Updated: Sep 13
2023 is turning out to be one of the hottest years on record, accompanied by forest fires, warming oceans and extreme events like floods and droughts. Climate change is undeniable and dominating headlines. Sustainability is now at the centre of our culture, and art naturally is joining this conversation. So, what does sustainability in art mean?
Sustainability in art generally refers to two ideas. The first involves the adoption of sustainable practices within art such as using sustainable methods or materials. The other involves art that draws attention to the issue of sustainability itself, provoking thought or action among the audience.
Artists can choose sustainable materials and techniques that have a reduced environmental impact. This may involve using recycled or repurposed materials, natural and non-toxic pigments or embracing alternative processes like performance art that might require fewer physical resources. In a similar vein, artists can aim to minimize waste by adopting practices such as repurposing materials, recycling and responsibly disposing of hazardous substances.
Artists can also use their art as a platform to highlight and raise awareness about sustainability issues, which include environmental concerns and related social aspects. For example, artists can engage with local communities, address social issues and promote inclusivity and diversity through collaborations with marginalized groups and exploring cultural heritage. By exploring environmental and social themes, they can spark dialogue, encourage critical thinking and inspire action.
While sustainability has taken the spotlight on the cultural stage in the last few years, it is not a new phenomenon within art. The integration of environmentally and socially conscious practices into the creation, exhibition and preservation of artworks has been practiced in many cultures long before a term was invented for it. African art, for example, has a long tradition of using natural materials, to create functional and sculptural works of clay and wood. The Japanese tradition of kintsugi celebrates imperfection and reduces waste by repairing broken ceramics with traces of gold.
Even as early as the 1970s, artists were creating site-specific art that used the environment as a medium. The most famous example is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), which was created on the shore of Great Salt Lake in Utah. The artwork is a 460-metres-long spiral shape with more than 6,000 tons of earth and basalt rock which has slowly become a part of the landscape. And by using nature as a medium, it has also challenged the ‘gallery model’ of the art world. Today, sustainable art practices call into question exhibition design and installation, monitoring energy consumption, carbon emissions and the ecological impact of the exhibition infrastructure.
More and more artists have been using art to highlight sustainability issues. Olafur Eliasson is a famous artist who has often made work around global warming. A work such as Ice Watch, which involved blocks of glacial ice installed in London to melt gradually, was meant to raise awareness about rising sea levels. Artists like Ptolemy Erlington produce art from discarded objects like household waste. The artist is famous for animal sculptures made from discarded materials like car tires, scrap metal and equipment parts. El Anatsui who hails from Africa has been using large wall hangings made from caps, seals and cans reclaimed from Nigerian alcohol distilleries, which originated through trade with Europe. While using upcycling to transform waste into art, his works also comment on Africa’s colonialism and exploitation, consumerism and unethical dumping of waste in poorer countries.
By: Vikram Naik