When the leader of the surrealist André Breton wrote “I seek the gold of time” – a sentence that would follow him to his grave – he did nothing but poetically express a phrase about artists: they would be “viewers”, in other words visionaries who is able to understand the present world and perhaps even the coming world better than anyone else.
From this point of view, today’s visual artists have never been so obsessed with what can be considered the gold of our time, namely an awareness of the environment, which is expressed through their numerous living testimonies. Not that flora and fauna have been absent in the art repertoire throughout history. The French anthropologist Philippe Descola dated the first representations of landscapes not animated by men to the 16th century: the alpine views of Bruegel the Elder (1). But according to him, these representations above all expressed an opposition between nature and culture. The idea that man would have had the highest power, a superiority over that which surrounds it, as if it were not a part of it.
A new way to go
Thus, it will have taken time for European and American art no longer to take forests, lakes, flowers or mountains for simple and beautiful nature. Among the genre’s great pioneers, in the late 60’s, on the other side of the Channel, a man with deep blue eyes would embrace the landscape in a whole new way. Richard Long (born in 1945) is a sculptor, photographer, performer, but above all a surveyor. “My intention was to make a new art, which would also be a new way of walking: to walk as an art”. Generally regarded as an artist of Land Art, he nevertheless rejects this denomination. “Land art is an American word that speaks of monumentality. To make these works we buy land, we use machines. My practice is different. My work is a celebration of the world ”. He can build an abstract sculpture using stones collected on his way, as can be seen on the terrace of the CAPC in Bordeaux. Richard Long does not belong to any parish. He does not talk about ecology or about fellowship with nature or about meditation … However, he has given birth to many followers.
In contemporary art, the use of natural elements as a raw material to create flourishes from the 70s. We can thus evoke Giuseppe Penone, who uses bay leaves or thorns in his installations or his paintings. Recently, Pierre Huyghe, who stages bees and other animals in his “artistic ecosystems”, like Tomas Saraceno, who uses spiders to work on his natural sculptures.
Art as a mission
In recent years, in the face of the climate crisis, art has embraced very committed trends. Some major institutions and personalities have gone into the subject as if on a mission. Thus, in February 2020, the Guggenheim Museum in New York dedicated its entire spiral architecture for a year to an exhibition by architect Rem Koolhaas. “Coutryside, the future” told how the landscape, this natural area inhabited by humans, had become the planet’s key territory.
In Venice, Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza, daughter of the Baron, whose name a museum in Madrid bears, even in 2019 in a disused church, Ocean Academy, opened a ‘Academy to catalyze ocean knowledge, research and advocacy through the arts’. She explains: At the end of XXIe century, the rise of the oceans would be such that it would lead to the migration of a billion people. It’s time to take a look at the oceans ”. In its programming, for example, it showed “Ocean in Transformation,” an exhibition that is both aesthetically and documentary by the Territorial Agency, a collective of new genre architects. His installation consisted of a large number of screens animated by maps to tell the story of the sea as an important exchange place. From slave routes to maps of the exploitation of natural resources in the seabed.
In France, one of the pioneering institutions is the Cartier Foundation, which is now largely oriented towards social issues. She had a date with her exhibition “We the trees” in 2019 or the one dedicated to Claudia Andujar in 2020, which showed the Brazilian photographer’s work on the Yanomami Indians. Recently, as part of the Little 3000 Festival, the institution is showing until October 2 at Tri Postal, “Les Vivants”, 250 works from its collections “ to reinvent with empathy and humility a new terrestrial coexistence with plants and animals ”. We are now very far from the usual discourses about art …
In 2021, the philosopher of science Bruno Latour, a specialist in what he calls “the new climate regime” and who more and more often curates exhibitions, signed a show at the Center Pompidou-Metz with twenty-two artists. It recorded the principles of its Taipei Biennale under the title “You and I do not live on the same planet” with a leitmotif, climate change, which he says will soon be “ at the center of all political discussions. We saw there for example. the work of the Mexican Fernando Palma Rodriguez (born 1957), who reinterprets, in his machines composed of restoration objects, the mythologies of the Nawah people from which he is a native. “In our language, the word waste does not exist. Recycling is an ancestral tradition, ” explains the artist.
In a similar vein, “Reclaiming Nature” at the Palais de Tokyo until September 4 shows a proliferation of still-unknown plastic artists. Curator Daria de Beauvais expresses her commitment: “The artists presented in this exhibition remind us of a fact: our capitalist and extractivist lifestyle is not viable”. An important branch of “green” art has become the voice of a new political consciousness.
(1) “Beyond nature and culture”, Gallimard, 2005.
Five living artists
Tomas Saraceno, poetic ecology
Argentine Tomas Saraceno (born in 1973) is known for his spectacular performances, as in 2018, when he invaded the entire Palais de Tokyo with works that seemed completely unprecedented. Among other things, he used an army of spiders weaving webs compared to living sculptures. Tomas Saraceno has spent time at MIT in Boston and at CNES (National Center for Space Studies) perfecting himself in the use of the sun or wind and banishing fossil fuels from his creations. In Barcelona, on top of a tower, he has just inaugurated his first permanent installation, “Cloud cities Barcelona”. He proposes to settle in one of the 113 small cells suspended as cocoons, covered with glittering walls to observe the sky. A structure for meditation.
Pierre Huyghe, dialogues between ecosystems
The Frenchman Pierre Huyghe (born in 1962) is one of the most prominent artists on the international stage. He has participated in such prestigious events as Documenta in Cassel, has enjoyed a retrospective at the Center Pompidou and is part of large contemporary art collections such as those under the Vuitton Foundation. Its creations take various forms, but as explained by Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, chief curator of the Luma Foundation in Arles, who exhibited it at the inauguration last summer. “Huyghe is an artist who creates ecosystems”. He thus invented a sculpture on which the bees come to agglomerate to make their honey, another within which a heating system creates an ideal habitat for the plants. But his most surprising work is “Human Mask,” a 2014 film in which a monkey does the service at a café. Huyghe dressed him like a little girl and covered his face with a mask. The very flimsy gap between animals and humans here creates a deep unrest.
Giuseppe Penone, between human nature and the plant kingdom
The youngest of the members of the famous Italian Arte Povera movement, Giuseppe Penone (born in 1947), who recently became a member of the Academy of Arts, first became known by intervening against plants to alter their growth: he sculpted a branch or a suitcase by raising obstacles. Since then, more generally, he often inserts elements of flora into his works to marry nature and culture, as Philippe Descola would say. In his house, the canvases are covered with thorns and the walls are covered with a mattress of wonderfully fragrant bay leaves, as in the extraordinary work belonging to the Center Pompidou, “Respirare l’ombra”.
Zheng Bo, botany and political engagement
The wildest green artist is Zeng Bo, a Chinese artist born in Beijing in 1974 who studied in the United States. He became famous thanks to a film presented at the Manifesta in Palermo in 2018, where young men, naked in gardens, establish a very carnal dialogue with plants. Since then, the success has made him smile, and he is currently on the titles at the Venice Biennale and the Sydney Biennale. He describes his creations as “eco-queer” movies.
Ernesto Neto, between human nature and the plant kingdom
He is one of the stars of modern Brazilian art. Ernesto Neto became famous for his sculptures that we inhabit and walk through, soft monumental biomorphic structures filled with different materials. But his creation took a special turn, much more ecological and spiritual, as he came into regular contact with Indians from the Amazon living on the Peruvian border, Huni Kuin. He now sets up completely handmade pieces made of ribbons, inviting visitors to attend meditation sessions. His message took a political turn with President Bolsonaro’s takeover and the acceleration of deforestation.