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The Principles of Sustainability in Contemporary Art

by Maja and Reuben Fowkes

Ivan Ladislav Galeta, Spiral Mow, 2005.
Ivan Ladislav Galeta, Spiral Mow, 2005.

There is no single entry point to Ivan Ladislav Galeta's Art of Living Space. Wherever you begin, you're immediately immersed in the interconnectedness and complexity of art and life, humans and nature, private and public. Galeta is a teacher, gardener, cyclist and artist who has grown his own garlic through twenty-nine cycles, is fascinated with circles in nature and culture, and wields a scythe as well as a camera. At the core of his activities is the questioning of our relationship towards water, plant life and the animal world, and the function of man in the world. 'There are no hierarchies in nature', he states. [1] The environmental concept of ecological citizenship, correspondingly, is based on the need for human beings to acknowledge their obligations towards other members of the biotic community and to expand the notion of social rights to include the right to quality of life. Many artists who engage with the contemporary notion of sustainability share an understanding for ecological equality and exercise care before embarking on any project likely to have adverse effects on the eco systems they inhabit.

Beata Veszely, Basquiat, 2005.
Beata Veszely, Basquiat, 2005.

The canonical account of land art puts man at the centre, while the sustainable practices of many contemporary artists show a shift away from this anthropocentric model. [2] In environmental thought, 'existing humans must assume responsibility for future humans and other species' [3] and grant to animals and plants the right to thrive and exist without damage. In that sense the work of Denis Kraković expresses outrage at human treatment of animals, from photographs of ostriches kept in confined and cruel conditions in European farms, to his Monument to the Whale at Jarun Lake in Zagreb and a continuous project to mark the daily extinction of species on Earth. Equally, the sustainable qualities of Beata Veszely's art arise from her engagement with horses. Through her practice of the ancient art of horse archery on the Hungarian puszta, she explores ritual, the passing on of primeval knowledge, and the experience of connectedness. [4] 'What do I love, when I love horse archery?' [5]

Along with the need to move from an anthropocentric position to including whole eco systems, a renewed sense of social responsibility is also a vital element of sustainability. Kristina Leko's Cheese and Cream project seeks to draw attention to the plight of the milkmaids of Zagreb market, whose way of life is endangered by the pressures of economic globalisation, and also shows how the disappearance of homemade dairy products threatens the citizen's right to quality of life. In this multi-layered collaborative project with real social and political impact, the artist acted as facilitator in the self-organisation of the milkmaids and the drafting of the Milkmaid's Declaration. In another collaborative project with a strong social dimension, Tams Kaszs turned a Budapest gallery into a squat for the duration of his exhibition, creating what was in practice a living forum for the discussion of political and social questions, such as why are there no squats in Hungary? In the aftermath of his exhibition, and following further collaborations with local activists, a democratic squatting culture has begun to emerge in the city.

Kristina Leko, Group Photograph with Beba the Cow, Dec. 7, 2003.
Kristina Leko, Group Photograph with Beba the Cow, happening, Dec. 7, 2003, Zagreb, Cheese and Cream project (a photo by: Boris Cvjetanovic and Kristina Leko)
Closely related to social responsibility is the notion of grass roots democracy, which features in environmental thought as the only alternative to authoritarian technocracy. Politically-engaged sustainable art often involves work with particular communities, and can be the vehicle for art-activist campaigns highlighting social issues. The Manamana project, started by Miklos Erhardt and Tibor Varnagy, has introduced and promoted the critical discourses of the anti-globalisation movement among artists and activists. Through a series of one-off publications, a website, gallery discussions and collages, the project has contributed to the development of a culture of alternative networks. Csaba Nemes's film The Sun of Africa gives voice to a small group of market farmers that are stuck with outdated methods of intensive agriculture, portraying the complexity of their situation without being judgemental.

The feminist critique of land and environmental art of the 1970s significantly contributed to new approaches in sustainable art practices. In addition to criticising the effects of patriarchal thinking in art and society, the first generation of eco-feminists set out to 'establish relationships based not on hierarchy and domination, but on caring, respect, and awareness of interconnection.' [6] Renata Poljak's film Great Expectations starts with the words 'The King is born!', spoken to announce the birth of a son, and through a tale of overbuilding on the Dalmatian coast, with the resulting disruption of organic local architecture, she suggests the existence of a link between patriarchy and environmental degradation. Issues of gender in sustainable art can also be traced in Beata Veszely's multi-faceted exploration of the figure of the woman horse archer or in Kristina Leko's empowering of particular communities of women.

Recent technological innovations have enabled the creation of virtual communities that are capable of transnational communication, and are widely used by both environmental activists and artists.
Marko Pehljan, Macrolab, 1997-2007.
Marko Pehljan, Macrolab, 1997-2007.
The use of internet as a device for communication, networking, archiving, and a creative tool is also seen as a more sustainable alternative to traditional artistic techniques. Lens-based media have been used to document ephemeral performances or actions and appear to be the favourite means for environmentally-aware artists to communicate new ideas. Ivan Ladislav Galeta, who was a pioneer of video art in the 1970s, now works on his Garden Scenes holding a gardening tool in one hand and a camera in the other. Marko Peljhan's Macrolab is a self-sustained art station engaged in activities such as the tracking of military satellites, and embodying both fantasies and possibilities of technological revolution. New technologies play a part in the discourse of ecological modernisation through the idea that clean technologies and efficiency savings have the potential to solve environmental problems without the need for radical social change. [7]

The Land art movement of the 1960s and 70s has often been seen as the origin of today's environmental art. Land artists famously left the white cube of the gallery to make dramatic interventions in the living landscape. 'Instead of using a paintbrush to make his art Robert Morris would like to use a bulldozer.' [8] This statement by Robert Smithson points to the 'earthmovers' preoccupation with marking, removing, and rearranging natural materials on a grand scale, arguably treating nature as a giant canvas. Although they were involved in a dispute with Greenbergian modernists, who disapproved of all art that tried to link to the real world, denied the connection of art to a specific historical context, and wished artists to remain within traditional disciplines, it could be argued that their polarised positions represent two sides of the same modernist coin.

A more fruitful ground for searching for the origins of today's sustainable art is in the innovative practices of the conceptual artists of the same period. Their radical questioning of the art system, alternative strategies for making and presenting work, engagement with social and political realities, ethics, and encouragement of independent thought, are all important legacies for contemporary art. Furthermore, dematerialisation, through the disavowal of the art object and shift towards process-based practices, performances, actions, as well as ephemeral works that were created not to last, was an invaluable inheritance for later sustainable art, as of course was the desire of conceptual artists to provoke on the level of idea or concept. Regarding the interplay of art and nature, a highly resonant image from the late 1960s was the art student Goran Trbuljak's gesture of throwing empty picture frames into the boundless sea.

There is another issue of art and sustainability to be addressed, and that is the question of the sustainability of art structures.
Tamas Kaszas / Random Rountines, 2005.
Tamas Kaszas / Random Rountines, Overproduction of Motives for Constructing Personal Mythologies, 2005.
It involves facing the ecological deficit of large museums and confronting the suspect relationship of many art institutions to polluters in the corporate world through unethical sponsorship. Galeta points to an even deeper problem: 'Only art today does not think about recycling.' [9] This refers both to the practical issue of what to do with an ever increasing stockpile of art works, and to the discord between the belief in art as the highest civilisational value conceived for eternity, with the do-not-touch approach attached to it, and the idea of sustainability. The recent collaborative work by Tams Kaszs (The Random Routines) appears as a protest against the insatiable demand for novel images and concepts in the culture industry, as well as a criticism of contemporary exhibition practices, and is suggestively titled: Overproduction of Motives for Constructing Personal Mythologies.

Sustainable art is arguably a wider concept than environmental art, which is primarily focussed on remedying ecological problems, recycling, and the healing of nature. While in contemporary living we have a greater understanding of sustainability in our everyday choices (or the lack of them), contemporary artists increasingly take on the role of alternative knowledge producer, involved in 'producing, mediating, and exchanging alternative models and dealing with issues that are marginalised in mainstream culture and politics.' [10] The artistic engagement with sustainability entails an understanding of ecological equality, a shift from the anthropocentric model to include the non-human world in our moral universe, a renewed sense of social responsibility, as well as a concern for grassroots democracy, and draws on radical critiques of art and society and the dematerialised practices of conceptual art to offer sustainable alternatives in art and life.

First published in Praesens: Contemporary Central European Art Review 2006/1

End Notes

[1] Conversation with the artist, Zagreb, 23 February 2006.

[2] 'Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts, which make him unique among the animals, so that unlike them, he is not a figure in the landscape he is a shaper of the landscape.' Jakob Bronowski, quoted in Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis, Land and Environmental Art (Phaidon: London, 1998), 11.

[3] Peter Christoff , 'Ecological Citizens and Democracy' in B.Doherty and M de Geus, eds, Democracy and Green Political Thought: Sustainability, Rights and Citizenship (Routledge: London, 1996), 156.

[4] This echoes Lucy Lippard's comment that 'contemporary artists are looking for ancient forms to restore that breath and also to take it for themselves. The animating element is often ritual.' In Lucy Lippard, Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory (Pantheon Books: New York, 1983), 159.

[5] Press release for Beata Veszély's exhibition 'HA' at Feszek Klub Budapest, August-September 2005.

[6] Maja and Reuben Fowkes, 'Unframed Landscapes: Nature in Contemporary Art' in Unframed Landscapes [exhibition catalogue] (HDLU: Zagreb and Galerija Balen: Slavonski Brod, 2004), 7.

[7] The efficiency revolution is seen as having the potential to reduce the degree of social and cultural revolution that is regarded as necessary, although many perceive the hand of authoritarian technocracy behind the optimism of ecological modernism.

[8] Robert Smithson quoted in Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis, Land and Environmental Art (Phaidon: London, 1998), 19.

[9] Quote from TV documentary 'Croatian Contemporary Art: Ivan Ladislav Galeta' (Croatian Radio Television HRT, 2000).

[10] Maja and Reuben Fowkes, 'Indie Art and the Seventies' Umelec no 4 2005 /

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