Adams, Founder Director,
Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World
civilisations become stressed by environmental and social change, new artforms
evolve that provide new understandings of our place within nature. This true in
the Sixties-a decade which led to the genesis of Greenpeace and Friends of the
Earth. For many artists, painting landscapes or fabricating abstract metal
sculptures suddenly seemed incompatible with a sense of the Earth’s fragility
seen from Space
Arnolfini/Bristol in 1975, I first showed the work of Richard Long and also Jan
Dibbets. Like several fellow students at St.Martin’s in the late Sixties
(including Gilbert and George), Long had reacted to the industrial metal
assemblage approach to sculpture promoted by his tutor Anthony Caro. A student
work ‘A Line Made by Walking’ (1967) incorporated elements of ritual, landscape
and impermanence within a simple black and white photograph. His originality
lay in the idea of ‘walking as art’.
Long and Dibbets’ work emerged at a time when minimalism, conceptual art
and arte povera were important movements, alongside Earth Art and Land Art
(terms attributed to Smithson) which were largely American-led phenomenas. It’s
interesting to note how much closer Caro’s work is to that of Heizer (another
of the American Land Artists), than it is to that of Long.
As Director of
Mostyn Art Gallery from 1979, I hosted an exhibition of Smithson’s drawings,
and curated several exhibitions of a next generation of British artists whose
work engaged with the natural world, notably David Nash. From David Nash I
learned of the work of Andy Goldsworthy, whose early career I then helped to
develop, having started to manage a private gallery in London in the
mid-Eighties. This is a work Andy made at the North Pole at around that time.
Nineties, I worked both as an independent curator and an art dealer, for some
of that time developing the career of sculptor Peter Randall-Page (this is a
sculpture made for an a small island in the River Teign).
In the years
leading up to the Millennium, the world had become increasingly concerned with
specific environmental and social challenges including genetic engineering,
species depletion and over-population, but-most of all- climate change. My wife
Jill and I became convinced of the need to establish the Centre for
Contemporary Art and the Natural World, in the belief that the arts could raise
eco-consciousness in ways that science and conventional advocacy often fails.
The Centre was
established as a charity and between 2006-13 operated from a shed in the Haldon
Forest near Exeter. From the start it was supported by the Arts Council and
attracted around 40,000 visitors a year. Its programme of exhibitions and
activities ranged from exploring our sentiments towards forests, promoting the
use of local timber in architecture to eco-fashion. Several academic
partnerships were established, notably with Oxford Brookes University over the
‘University of the Trees’ (inspired by Joseph Beuys concept of ‘social
sculpture’) and with Manchester and Sheffield Universities over ‘Greenhouse
Britain’, featuring the work of the eminent ecological artists the Harrisons.
In 2013, funding
difficulties forced us to move to the University of Exeter where we programmed
a small gallery and adopted a new strategy of delivering our exhibitions and
activities in partnership with other galleries and organisations. ‘Soil
Culture’ developed into a three year programme of research, artist residencies
and touring exhibitions focussed on the importance of soil, becoming the UK’s
most significant contribution to the
2015 UN International Year of Soils. Soils play a vitally important role in
food production, in the sequestration of carbon, and in the filtration and
retention of water, but are today threatened by erosion, contamination,
compaction and a loss of natural fertility. Nine artist residencies attracted
655 applications from 39 different countries; a strong indication of the
increasing number of artists becoming engaged with environmental issues.
were held in a wide range of organisations, each of which set its own brief.
These ranged from the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew (where the artists Something
and Son set out to manufacture soil in 10 days) to the Eden Project in
Cornwall, environmental institutes and organic farms. The resulting exhibition
‘Young Shoots’ then toured, starting in Bristol-then Green Capital of Europe.
A second exhibition
‘Deep Roots’ showed groups of work by six established International artists,
including Mel Chin who used hyper-accumulator plants to extract heavy metals
from contaminated land and Claire Pentecost who refashioned soil into ingots to
reflect its true worth, and single works by seven British artists.
In 2017, CCANW was
on the move again, having taken up an invitation from art.earth and Schumacher
College to move its office to the Dartington Hall Estate in Devon, where we
hoped – but failed- to start a new MA Arts and Ecology course.
This talk is called
Nature to the Power of Art, but before we start talking about what we might
mean by ‘nature’, let’s explore what we understand by the terms ‘landscape’ and
‘environment’ in relation to the arts.
The first paintings
that bear resemblance to modern ‘landscapes’ appeared on the walls of Roman
villas during the first century BC at a time of over-cultivation and
deforestation, giving the impression of being surrounded by pleasant groves
when, in reality, few existed.
In turn, works
painted on canvas by the Dutch ‘landschap’ painters of the seventeenth century
gave the impression of looking out from a window over an imagined and idealized
Today, the idea of
‘landscape’, with its conceptual origins in two dimensional compositional
framing, observation from a single elevated viewpoint and a separation between
the viewer and the viewed (and from nature itself) seems to me to be
incompatible with our heightened sense of place within a living (or dying)
We can experience
similar difficulty over the word ‘environment’, from the French ‘environ de
nous’, that is, our surroundings as seen when we-the viewer-perform a turn
through 360 degrees. As with the term ‘landscape’, this sets the viewer apart
from nature but, moreover, suggests an anthropocentic (mankind-centred)
relationship within it. The concept of ‘environment’ therefore suggests an
external world which we can appropriate or consume as if it were outside and
independent of ourselves.
‘Nature’ is a
difficult word either to use or to avoid-which is why it is interesting. Its
meanings are complex and, used loosely, lead to
muddle. As most will know, its origin lies in the Latin ‘natus’ – being
born, roots that survive in ‘pregnant’, ‘genesis’ and ‘native’. But we might
now look at just three interlocking meanings which the philosopher Kate Soper
Firstly, let’s look
at nature as a ‘lay’ concept as is often used in everyday discussion. This is
the nature of aesthetic appreciation, of the beauty of the ‘countryside’ and
loss of the sense of ‘wilderness’- a concept which speaks of loss and need of
conservation, even though its present form may well have been the result of
human activity. The validity of images of the ‘unspoilt’ British pastoral
landscape, as seen in this wartime poster, must now be questioned as we become
increasingly aware of the damage to bio-diversity from sheep farming across
many upland parts of Britain.
Secondly, we can
look at nature as a concept which refers to the structures, processes and
powers that operate in the world. In this sense, ‘nature’ is largely a
scientific concept. Such issues as genetic engineering, viral epidemics and
climate change are among those that concern us today. Two of the best books on
this subject are ‘Art and Science Now’ by Stephen Wilson-see the work of
Brandon Ballengee showing frogs malformed by pollution and Wim Delvoye ‘s
robotic installation simulating digestion- and ‘Bio Art’ by William Myers.
Finally, we might
look at nature as a metaphysical concept through which humanity imagines
difference. To my mind and it seems to make sense- this suggests ‘nature’ as a
social concept involving issues of how prejudice, exclusion and discrimination
in society on account of race, gender and sexuality originate. I’m going to
return to this theme later-it’s important.
Let’s now turn-in
perhaps a rather conventional way- to the way that sculptors-for example- have
engaged with nature and imagine which ‘nature’ or ‘natures’ these might be.
This will give us a clue as to whether we are talking about Land Art, Earth
Art, Eco-Art, Bio-Art, Sci-Art etc. or all five! Already, we might note that
not all Land Art is strictly ecological, but most Sci-Art seems to mostly address biological subjects.
engagement with nature is not entirely new (stonehenge), and I am not covering
other important contemporary art forms such as painting, photography,
literature, music, dance, performance, film and digital media. The work of many
architects and designers continue to be inspired by the materials, colours,
patterns and structures found in nature and there is a long tradition of
sculptors inspired by animal and botanical form.
Before we continue,
the mention of Stonehenge reminds me to show a few iconic works from the
American Land Artists of the Seventies. They are pretty well know but some may
not be familiar to all of you; Herbert Bayer’s work in Washington, Michael
Heizer’s Double Negative, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Christo’s Running
Fence, Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field.
James Turrell’s Roden Crater project. Patricia Johanson and Betsy Damon.
Another important Cuban American artist, Ana Mendieta, acknowledged that she
was more greatly inspired by Richard Long than the grandiose work of her fellow
and Nils Udo make work in nature but those that are ephemeral are almost always
made with the intention of making a photowork.
Goldsworthy also makes permanent works which are as ambitious as any of
the American land artists. David Nash makes not only sculptures ‘quarried’ from
fallen trees, but sculptures which also grow themselves-both strategies
reflecting on the perceived ‘wisdom’ of the growing tree.
artists use imagery of ‘cleansing’ to suggest the need to find remedies for the
exploitation, waste and pollution of nature. Joseph Beuys action of sweeping
with a red broom in East Berlin in 1972 suggests that a dedicated street
cleaner may be an artist of greater worth than a painter turning out work with
no genuine creative impulse. In ‘Touch Sanitation’-a year-long performance by
Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the artist shook hands with 8500 employees of the New
York Sanitation Department, thanking them for keeping the City alive.
We also see artists
making critiques of consumerism, parodying advertising techniques. Here I am
thinking particularly of American artist Jenny Holzer’s ‘Survival Series’ and
Barbara Kruger’s ‘Endangered Species’.
address vacant lots or landfill sites. Alan Sonfist created his iconic ‘Time
Landscape’ in lower Manhattan by introducing plants native to the area in
pre-colonial times. Agnes Denes plants
and harvests a wheatfield in Battery Park landfill in the shadow of the Twin
Towers before going and to create ‘Tree Mountain’ in Finland.
That leads us on
Others involved in
growing and gardening schemes which were the subject of an exhibition and
publication ‘Green Acres’ curated by Sue Spaid in 2012. With Amy Lipton, Sue
curated ‘Ecovention: Current Art to Transform Ecologies’ in 2002, and her
exhibition ‘Ecovention Europe’ was shown
at Museum Het Domein in Sittard in 2017.
So far, we haven’t
talked a great deal about what we might call the ‘elephant in the room’-
climate change, so let’s end this part by exploring in more detail how artists
have engaged with one important issue; irreversible changes to the water cycle.
Climate change is
already melting the margins of the polar ice caps, raising sea levels and
threatening to drown islands, coastlines and cities. Unreliable rainfall causes
crop failure and flooding. Excessive urban extraction diverts water from land
irrigation, creating deserts, and some of the mightiest rivers no longer reach
the sea. Over a billion people still lack access to safe drinking water.
Massive dams generate power for industry whilst displacing local communities,
and chemical discharges, oil spills and plastic waste continue to poison our
rivers and seas. We have all created a great problem.
The most successful
art is that which moves us in ways that science and conventional education
often fail. I’m not afraid to say it-but to LOVE our world Themore deeply. It
helps us to contemplate the beauty of nature and our special responsibilities
within it. It’s what art has always done well.
In relation to
water we might take a look at Susan Derges large scale photograms made under
the surface of a river in Devon and Marlene Creates photographic portraits of
herself taken from under a pond in Newfoundland.
such as Tania Kovats’ presentation of samples from all the world’s seas and Amy
Sharrocks’ ‘Museum of Water’ make us aware of the presence of water everywhere
in the world, including that within our own bodies (around 60% of our bodies
comprises of water).
Rising sea levels
are addressed in The Harrisons ‘Greenhouse Britain’ project (which we saw
before), and in Eve Mosher’s ‘HighWaterLine’ project. Flooding in Gideon
Mendall’s ‘Drowning World’ photographs.
extraction in Basia Irland’s projects along the Rio Grande (a once mighty river
that no longer reaches the sea) and in Benoit Aquin’s ‘dust bowl’ photographs
shot in China.
Safe drinking water
in Ichi Ikeda’s ‘Water Box’ project and damming in Ruri’s photographs of
Icelandic waterfalls under threat.
the most shocking to many, as seen in Daniel Beltra’s photographs of the Gulf
of Mexico oil spill, and Chris Jordon’s tragic photographs of the effect of
plastic waste on seabirds.
within a group, or artists working alongside scientists is a growing tendency
today. As Suzi Gablik writes ‘exalted individualism is hardly a creative
response to the needs of the planet at this time’ .
In Britain in the
Eighties, Common Ground led the way with campaigns that engaged local
communities with their own distinctive surroundings. Platform London have
campaigned against oil pollution in the Niger Delta. Cape Farewell leads led
expeditions to the Arctic bringing education, science and the arts together.
Korea (where I’ve been many times), the artist group Yatoo is working with the
National Institute of Science and Technology on the Science Walden Project: a
laboratory/lavatory turning human waste into energy (yes, you are paid to
poo!). More on this later.
But, how well are
we actually doing in Europe? (We are still in Europe, aren’t we?)
The Tate organised
a first important symposium in 1994 ‘The Future of Nature’ which looked at what
cultural forms will emerge when new knowledge undermines our traditional
concept of nature.
have addressed the subject since then, from ‘Etre Nature’ at the Cartier
Foundation in 1998, ‘Natural Reality’, curated by Heike Strelow in Aachen in
1999, to ‘Radical Nature’ at the Barbican (2009). In 2005, the Royal Society of
Arts, supported by substantial funding from the Arts Council, created its Art
and Ecology Centre ‘as a catalyst for the insights, imagination and inspiration
of artists in response to the unprecedented environmental challenges of out
time.’ It closed 5 years later. Job done?
galleries have a particular interest in art and ecology, notable exceptions
being one in Sittard in the Netherlands- already mentioned-and the Pori Art
Museum in Finland.
Since I gave a
first version of this talk in the the Netherlands in 2016, Arts Council funding
has dried up. Our partnership with art.earth thrives but, having moved to
Stroud, I have started to develop new international and transdisciplinary
partnerships. The aforementioned Science Walden
project in Korea received a multi-million pound grant to develop its
second phase and they now pay us to deliver parts of this project until the end
of 2020. Through our interest in water issues, we now advise the new Global
Network of Water Museums on their engagement with the arts. Endorsed by UNESCO,
and now with a membership of 80, its next meeting is in Valencia in June. We
are trying to set up a new network of botanical gardens having galleries,
linking Padua, Kew and Edinburgh. We are advising on the arts contribution to
the next World Congress of Soil Science in Glasgow in 2022 and we have been
discussing ways in which we can work more closely with Bath Spa University. We
are also lobbying hard for greater support for the wider art and ecology sector
in the UK. In a recent exchange of letters with Nick Serota, I pointed out that
the latest UN IPCC announcement that we only have 12 years to avert climate
change exactly coincided with the period that the Arts Council was devising a
new strategy. Let’s hope they might put 2 and 2 together!
Before I end, I’d
like to return to the matter of ‘human nature’.
At the heart of
today’s ecological crisis lies a serious failure, not only to understand the
essence of humanity’s place and responsibilities within the rest of nature, but
to be conscious of the forces – frequently binary and conflicting – that drive
human nature and determine the choices we make. Afterall, you can find any
lesson you want in nature.
In past CCANW
programmes, such as ‘The Animal Gaze’ we explored how artists have used animal
imagery to make statements about human identity. ‘Games People Play’, our
contribution to the Cultural Olympiad in 2012, went on to show how artists use
photography and video of sporting subjects to make some wider comment on the human
But why should this
matter? Well, just as Decartes’ distinction of man from the beasts provided an
analogue for the subjugation of other races and the poor, since the English
philosopher Thomas Hobbes, we have tended to project the predatory instincts of
other animals on to human society, on the grounds that they are somehow more
the wisdom of establishing models of social behaviour on an incomplete
understanding of nature. Today, we know that organisms are cooperative as they
are competitive, as altruistic as they are selfish and as creative as they are
destructive, and we now need to rethink our biological natures in order to
reach a more harmonious relationship with each other, with other species and
the rest of nature. The biologist Edward O Wilson puts it this way- ‘We have
created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions’.
What then are the
most pressing issues? Let’s choose just three which say much the same thing:
Firstly, we must
acknowledge that the environmental crisis is a reflection of our cultural
environment: a world in which conflict, corruption and intolerance are endemic
and which pose as greater threat as climate change and also inhibit us in
tackling it effectively.
Secondly, we need
to release artists and our culture back from the high temples of investment
commodification back into the wild world, back into everyday life where they
are most urgently needed.
And thirdly, we
need to remember that the word ‘culture’ was originally used in the general
sense of environmental improvement-in its agri-cultural sense, and it was only
from the 16th century that it increasingly came to be used
figuratively; as the soil was improved by good husbandry, so the mind was
improved by education and the arts. Perhaps it is now time for the arts and
education to help put care and culture back into everyday life?
The challenge, in
essence, seems to me to come down to our need to reconcile the physical
requirements of civilization with the new feelings for nature that our culture
has generated, and to close the gap between modern, individual self-fulfilment
and the general responsibility we have for future generations.
challenges to which we must all rise; artists, academics and curators along
with the rest of humanity.