Over the past decade, Art21 has established itself as the preeminent chronicler of contemporary art and artists through its Peabody Award-winning biennial television series, Art in the Twenty-First Century. The nonprofit organization has used the power of digital media to introduce millions of people of all ages to contemporary art and artists and has created a new paradigm for teaching and learning about the creative process.
Artists this past decade have taken a long view on the state of the environment, linking the current debate surrounding climate change to broader political, ethical, and spiritual concerns. Employing art as a means to address human ecology—how mankind relates to the environment—artists have tackled subjects as varied as deforestation, soil toxicity, sustainability, and the discipline of science itself.
Click on the images below for larger views on the Art21 website.
Robert Adams’s pictures of deforestation near his home in the Pacific Northwest—at the location where Lewis and Clark’s westward journey reached its end—is a melancholic portrait of American promise transformed by short-sighted greed.
"If you haven’t loved a tree enough (if not to hug it, at least to want to walk up to it and touch it as if you’re touching a profound mystery)—if that experience has eluded you—I feel bad for you because you’re not going to live a happy life." —Robert Adams
"The importance of what’s going on in terms of clear-cutting is that there is no indication that this can go on forever. If you turn the globe you see a history of deforestation that changed societies and from which there has not been, in many cases, a complete recovery—in some cases, no recovery at all. The nub of it is that if you keep cutting (and bear in mind that the cutting now is sustained by the use of artificial herbicides and fertilizers), the soil is eroded more and more. It’s a major contributor to global warming." —Robert Adams
"I’m concerned with the disappearance of one of the world’s great rain forests. It’s not just a matter of biology or of exhaustion of resources. I do think there is involved an exhaustion of spirit. I can see it amidst my fellow citizens here in this small town and in this region. They go to great lengths not to visit and not to confront what is happening. And I think from that accrue other cases of cultivated blindness, civically." —Robert Adams
Begun in the '90s, Mel Chin’s "Revival Field" project (entering its third decade and now with several sites) employs art to prove a scientific theory: that plants can be used to harvest dangerous heavy metals from toxic earth. A conceptual earthwork with the potential to transform the planet, Chin uses his art to instill new ideas and generate debate.
"You have to create a condition for an idea to survive. It’s like creating an economy to make it worthwhile to promote. I had to see the big picture of things. If you say, 'Okay, this has to be completed after I’m dead,' then what do you need to do to make it work? It has to be self-sustaining. It has to prove itself to be self-sustaining." —Mel Chin
"Hyperaccumulation is this notion that the plants can suck up so much metal- and we’re talking about heavy metals, not everything- that the plant itself was twenty to forty percent heavy metal when you ashed it, so you could sell it as an ore and pay for this process." —Mel Chin
"We live in a world of pollution with heavy metals saturating the soil, where there is no solution to that. If that (pollution) could be carved away, and life could return to that soil, then a diverse and ecologically balanced life, then that is a wonderful sculpture." —Mel Chin
Mark Dion’s works put science and nature on display, underscoring the unnaturalness of institutionalized and industrialized ways of thinking about the environment.
"I want to show how difficult that is for us to grasp, not just conceptually but also practically—how difficult it is for us to figure in all of the variables needed to replicate a forest. You should look at this and get the impression of looking at someone in a hospital under an oxygen tent. There should be pangs of melancholy when you see this. Of course it is, in some way, a celebration, but at the same time it’s full of mourning and melancholy." —Mark Dion
"The tree is essentially an optimistic organism, giving life through its death, but it is also an organism that is out of context. It’s nostalgic for its original site. It’s a memento mori, an appreciation of decay as a process, and a tool for discourse. And that’s really how I imagine it, because it isn’t a natural system. It is really a garden we’re making. It’s a garden that emphasizes a particular natural process." —Mark Dion
“I’m interested in ecologies, whether those are political and social ecologies or natural ecologies. Understanding the interrelatedness of things is interesting to me, and I think that it’s something that we often miss in our culture—being able to see the connections between things, between our actions, our personal behaviors, and the way they affect a broader field, the rest of the world for example. Those are the kinds of things that I find beautiful and exciting." —Mark Dion
Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s multimedia works approach climate as a metaphor for exploring political topics such as immigration, terrorism, and gun violence.
"When I talk about weather, it’s about a broader definition of climate. Weather is about yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Climate is historical: its present moment is a state rather than a condition." —Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle
"I’m really interested in the notion of the aftermath, in terms of both politics and the global environment. For me, issues like global warming are so evident that now we are living in the aftermath. A culture that, in a sense, only looks at the world as a condition of a post-event is then a culture that can only do maintenance...sweeping up." —Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle