Environmental art: is it worth the effort?

Artists have been creating art connected to nature since the dawn of time. The desire to connect to the world we live in and to return to our roots are instinctive. However, within that category exists art with more of a crucial edge: art that confronts the environment and the climate crisis.

In 1982, Agnes Denes planted a two-acre wheat field on a landfill site beside Manhattan’s Battery Park, just two blocks away from Wall Street. With photos detailing golden crops with high rise buildings looming over, it presents a curious juxtaposition of nature and humanity. The grain was maintained for four months before being harvested and distributed to 28 cities around the world. The piece was enacted to comment on climate change and economic inequality. Denes completely transformed a seemingly infertile wasteland in the heart of New York City, forcing visitors to confront the fraught tensions of land loss and food scarcity.

‘The Hive’, a 17-metre tall metal structure that emulates a beehive, currently holds a place at Kew Gardens in London. Filled with LED lights, it is connected to one of the beehives in Kew Gardens, with the flashing of the lights and the orchestral humming in correspondence with the vibrations of bees in real time. Designed by Wolfgang Buttress, a UK artist, it aims to highlight the important role of bees in sustaining life and provide an insight into their movement and communication. With visitors able to walk inside and underneath the huge structure, it transforms you directly into the world of bees, taken in by the persistent and fascinating noises that are produced by a real-life hive.

Danish artist Olafur Eliasson has never shied away from confronting climate change in his art. In December 2018, he teamed up with geologist Minik Rosing to create ‘Ice Watch’, an installation set up in front of the Tate Modern. It consisted of twenty-four ice blocks, taken from the Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland after they broke off from an ice sheet. With visitors being able to walk among and touch the ice blocks, Eliasson made it impossible to avoid the issue of the warming climate and melting ice. The installation continued until all the ice blocks had melted as a result of human contact and weather.

However, a question arises: while these artists are certainly making effective statements, does the positive impact of their agenda outweigh the impact on the environment that their own installations cause? For Eliasson’s ‘Ice Watch’, Tate Modern stated that “the estimated energy cost for bringing one of these blocks to London is equal to one person flying from London to the Arctic and back to witness the ice melting.”

What will happen to the thousands of tonnes of aluminium and LED bulbs used in ‘The Hive’ when people are no longer interested in it? Who will negate the impact of materials being transported globally for a single project? Was it worth it, when Denes’ wheat field became barren again after its short-lived stint as something natural and alive? Is a statement without action really that revolutionary?

To the artists’ credit, there has been positive action from their works. Denes gave seeds from over 1,000 pounds of wheat for people to plant and grow their own crops. Eliasson acted to offset his carbon footprint from ‘Ice Watch’ and provided a full report on the final carbon emissions. ‘The Hive’ was created in conjunction with wildflower meadows, where bees visit and pollinate the area around the structure. We can only hope that, as artists continue to create work that directly confronts issues of climate and sustainability, they combat the issues of wasted resources and carbon footprints. Without doing so, the statements are nothing short of ironic.

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Ally Fowler

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January 2022
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