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A Profusion of Terms

by Sam Bower

As executive director of, part of my job is trying to make sense of this movement. For people interested in an overview of the terms you're likely to see on this site I've put the following glossary together in an attempt to standardize things a bit based upon my own understanding of the field.

As you can see looking through, many artists and critics use the words "environmental art", "eco-art", and even "land art", interchangeably or at times use the same term to mean different things. The fact is, I've never seen a complete description of the terms that makes consistent sense to me so this is my attempt to describe them.

At we use "environmental art" as an umbrella term to encompass "eco-art" / "ecological art", "ecoventions", "land art", "earth art", "earthworks", "art in nature" and even a few other less-common terms.

Big wondrous cloud of environmental art related terms.
As always, there is more in heaven and earth than can be covered in any graphical representation of this movement. Nonetheless, it's pretty and reflects my understanding of this movement, leaving plenty of space for uncategorizable hybrids and blurts...
Many people today use "eco-art" interchangeably with "environmental art" - Other people don't.

I believe that there is great usefulness to a term which distinguishes contemporary activist approaches from earlier land and earth art. I think "eco-art" (short for "ecological art") fits much of this contemporary work best.

I believe we need an umbrella term to describe the whole movement in its larger context accurately. "Environmental art" is an older term and fits this general description best in my opinion. Using any term has its own limitations and challenges. The "Death of Environmentalism" critique by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in 2004, illustrates many of the problems with tying a concept to language. In the end, a term can be useful but may best be thought of a starting point for further exploration of ideas and, given plenty of sun, fertile soil and water, should be expected to transcend its roots. The intent here is not to isolate this approach to art from its holistic context, but to help us talk about it better and understand what itís about. The urge is sometimes just to make up a different term, such as "green art" or "sustainable art" or "Post-Carbon Art" and hope that solves the need for freshness. Perhaps practical advice to "re-use, reduce and recycle" might serve as inspiration as we look at clarifying our language.

The term "environmental art" often encompasses "ecological" concerns but is not specific to them. It is flexible enough to acknowledge the early history of this movement (which was often more about art ideas than environmental ones) as well as art with more activist concerns and art which primarily celebrates an artist's connection with nature using natural materials. From

ecological: characterized by the interdependence of living organisms in an environment

environmental: of or relating to the external conditions or surroundings; "environmental factors" 2: concerned with the ecological effects of altering the environment; "environmental pollution"

The word "ecological" is more specific to ecosystems and biological cycles, while "environmental" is more general which could include recycled paper and energy policy. Environment can mean anything from "space" to "ecosystems", but the term ecological is less inclusive.


This is a more catchy contraction of "ecological art". From a purely word point of view, "eco-art" with the dash, not one word like "ecoart" is easier to read and more clearly a three syllable word. I personally, prefer the all lowercase "eco-art" to "Eco-art" because it seems more humble and makes a statement about being like the other words which seems vaguely more "eco". (Are these hair splittings important, though? No.) "eco-art" is a contemporary art movement which addresses environmental issues and often involves collaboration, restoration and frequently has a more "eco-friendly" approach and methodology. "Restoration art", another term which appears occasionally, refers to art which "restores" polluted or damaged ecosystems and landscapes. This would be considered a form of "eco-art". The form of an eco-artwork is often subservient to or emerges directly from its function.

Ecovention is a new word.

"Coined in 1999, the term "ecovention" (ecology + invention) describes an artist-initiated project that employs an inventive strategy to physically transform a local ecology." In the context of all these other terms I would consider it to be part of "eco-art". Many of the examples in the ecovention exhibition and catalogue were previously claimed by other terms so some reshuffling was required. As an exhibition-based concept, it is steadily becoming more familiar as the ripples from the exhibition become more widespread.

There is also the term "Art in Nature"

This is used more often in Europe, and refers more to Nils-Udo and Andy Goldsworthy-style work creating beautiful forms (usually outdoors) with natural materials found on-site such as flower petals, mud, twigs and icicles. I see some similarities in the early outdoor performance work by Ana Mendieta and others which documented a more personal and feminist engagement with the Earth. Content-wise, contemporary "Art in Nature" seems to find more inspiration in a type of Romantic Minimalism, reveling in the abstract beauty and decorative potential of ephemeral natural forms. As such, it usually lacks overt feminist, ecological or political content. What "messages" these works have are much more subtle. Many projects take the form of site-specific performances or installations carefully documented in often stunning photographs which are then sold in galleries or in elegant coffee-table books. "Art in nature" projects are usually of a smaller scale and more intimate than traditional "Land Art" (see below). Mandalas made from natural materials would also be considered "art in nature". These often involve an overt spiritual dimension and are seen by the artists as healing rituals for the earth. Traditional Tibetan and Navajo sand-paintings and other ephemeral artworks using seeds and flowers have much in common with "art in nature" but obviously add their own rich symbolism and cultural traditions to the mix. There can be some overlap between Art in Nature" and "eco-art", such as in Daniel Dancer's Zero Circles work which uses mandalas and circular forms to call attention to logging clear cuts, for example.

Many of these same artists also describe their work as "Land Art".

This seems to be more common outside of the USA. "Land Art" is an older term from the 60's and 70's that has survived in common usage and suggests art made outdoors on the land. Early innovators such as Richard Long and Dennis Oppenheim created simple lines and geometric forms on the earth by walking back and forth and considered it "Land Art". This work tends to be more conceptual and symbolic than ďArt in NatureĒ. "Crop art", large images made in agricultural fields visible from the air, for instance, is a form of "land art". Big astronomical observation sculptures like James Turrell's work also fit into this broad category. Some people use the term "land art" to encompass a wide range of other terminology including "eco-art", "environmental art", "earthworks" and "land art". Sue Spaid does this in her ecovention catalogue. I imagine this is because she was introducing the new term "ecovention" coined by her and Amy Lipton which includes artworks which were previously considered eco-art or environmental art. Other books like Kastner and Wallis' Land and Environmental Art suggest that "land art" evolved into "environmental art". I like to think since the term "land art" came first and involved (and even sounds like it ought to involve) more landscaping and bulldozers, it ought to sensibly be considered an early chapter in our evolving notion of the environment as it grew from meaning "space" to a broader concept which included ecosystems and what are now commonly known as "environmental" issues.

"Earthworks" and "Earth Art" are widely considered a specific form of "Land Art".

The earliest "Earthwork" is considered to be a 1955 outdoor piece by Herbert Bayer but the idea of shaping the land in aesthetic ways is as old as people. The term was made popular in 1969 as part of a show at the Dwan Gallery in New York City. Many Earthworks involved soil brought indoors and large shapes carved into the earth in remote places and eventually monumental cement constructions in the desert which essentially use the earth itself as stage, material and canvas for conceptual art ideas. Walter deMaria, Nancy Holt, Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson were major figures in this scene although many other folks were exploring similar issues. "Earth Art" and "Earthworks" are often considered a subset of "Land Art". This online introduction by Bradley Goetz shows many examples of this sort of work (plus the inevitable overlap toward the end with Land Art and what would today called eco-art).

Many large scale landscaping artworks (by architects as well as artists) are still being created and are usually referred to as Land Art. "Art in nature", in contrast to this, generally involves a wider range of materials (flower petals, sticks, stones, ice, leaves, etc.) used to achieve a similar but significantly more intimate and often eco-friendlier effect. Some artists would argue that "land art" and "art in nature" are not about restoration, ecology or direct activism which for some is a key aspect of contemporary eco-art. They're often about using land and nature as a medium for self expression or to explore art ideas or the beauty of nature. Of course, many early Land Art projects did involve restoration and massive landscaping of former mining areas, etc. and might now be retroactively embraced as early eco-art (since the term "eco-art" was not really coined until the 1990's). In general, most Land Art (and early Earth Art) is much more about re-shaping and ornamenting landscapes and at times making astronomical references (Turrell, Nancy Holt, etc.) and less about ecology. Itís all a bit tangled and a frequently overlapping landscape of terms.

Wrapping Up"

Thus, "eco-art" and "ecological art" are the same thing, one is just catchier. "Land art" and "art in nature" are somewhat similar in that they are less about ecological activism. "Land Art" tends to be larger and involve primarily earth and land and conceptual issues while "art in nature" uses a variety of found natural materials to make beautiful shapes and takes a more humble reverent approach. "Earth art" and "earthworks" are forms of "Land Art".

Painting and photography which address environmental issues are also an important part of this movement. We have focused on them a bit less on (although all the images are technically photographs) because of the challenges of distinguishing traditional documentary and landscape imagery from anything ostensibly more "environmental". Photographers such as David Maisel, Chris Jordan and Edward Burtynski (among others), are doing excellent work documenting the waste and impact of contemporary civilization as are distopic visionary painters such as Chester Arnold and Alexis Rockman.

"Social Sculpture", "Slow Food", "New Media Art", "Bio-art" and "Recycled art" all fit in here, too, to varying and often project-specific degrees. Defining these terms in ways that would work in a dictionary- with all the specific characteristics and nuances, is a different issue. There seems to be some excellent headway for the term "eco-art" made by Ruth Wallen, Susan Lerner, Lynne Hull and others. Once we agree on the basic words the rest will follow...

How much the many forms of "environmental art" ends up benefiting the Earth is a matter of further discussion and analysis. If our goal is to create a sustainable human population on the Earth, then I think we are just seeing the very beginnings of where this work is headed. Most art that claims to be "environmental" or "ecological" isn't really helping the worms and watersheds at all. Until we begin to consider art for non-humans seriously as a means of healing our relationship with the natural world, then we will just be scratching the surface of what's possible. If we manage to integrate our human need for meaning and aesthetics with what works it won't matter at all what it's all called. "Ecology" and "art" will just be part of what we all do and take into consideration to survive and thrive.

I'd like to be clear at this stage that I think the greater environmental art movement has been blessed by a profusion of artistic approaches. I think this diversity and variety are extremely important and part of a robust and inspiring ecosystem and yes, we urgently need them all- If only to enrich the dialogue about how artists should address the environmental issues of our day. Putting art into different categories might help some people identify important themes but can also be extremely subjective and distracting. Do the worms really care what its called? Many artists might have work which would fit into a number of categories during their careers and some might reject categorization entirely.

The free range collective pull of popular language use and intellectual territorialism among scholars make establishing commonly agreed upon artistic terminology a woolly endeavor. I humbly offer these definitions up for consideration by anyone with an interest in the subject in the naive hope that we might someday have some agreed upon terms that make sense and don't all mean the same things.

Some scholarly visitors to this site are likely to know a whole lot more about these words than I ever will, and regional differences in their use internationally may make any consensus impossible. I look forward to trying nonetheless because words can do much to help clarify our thinking. The art, though, will be what it is, seen through a rich variety of conceptual and cultural lenses. The range of approaches described here, reinforces the need for a general term such as "environmental art" to hold and refer to this work.

© 2010