These 10 Artists Are Making Urgent Work about the Environment
The natural world has been a source of inspiration for artists since time immemorial. The Earth is a running thread that links together the prehistoric cave paintings of Chauvet, Katsushika Hokusai’s great wave, and Ana Mendieta’s 20th-century land works. In recent years, however, as wildfires ignite across the globe, ocean levels rise, and entire ecosystems collapse, artists have been faced with the ever-increasing and inescapable effects of our climate crisis. Now, the radiant majesty of a Georgia O’Keeffe flower or the unperturbed wilderness of a Thomas Cole landscape can feel of another time—or another world entirely.
Reflecting on these ecological perils, many contemporary artists have become climate activists, using their work as a platform to raise awareness and imagine a more sustainable future. While this year’s self-isolated Earth Day is a strange one to say the least, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that global, collectivized action against existential threat is possible. And art can be a beacon of hope, lighting the way and compelling us to act. Here, we share 10 contemporary artists who are impactful leaders in this space.
To celebrate this year’s Earth Day, renowned conceptual artist Olafur Eliasson is launching a new artwork that will guide us away from our narrow, human-centric view of our planet. Titled Earth Perspectives, the participatory work reenvisions human constructs like maps, the globe, and space by including the perspectives of plants, animals, and other natural elements. “On Earth Day,” said Eliasson in a press release, “I want to advocate—as on any other day—that we recognise these various perspectives and, together, celebrate their coexistence.”
Earth Perspectives is far from Eliasson’s first foray into climate activism. His presentation at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit powerfully demonstrated art’s ability to provoke emotional, visceral responses to climate change—something that data points and statistics often struggle to do. To illustrate the importance of firsthand experience when creating awareness and impact, he began by explaining his 2014 installation Ice Watch. The piece saw the Danish-Icelandic artist and a team of geologists transport 12 blocks of melting glacial ice to Paris’s Climate Change Conference. “To take all the data, news, and scientific papers and turn it into something you can touch is, I think, incredibly effective,” he said.
Ice Watch, which most recently traveled to London in 2018, is a continuation of Eliasson’s lifelong belief that art creates spaces for us to engage in both individual and collective experiences. Last year, he was appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for climate action by the United Nations Development Programme. In his new role, Eliasson is committed to continuing his advocacy for urgent climate action.
In addition to his creative practice, Eliasson also founded a solar energy company called Little Sun with engineer Frederik Ottesen in 2012. Their mission is to displace fossil fuel lighting in communities living without electricity and to raise awareness of energy access and climate action.
Though Mary Mattingly’s artistic practice is expansive—traversing photography, sculpture, installation, and performance—she is arguably best known for Swale, a barge–turned–floating edible landscape that launched in New York in 2016. Open to the public, the ongoing public art piece and vigilante garden invites communities to pick their own produce, addressing the city’s food deserts and reconnecting neighbors with local ecologies.
By situating Swale on the water, Mattingly was able to ingeniously circumvent a New York City law that makes it illegal to grow or pick food on public land. “I grew up in an agricultural town outside of NYC where the drinking water was polluted,” Mattingly stated on her website. “That framed my understanding of clean water as an increasingly rare resource that needed to be protected. Swale came out of a need to connect with and rely upon New York’s waterways and public land in order to better care for it, and by proximity, each other.”
The project gained so much momentum that in less than a year after launching, a New York City Parks commissioner opened its own public edible garden in Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx. Currently under consideration as a pilot program, the initiative is the first time New York City Parks is allowing people to publicly forage in almost 100 years.
Mattingly’s other works similarly interrogate the systemic and political frameworks impacting our relationship to the environment. In a 2018 commission for Brooklyn’s BRIC titled What Happens After?, the artist disassembled a military vehicle, tracing it back to its most fundamental mineral elements. In doing so, Mattingly exposed exploitative strip mining practices, highlighting the unseen environmental consequences of war. Meanwhile, her most recent project, The Ecotopian Library (2020), asks people around the world to contribute to a collective toolkit that will help create better futures out of a climate-changed world.
John Akomfrah’s Purple (2017) is widely considered the British artist and filmmaker’s most ambitious work to date. The immersive 6-channel video installation was filmed across 10 countries, exploring the incremental and interconnected effects of climate change on a global scale. “Purple has grown out of a series of frustrations and dissatisfactions,” Akomfrah said in an interview with ICA Boston. “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.”
As the work unfolds, lush, cinematic shots of landscapes altered by climate change are cut together with archival footage, spoken word, and music. This bricolage style of remixing is distinctive to Akomfrah and fellow members of the Black Audio Film Collective. Described by the artist as “a person of color’s response to the Anthropocene,” Purple is a continuation of his recent investigations into the way colonialism and the African diaspora relate to natural history. Other such works include his Vertigo Sea (2015) and Tropikos (2016).
“Climate change…is not just a white, European fixation, though it is often presented that way,” Akomfrah explained in a 2017 interview with The Guardian. “When I stand on a street in Accra, I can feel that it is a city that is literally at boiling point. It is way hotter than it was in the 1960s or even the 1980s. We need to start looking at climate change in radically different ways, not just as part of a western-based development narrative.”
Purple debuted at London’s Barbican, traveled to ICA Boston, and was the opening work at the landmark exhibition“The Coming World: Ecology as the New Politics 2030–2100” at Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in 2019. The workdemonstrates the overwhelming scope and real impact climate change is having on a planetary scale.
In 2015, Interview Magazine asked Agnes Denes whether her concerns about the environment had changed since the 1960s and ’70s. “No,” she responded. “It’s just that some of the things I talked about 40 years ago have become reality.”
One of the first pioneers of environmental art, Denes has been warning us about our unsustainable relationship with the planet for over half a century. A recent retrospective at The Shed felt like long-overdue recognition for the artist, who is now 89. A foil to her male counterparts within the early land art movement, Denes was always more invested in how her work could minimize humanity’s ecological footprint.
The greatest exemplar of this is undoubtedly her 1982 pieceWheatfield—A Confrontation. To realize this work, Denes cleared two acres of land in Lower Manhattan, filled it with 200 truckloads of soil, and sowed a wheat field by hand. As the crop grew, so did an arresting new landscape; amber waves of pastoral grain contrasted against the stark glass labyrinth of the Financial District on one side and the Statue of Liberty on the other. Now iconic, Wheatfield has sadly only grown more prescient with time.
After four grueling months of maintenance (Denes recalls the piece nearly killing her), the wheat was reaped and harvested. The crop yielded over a thousand pounds of grain, which traveled to 28 cities around the world in an exhibition titled “The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger.” Audiences were encouraged to take seeds from the show and plant them.
Denes’s miraculous ability to synthesize science, philosophy, linguistics, ecology, and psychology into a cohesive whole is a through line in all of her work. Rice/Tree/Burial, a piece first realized in New York’s Sullivan County in 1968, is a three-step ritual Denes developed as an exercise in what she termed “eco-logic.” It involves planting rice to represent life, chaining trees for interference and decay, and burying her poetry to symbolize concept and creation. Meanwhile, her monumental Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule (1992–96) in Western Finland is a literal forest. Dedicated by the Finnish government in 1996, the work is legally protected for the next 400 years.
A trained architect, Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno invents ways we might better inhabit and adapt to a climate-changed world. Like Denes, Saraceno’s practice is a poetic alchemy of disciplines including art, science, and sociology, all woven together to create proposals for a more sustainable existence. His greatest muse is the spider; the entangled but logical networks of its webs form the basis of Saraceno’s interconnected practice.
In addition to his arachnophilia, the artist is also fascinated with flight. “How can we find a way to levitate, without any violence to the earth?” he asked in a 2018 New York Times profile. Over the past decade, Saraceno has been developing what he calls “collaborations with the atmosphere” within his project Aerocene (2015–present). This international, interdisciplinary community of artists is united by a core utopian vision—life in the atmosphere, free of borders, and travel without fossil fuels or emissions. Through this collective, Saraceno has created floating, solar-powered museums made entirely of recycled plastic bags (Museo Aero Solar, 2007–present), and in 2015, the group broke a world record for the first and longest fully solar-powered flight.
Saraceno’s expansive oeuvre includes collaborations with scientific institutions such as MIT and London’s Natural History Museum, and has been exhibited at major art events and institutions around the world, including the Palais de Tokyo, 2019’s Venice Biennale, and 2018’s Art Basel in Miami Beach.
Last year, Saraceno was one of six artists commissioned by the state of California to create the world’s largest permanent public installation of art themed around climate change. The installation is slated to open in late 2021.
By drawing on the social histories imbued in our landscapes, Allison Janae Hamilton makes it irrefutably clear that when it comes to natural disaster, people of color are always on the front lines.
In a 2018 commission for the Storm King Art Center, Hamilton installed a tower of tambourines on an island. Titled The peo-ple cried mer-cy in the storm (2018), the haunting work memorializes the thousands of black migrant workers killed and buried in unmarked mass graves due to two historic storms—the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 and the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928. In recognizing these victims, Hamilton sheds light on how these climate-related disasters often reveal preexisting social inequities.
Through her investigations of American landscapes—particularly those of the American South—climate change has taken on an inevitable and necessary role. With a style that’s been described as “southern gothic,” Hamilton’s immersive works employ folktales, hunting and farming signifiers, African American nature writing, and Baptist hymns. Hamilton illuminates how the natural world can expose deeply embedded histories of race and inequity.
Hamilton told artnet News in December 2019 that “the environment really is a story of people and lived experience; not just the science behind it all.” She added, “It’s really important to look at who the most vulnerable people are, and as natural disasters like hurricanes and other occurrences grow more and more intense, [to ask] ‘How are they illuminating and shedding light on the already existing social disasters?’”
Since the 1980s, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has been taking aerial photographs of industry’s impact on Earth’s landscapes. On a 2010 expedition documenting agriculture’s effect on northern Spain, he observed how the abstracted topography seen from above reminded him of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937). “The colors and the shapes were like nothing I’d ever seen before,” he told Time magazine.
Like Picasso’s 1937 masterpiece, Burtynsky’s arresting large-scale images of the scarred Earth inspire both awe and devastation. By providing a bird’s-eye view, he reveals a terraformed planet. This macro-level understanding of our impact is paradigm-shifting, fundamentally changing the way we perceive the impact of industries like agriculture, mining, and urbanization. Recognized for producing works that “powerfully alter the way we think about the world and our place in it,” Burtynsky was awarded with a TED Prize in 2005.
In recent years, Burtynsky has collaborated with filmmakers Nicholas de Pencier and Jennifer Baichwal to create a multidisciplinary body of work for The Anthropocene Project. The initiative seeks to investigate humanity’s impact on the planet through art, film, virtual reality, augmented reality, and scientific research. In 2018, they released the documentary ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch.
Like many of the artists on this list, Mel Chin has a conceptual practice that seems to know no bounds. His earliest environmental work is Revival Field, an ongoing project that began in 1991. In it, Chin utilizes specific plants to extract heavy metals from contaminated soil at a Superfund site in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Developed in collaboration with since-retired USDA senior research agronomist Dr. Rufus Chaney, Revival Field helped pioneer and validate the practice of “green remediation”—a holistic approach that ensures environmental solutions to industrial waste are as sustainable as possible.
Chin compared his approach to Revival Field to a sculptor carving away at marble. He once told Art21, “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.”
By 1993, Chin and Dr. Chaney were able to successfully conclude the first phase of Revival Field. The plants had successfully absorbed high levels of cadmium from the soil into its leaves and stems, creating a low-tech and environmentally sustainable alternative to artificial remediation methods.
Another ongoing project, Operation Paydirt (2006–present), invites community members to express and actualize a future free of lead poisoning. By drawing their own versions of hundred-dollar bills—what Chin has termed “fundreds”—citizens assert the value of their voices when it comes to their local environments. Meanwhile, his most recent project Unmoored (2018) utilized augmented reality to allow people to visualize what Times Square might look like should global warming continue its course. Floating amidst oversized plankton under a canopy of boats, the piece asks its audience: “How will you rise?”
After spending the greater part of his career documenting the rapidly increasing effects of climate change, British artist and filmmaker David Buckland realized that the creative community needed to band together to respond. And so, in 2001, he established Cape Farewell, an international nonprofit bringing together creatives, scientists, and activists to generate and inspire ideas for a more sustainable society.
Cape Farewell’s ongoing programming includes commissions, events, and, most notably, expeditions that invite artists and scientists to collaborate on ecological projects around the world, from the Andean rainforests to frigid coasts of Svalbard, Norway. In 2008, the nonprofit brought Laurie Anderson, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Sophie Calle, and 41 other participants to the Arctic, allowing them to observe the receding landscapes firsthand.
In 2015, the nonprofit organized a cultural response to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris by launching ArtCOP21. Organized as “a global festival of cultural activity on climate change,” the initiative included over 550 events that took place across Paris and in 54 other cities around the world. Through installations, exhibits, concerts, and screenings, ArtCOP21 gave audiences a unique opportunity to engage in the climate conversation through culture.
Fascinated by the spectacle of man-made destruction, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang devoted an entire 2014 exhibition at Shanghai’s Power Station of Art to shedding light on China’s environmental devastation. “In ancient times, people were more respectful of the environment,” Cai told The Guardian that year. “The problems we have now are a symptom of the times where people are more aggressive and materialistic and are exploiting nature’s resources to make money for their own means.”
The exhibition, “The Ninth Wave,” was titled after a painting by 19th-century Russian artist Ivan Aivazovsky depicting a ship at the mercy of a tempestuous sea. In the work, Cai illustrates a reversed power dynamic—how in this century, nature exists at the mercy of mankind’s whims.
To initiate the show’s opening, Cai sailed a dilapidated fishing vessel, piled high with sculptures of sick endangered species, from his hometown of Quanzhou to Shanghai. This morbid recreation of Noah’s ark was partially inspired by the shocking 2013 incident where 16,000 dead pigs were found floating in Shanghai’s Huangpu River. “My feeling was like everyone’s,” Cai said in an interview with NPR. “This was so unacceptable, so many dead pigs floating on the river. It’s an outrageous thing.” The pigs had been dumped in the river by farmers in Zhejiang, a province upstream from Shanghai known for its pig farming industry.
Though Cai had originally planned to sail his ship down the same river, he hadn’t received permission from the Chinese government. As a compromise, after briefly navigating along Shanghai’s waterfront district, Cai’s ship was ultimately carried to the Power Station by barge. There, it became the centerpiece of the sobering exhibition that included works like The Bund Without Us (2014),a massive scroll exploded by gunpowder, illustrating a Shanghai waterfront devoid of human life and overtaken by nature. Meanwhile, the installation Silent Ink (2014) offered a similar meditation on traditional Chinese landscape paintings, observing how far removed from nature the nation has become.