furrows were dug by hand, cleared of rocks and garbage. The seeds were sown by hand and the furrows covered with soil. The field was maintained for four months, cleared of wheat smut, weeded, fertilized and sprayed against mildew fungus, and an irrigation system set up. The crop was harvested on August 16 and yielded over 1000 pounds of healthy, golden wheat.
Planting and harvesting a field of wheat on land worth $4.5 billion created a powerful paradox. Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept. It represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns. It called attention to our misplaced priorities. The harvested grain travelled to twenty-eight cities around the world in an exhibition called, ‘The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger,’ organized by the Minnesota Museum of Art (l987-90). The seeds were carried away by people who planted them in many parts of the globe.
 Beardsley, J. (1998). Earthworks and Beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape. New York, NY: Abbeville Press.
 Fowkes, Maja and Reuben. The Implications of Sustainability for Contemporary Art: 27 February 2007, Lecture Theatre, Chelsea College of Art & Design.
 Fowkes, Maja and Reuben. The Implications of Sustainability for Contemporary Art: 27 February 2007, Lecture Theatre, Chelsea College of Art & Design. As translocal independent curators and art historians, Maja Fowkes and Dr. Reuben Fowkes organize exhibitions dealing with memory (Revolution is Not a Garden Party, 2006-7), ecology (Unframed Landscapes, 2004) and Translocal exchanges between the UK, Hungary and Croatia.
 Collectively, these exhibitions are about sustainability, ecology or environmentalism. The artists are concerned about our humanity and its incapability to sustain its habits and culture for future generations as well as the creatures living on this earth.
 Bourriaud, N. (2002). Relational Aesthetics. Paris, France: Les Presses Du Reel. Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term relational art to describe arts that gain meaning through participatory engagement among the players: creators and audience. Bourriaud defined the approach simply as, “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.”
 Kester, G. H. Dialogical Aesthetics: A Critical Framework for Littoral Art. Variant, 9, www.variant.org.uk. Kester, G. H. (2004). Conversation Pieces Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. In Conversation Pieces, Kester discusses a disparate network of artists and collectives—including The Art of Change, Helen and Newton Harrison, Littoral, Suzanne Lacy, Stephen Willats, and WochenKlausur—united by a desire to create new forms of understanding through creative dialogue that crosses boundaries of race, religion, and culture. Kester traces the origins of these works in the conceptual art and feminist performance art of the 1960s and 1970s and draws from the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin, Jürgen Habermas and others as he explores the ways in which these artists corroborate and challenge many of the key principles of avant-garde art and art theory.
 Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison (often referred to simply as “the Harrisons”) have worked for almost forty years with biologists, ecologists, architects, urban planners and other artists to initiate collaborative dialogues to uncover ideas and solutions that support biodiversity and community development. http://theharrisonstudio.net/. A key early endeavour was Portable Farm: The Flat Pastures (1971-1972).
 Pierre-Félix Guattari’s concept of interrelatedness of ecological and social issues and the three interacting and interdependent ecologies of mind, society, and environment stems perhaps from the outline of the three ecologies presented in Gregory Bateson’s Steps in an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology, University of Chicago Press. 1972.
 Scott tong, “Era of ‘tough oil’ won’t deter drillers” Marketplace, Monday, April 18, 2011. http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/04/18/pm-era-of-tough-oil-wont-stop-drillers/
 Vanessa German performed A Love Poem for Water at the opening reception of Too Shallow for Diving: the 21st Century Is Treading Water on May 14, 2011, at the American Jewish Museum at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lO9ogS_iueE