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The natural world has long been essential to the process of art-making since the dawn of humanity. Climate change, along with other disruptions of major ecosystems, has become a persistent problem experienced on a global scale. To bring attention to the climate crisis, numerous artists are using their artistic practice to advocate for environmental protections and changes in the current relationship between humans and nature.
Let’s take a look at 4 artists with distinct and ground-breaking approaches, who find it imperative to address climate change and other environmental disruptions in profound ways.
1. Mel Chin, Revival Field (1991)
“If [pollution] could be carved away, and life could return to that soil and then a diverse and ecologically balanced life, then that is a wonderful sculpture. But we have to create the chisels, and we have to create the tools, and we have to isolate the problem: where the block of pollution is, so we can carve it away.”
– Mel Chin on his approach to Revival Field, in an interview with Art21
Mel Chin believes that “the future is plants”. An artist with a broad range of approaches to art, Chin has been addressing social and ecological concerns through his work for decades. Revival Field is an ongoing project in collaboration with since-retired senior research agronomist Dr. Rufus Chaney, and began in 1991. The project takes place at a Superfund site in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and involves utilizing specific plants to extract heavy metals from contaminated soil. Through this project, Chin and Chaney have pioneered “green remediation” – a practice that considers sustainable environmental solutions to sites contaminated by industrial waste.
2. John Akomfrah, Purple (2017)
Still image from Akomfrah's Purple (2017), The Guardian
“This is not the 18th century anymore. It's not unlimited landscapes and unlimited space to explore ad infinitum, wasting away, trashing away as we go along. Game over. And that sense of game over, of finitude and the encroaching closure is the animating impulse behind works like this.”
– John Akomfrah discussing Purple with the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston
Purple is an immersive six-channel video installation that explores the interconnectedness of climate change on a global scale. Filmed across 10 countries, and utilizing hypnotic sounds, archive footage, and spoken word, Akomfrah’s ambitious project features cinematic shots of contemporary landscapes that have experienced the effects of climate change. Akomfrah describes Purple as “a person of color’s response to the Anthropocene,” and the installation is a continuation of his exploration into the relationship colonialism and the African diaspora has with natural history.
3. Alejandro Durán, Washed Up: Transforming a Trashed Landscape (2010)
“More than creating a surreal or fantastical landscape, these installations mirror the reality of our current environmental predicament. The resulting photo series depicts a new form of colonization by consumerism, where even undeveloped land is not safe from the far-reaching impact of our disposable lifestyle.”
– Project statement of Washed Up: Transforming a Trashed Landscape
Washed Up: Transforming a Trashed Landscape is a reckoning of the international debris polluting the waters of Mexico's Caribbean coast. Both an environmental installation and photography project, Durán creates color-based, site-specific sculptures using the plastic waste collected from the coast of Sian Ka’an, one of Mexico's largest federally-protected nature reserves and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Duran arranges the plastic objects into various forms, mimicking features of the natural environment, such as waves, algae, roots, and rivers.
4. Paulo Grangeon, 1,600 Pandas (2008)
The 1600 Pandas World Tour in Taipei, courtesy of Taipei City Government
First launched in 2008 by WWF and French artist Paulo Grangeon, the 1600 Pandas World Tour was created with the mission of advocating the message of conservation and sustainable development. Grangeon crafted 1600 pandas – the number of living pandas left in the wild at that time – using recycled materials in the form of paper mache, and exhibited the pandas at exhibited at around 100 locations worldwide, including France, The Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and South Korea.