Aesthetics and Politics of Sustainability

Anna-Rosja Haveman

This panel seeks to investigate individual and collective (small-scale) sustainable practices of artistic making and thinking involving care and attention, based on a deep engagement with the planet’s living systems. This panel aims to map out what sustainable practices of making and thinking might look like; what the term sustainability can bring to the field of art history; and if and how art history as a discipline can promote sustainability. It also wants to understand how sustainable acting/thinking underlying artistic and art historical practices relate to a potential aesthetics of sustainability.

Speakers & Abstracts 

Global climate crisis and transsituational art practices – posthumanism and sustainability in Noora Sandgren’s and Tatu Gustafsson’s oeuvre

Riikka Haapalainen (Aalto University, School of Arts and Design and Architecture)

The global climate crisis is undeniably the most urgent and powerful crisis of today. Oftentimes catastrophic and uncontrollable forces of nature call for radically new ways of being and acting in every field of the society, artistic practices included.

In contemporary art, most common tactics to respond to the climate crisis is to draw people’s attention to it by creating representations. By representing the causes and effects of the climate crisis, art criticises the historical utopias of the 20th century’s industrialism and capitalism – as well as the historical era of avant-garde and modernism. However, these representations are grounded on naturalized dualisms and binaries. They very seldom create alternatives, new utopias in the midst of the crisis.

In my presentation, I claim that the climate crisis urges us to radically rethink the notion of art and how art is created and perceived. Climate crisis needs to be understood as an active agency within the art world; a force that we no longer are able to control, nor are we able to foresee its effects. How art could be rediscovered differently in relation to the climate crisis?

The artworks of two very different contemporary artists, Noora Sandgren and Tatu Gustafsson could give some tentative answers. Noora Sandgren’s radical and posthuman ethos is to create photographs together with the living organisms, microbes and bacteria of the composts. Tatu Gustafsson, on the other hand, brings forth the neomaterialism, the transsituational power of things and objects, which actively reject the notions of ownership, authorship -- and maybe even the notion of art as we know it.

Paper Trails: Pulp, Eco-Art, and the Anti-Monument in Contemporary Art from Louisiana

Allison K. Young (School of Art, Louisiana State University)

In 2018, conservators in New Orleans unveiled the soggy contents of a Confederate time capsule, discovered beneath the base of a then-recently-removed monument. While some artifacts remained intact, a century of rainwater, storm surge, and humidity had permeated both pedestal and tin box, reducing banknotes, flags, and ephemera to disintegrated tatters and pulp. So fragile a material as paper—the substance by which legal proclamations, identification cards, and currency are made tangible—was called, if apparently failingly, to mediate between the violence of Louisiana’s white supremacist history and the volatility of its natural environment amidst a changing climate. The logic of the monument, in today’s world, is one that has proven to be unsustainable—for several reasons.

Such reflections lend context to my presentation, which considers work by two Louisiana artists who make use of both paper and organic materials drawn from both urban and wetland environments in the region. Clyde Connell (1901-1998), a self-taught artist descended from North Louisiana plantocracy, created totemic paper maché sculptures inspired by what she termed “swamp songs”—the ambient orchestra of frogs and crickets, Civil Rights protests, and agricultural machinery, that characterized her upbringing in Bossier Parrish. Hannah Chalew, contemporary artist and environmental activist, utilizes hand-made paper, pulped from sugarcane, in assemblages that integrate trash and petrochemical run-off, addressing issues surrounding environmental racism and plantation futures in the South. Such practices challenge the permanence and commemorative function of monuments, offering a new materialist expression of plantation futures and ecological crisis in Louisiana.

Sustainable Curating During Covid

Tamar Mayer (The Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery; The Yolanda and David Katz Faculty of the Arts, Tel Aviv University)

The COVID-19 crisis has stimulated a renewed discourse on the relationship between humans and their natural surroundings, as well as the impact of our choices on the future of Planet Earth. The exhibition “Plan(e)t” was born before the onset of this crisis, yet it developed over the course of the pandemic, taking on new meanings. At the heart of the exhibition are plants, portrayed as complex creatures that make a valuable contribution to our survival on Earth.  Via a series of projects which integrate scientific research with artistic endeavor, “Plan(e)t” presents an original perspective on the encounter between the animal and plant kingdoms, who share the same territory. This initiative stems from the recognition that sustainable thinking must include a reevaluation of the hierarchy that places plants on a lower rung than living beings, and humans in particular.

Two site-specific projects created specifically for the exhibition exemplify how sustainability was not only a topic but also a practice that we took upon ourselves when we produced this exhibition. First, Promised Land, a work by David Burns and Austin Young (“Fallen Fruit”) is an immersive installation, a local portrait of regional flora and fauna. Alongside the attractive richness of local fruit and plants, all bearing cultural significance, the artists incorporated a threatening element: taxidermies of birds of prey, most of them endangered or extinct, marking the danger facing species diversity around us. As part of the installation, the artists also created six maps of fruit trees in different Tel Aviv neighborhoods (printed on recycled paper). By foregrounding the fruits growing in public spaces, the artists challenge norms of belonging and ownership and stimulate more shared, communal and sustainable social networks. It is noteworthy, that while producing Promised Land we chose to print the wallpaper on biodegradable fabric (rather than vinyl, which would have added more plastic to the world), a material that would also allow uninstalling the work without damaging it, so that it could be rehung somewhere else.

A second project – an Israeli collective of designers, artists and activists called “Onya” – created “The Living Room”, a space designated for lingering, reading, and expanding one’s knowledge on the topics of the exhibit. The installation is built on materials pre-existing in the gallery and its surroundings: wood from a previous exhibit, cuttings from plants throughout the campus, and other available materials. This installation demonstrates the power of human craft in turning simple, readily available means into a green abundant environment.

We opened our exhibition in January 2020, and two months later, Covid hit our region. The immediate thing we did, like all museums and galleries worldwide, was simply to shut our doors to the public. But then, instead of reopening the minute we were allowed to, and putting up a new exhibition, we decided to keep the one we had, and dedicated much thought to the nature of this crisis and to what we would like to give our audiences once they were able to return to the gallery. Instead of thinking of Covid as only a limitation or a constraint, we tried to think of its related possibilities. One of the things that became clear pretty early on, was that the advantage of a world put on hold was that we could take our time contemplating, planning and producing a new outdoor project, in ways that we couldn’t have before then. We chose our open-air sculpture garden as our new scene, producing a work that focuses on the continuous struggle between man and nature, very much echoing the Covid crisis. The result was an unprecedented relationship between the earlier and later parts of our exhibition, enhanced by new public programming—thus forming a model of sustainable curating in our gallery. 

Learning from plants: The Vegetal Turn in Contemporary Art

Denise Oleksijczuk (School for the Contemporary Arts)

Rethinking our relationship to other life forms with which we share this planet is one of the central concerns of art today. The public, garden art installations by Mel Chin, Revival Field, 1991-ongoing, in St. Paul, Minnesota, and T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss (Skwxwú7mesh and Stó:lō), Rewilding, 2019-2025, in Vancouver, Canada, are key examples of a broad cultural revolution that invites us to practice a new kind of plant-consciousness. These works encourage new relationships between human and vegetal life, while at the same time reviving time-honoured ones (Hall, 2014, Le Guin 2017). As gardens designed and cultivated by artists, they intersect with the new science of plant communication and learning, plant-based histories, and ancient stories of human-plant relations (Kimmerer 2013, Simpson 2017, Simard 2021). Although situated in different social contexts, the two gardens slowly bring about material and social remediations of their respective environments. In contrast to examples of ecological art that offer condemnatory or apocalyptic messages, they instead use the power and intelligence of plants to cultivate viewers’ curiosity and embodied engagement. Wyss’ urban community garden in particular breaks new ground through her collaborations with Indigenous youth groups, and her insistence that joy and love can be acts of resistance and subversion (Lorde 2007). My paper argues that the vegetal turn in contemporary art, using these two gardens as examples, fosters a larger cultural shift that understands the learning that derives from the practice of everyday vegetal care as the foundation of a sustainable world. 



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