Eight leading artists championing sustainability
To celebrate Earth Day, we showcase eight contemporary artists using their work to advance environmental issues
With the rise of Greta Thunberg, increasing talk of a ‘green recovery’ from Covid-19, and the COP26 conference now just months away, the climate crisis has never been more of a talking point. Among those calling for action before it’s too late are some of the world’s leading contemporary artists. Here, we look at eight who are using their practice to spotlight the environment, tackle the urgency of climate change, and champion sustainability.
Conceptual artist Justin Brice Guariglia has been making work that explores our relationship with the natural world since 2009, when he transitioned from photojournalism to fine art. Over the last decade, he has worked with a number of high-profile organisations to raise awareness around the issues of climate change and the destruction of natural environments.
The artist has been collaborating with NASA since 2015 to document the rapid decline in Greenland’s ice sheets, even designing an app that tells the user how their local area will be affected by rising sea levels in the near future.
In 2018, Guariglia created Climate Signals, presented in partnership with the Climate Museum and the New York City Mayor's Office. The works consisted of ten solar-powered highway signs across all five New York City boroughs, with messages that were anything but ordinary — instead of warning about upcoming construction work or traffic delays, they alerted passersby to the reality of rising sea levels and the dangers of climate denial.
Over the course of his career, Nigerian-based artist El Anatsui has interrogated the connections between colonialism and extraction, and waste and renewal, through his choice of process and materials.
He is most famous for creating large wall hangings made from bottle caps and seals recuperated from the distilleries of Nigerian liquor companies that originated in European trade. These brightly coloured pieces of metal are then flattened and sewn together with copper wire to become richly textured fabrics.
‘I believe artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up’
While terms like ‘recycling’ and ‘zero waste’ might seem like recent additions to our lexicon, El Anatsui has been working with scrap materials since the early 1970s and ‘80s, when he produced a series of sculptures made from fragments of wood and ceramics he found near his studio.
Maya Lin is perhaps most famous for winning a competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington at the age of 21. While the monument remains her best-known work, Lin has been an environmental activist for many years and has long incorporated this ethos into her practice.
Lin is set to unveil a large-scale installation, Ghost Forest, in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, on 10 May. The project will see dead cedar trees salvaged from New Jersey’s Pine Barrens planted amid the park’s greenery to highlight the effects of climate change on forests, from saltwater infiltration due to rising sea levels to the decline of biodiversity.
‘We have very little time left to change our climate change emission patterns and how we live within the natural world,’ Lin said in a statement about the work, which will be on view until 14 November. ‘I wanted to bring awareness to a die-off that is happening all over the world.’
Olafur Eliasson became a household name in 2003 when he installed an artificial sun in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Complete with clouds formed by haze machines, Eliasson transformed the space into its very own weather system, attracting over two million visitors.
Since then, Eliasson has continued to make work about the climate and global warming, with more recent pieces, such as Ice Watch, aiming to raise awareness of the fact that time is rapidly running out.
‘Life on Earth is about co-existence — among people, non-human animals, ecosystems, and the environment... The fact is, we’re in it together. That’s why we all have to take the climate emergency seriously’
Recently appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for climate action by the UN, Eliasson launched a new artwork, Earth Perspectives, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020, as part of the Serpentine Gallery’s ongoing Back to Earth initiative.
Andreas Gursky’s large-format photographs are often referred to as a contemporary take on 19th-century landscape painting. Rather than gentle pastoral scenes or dramatic views of mountains, however, Gursky often takes the tower block, the supermarket or a field of solar panels as his subject.
In recent years, Gursky’s work has become more explicitly concerned with environmental issues. For his Oceans series, he took satellite images of coastal areas that are under threat from rising sea levels. His Bangkok series from 2011 captured the Chao Phraya, the city’s active river thoroughfare (pictured above), at once shimmering but, on closer look, littered with human and natural debris.
In 1982, Hungarian artist Agnes Denes transformed a plot of empty land overlooked by the World Trade Center into a flourishing field of wheat. Entitled Wheatfield — A Confrontation, the work brought her to the forefront of the conceptual and land art movements.
‘The future is fragile. Handle with care’
Over the decades, the artist has continued to work with natural landscapes, transforming desolate or disused sites into natural oases for the benefit of nature and humans alike. As Denes puts it: ‘The tree is made by nature, mathematics by people. And combining the two is creating this beautiful alliance between humanity and nature. That’s why my forests are mathematical expansion systems, all of them.’
On 13 April 2021, a flag designed by Denis was raised over London’s Tate Britain, bearing the words ‘The future is fragile. Handle with care’. Intended as a ‘cultural call to action in response to the dual crisis of COVID-19 and climate change’, it will remain on the museum’s masthead until May.
With his aerial photographs of scarred landscapes and high-profile documentaries such as Watermark, Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky has become one of the art world’s leading advocates for the climate crisis, thanks to work that underscores the damage done by humans’ systematic exploitation of the planet’s resources.
More recently, Burtynsky has been collaborating with filmmakers Nicholas de Pencier and Jennifer Baichwal on The Anthropocene Project, which aims to explore humanity's impact on the planet through film, virtual reality and scientific research. Anthropocene — Human Impact, a travelling exhibition spotlighting the project, is currently on view at Stockholm’s Tekniska Museet through 31 August.
‘I have come to think of my preoccupation with the Anthrocepene — the indelible marks left by humankind on the geological face of our planet — as a conceptual extension of my first and most fundamental interests as a photographer,’ Burtynsky says.
Primarily known for his site-specific sculptures — which can be seen all over the world, from Yorkshire Sculpture Park in England to the Storm King Art Center in New York — Andy Goldsworthy is one of the leading environmental artists of our time.
Working with stone, greenwood and clay, among other materials, Goldsworthy’s practice is deeply rooted in the natural world. His sculptures often mimic wildlife habitats and invite the viewer to engage with the environment as part of a bodily experience that, in turn, allows the work to come to life.
‘We often forget that we are nature,’ the artist has said. ‘Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.’
For 250 years, Christie’s has helped steward some of humanity’s greatest artistic treasures across generations and cultures. As a leader in our market, we want to build a sustainable art business so that we can play another stewarding role: helping to protect the environment so that great natural beauty can be enjoyed by and inspire future generations. Learn more about Christie’s recently announced pledge to be net zero by 2030.