October 21, 2008

Symposium Highlights Trailblazing Eco-Artists

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It was the summer of ’69. In the midst of free love, hits of LSD and political activism across the U.S., Cornell University hosted a historic exhibit that transformed the perception of art. Curated by Willoughby Sharp at the A.D. White House, Earth Art broke out of museums and galleries and into the rough-and-tumble of the wilderness. The show was the introduction to the Land Art movement, including works like Walter de Maria’s “Lightning Farm,” which harnessed the power of nature for aesthetic pleasure.
This weekend at that same A.D. White House, the Cornell Center For The Humanities hosted a symposium called From Earth Art to Eco Art. It began with lectures from an old-timer, Dennis Oppenheim, who was one of the key artists during that first summer of love. A documentary, which featured an interview with Willoughby Sharp also premiered on Friday. Still wild, Sharp — who is widely respected, not only for his organization of Earth Art, but also for shows at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Venice Biennale in 1976 — joked about the drama and intrigue between young artists during the show in ’69.
On Saturday, a series of contemporary artists lectured about their work on ecology and the environment. At the end of the lectures, one student asked, “Is there any real link between ‘Earth Art’ and ‘Eco Art,’ or just an abstract linking of terms?” The presentations seemed at times like a different universe than the black-and-white photos of the Earth Art works. Discussions of Wii tennis, fetishist sex in Second Life and Adobe Photoshop seemed to be hardly the same language as Oppenheim and Willoughby’s works.
The work of the first lecturer, Brandon Ballengee, crossed lines between several disciplines — notably art and biology. His pieces, which have been exhibited around the world and published in his “Eco-ventions,” tries to manipulate people’s perceptions of “natural.”
Ballengee’s lecture focused on his work with amphibians — primarily frogs. His work with frogs is prolific: He starts in the wetlands of England and the United States, collecting thousands of specimens. From these frogs he selects mutants — with multiple legs or missing legs — and investigates them in a scientific manner. Ballengee’s moment of inspiration comes when he delicately stains the mutated frogs — cartilage in vivid blue, bones in violet, muscle in transparent yellow.
Ballengee’s work responded to the Earth Art by dealing with experience. During his lecture, the artist spoke about his ability to involve the “public.” Unlike in museums, where visitors are able to walk passively from one work to another, Ballengée and the original earth artists involve people through participation, whether it’s hiking across a “cut” in the earth, or collecting frogs with family and friends.
Cary Peppermint and Christine Nadr of EcoArtTech, who lectured after Ballengée, showed a series of works exploring the boundary between technology and the environment. Their art, which is the love child of two opposing fields — art and eco-criticism — explores a belief that nature and the developed world can never be fully separated. For example, when Peppermind and Nadr went backpacking, they originally felt that they were “getting away from it all.” However, their art reflects a moment when they found themselves tied to technology through products: Nalgene water bottles, North Face fabrics and the engine in the truck that got them there.
Unlike the artists from Earth Art, who created works in nature, free from the consumerist world, Peppermint and Nadr work with a burden that defines this second generation of earth artists: a constant sense of cynicism and self-consciousness. Their robot-sculpture, “Environmental Risk Assessment Rover–AT,” suggests that anywhere in the world, we’re always in range of terrorism, drugs, chemically dangerous breast milk, portentous climate change and illicit MySpace pages. If Earth Art in ’69 provoked a second-look at the natural world, contemporary “eco-artists” are dealing with the frightening discoveries found there.
The final lecturer, Patricia Zimmerman, also spoke about the bounding lines of technology. However, unlike EcoArtTech, Zim-merman suggested that new environments could be created by virtual reality. She notably spoke about “Witness,” a nongovernment organization that provides cameras to causes so that people can document issues of human rights or political activism. The advent of technologies, such as cell phone cameras, allowed monks demonstrating in Burma last year to upload footage of their movement to the Internet even in a nation overwhelmed by government censorship.
The title of the symposium, From Earth Art to Eco Art, is a subtle reminder of the growing gap between these two movements. Between the raging ’60s — when earth art meant works made in the wilderness by hand and tractor — to contemporary “eco” art, which can even exist in the virtual dimension of Second Life, many things have changed. This symposium revealed that, yes, there are contemporary artists working outside of museum and gallery spaces to explore nature and the environment. However, the language they speak is wildly different from that of the original fighters. The old revolution spoke of anarchy and architecture, tractors, dirt and mud, while this second generation talks of designer jeans, sex in cyberspace and “hacking” the natural world. It’s a hard gap to bridge.