The Counihan Gallery is showing Embodied Energy curated by Penny Algar and Edwina Bartlem. Embodied Energy exhibits the work of 13 contemporary Australian artists addressing sustainable contemporary art practice. The curators have also addressed questions of sustainable gallery practice: the foam core has gone replaced by paper didactic panels and the food at the opening was local including some great green olives. It is a timely exhibition opening on world environment day.
Not all of the art in the exhibitions makes you think about sustainable contemporary art practice. Some of the art in the exhibition merely expresses an awareness of the environment like Ros Bandt’s audio work and Robyn Cerretti’s video installation. The use of recycled or found natural materials, in most of the art in the exhibition, is such an established tradition in both modern and contemporary art that its inclusion is somewhat redundant. And there are contemporary Melbourne artists with more environmental concerns in their art practice, like Ash Keating, than the artists selected for the exhibition.
Much of the art was ephemeral installations, like Chaco Kato’s large wall work made of pins and dried grass: “A Weed-Scape, A Weeds Project.” In Hannah Bertram’s, “I found you in the garden. Some one had left you there”; the accumulated grime on old panes of glass had carefully been removed in rococo patterns. It reminded me of Duchamp’s Large Glass and Picabia’s photo of the layer of dust on it.
Green recycling into art is the theme of the installation and process artwork of Tony Adam. Adam’s plays with ‘green’ in the installation, both the color and praxis. His installation is a process, an assembly line, from recycled material to art, made of recycled materials, in a vitrine. There is a wonderful attention to detail in Adam’s installation: the idea of ‘green’ appears on so many levels from the recycling to the green pencil case with green pens. Moving through the installation tells the story. Adam’s is part of the installation, his activity and interaction with the viewers is part of the work (he will be working there Friday to Sunday). After talking with Tony Adams at the exhibition he gave me a badge made of an old bottle-top part of the final product from the vitrine (thanks Tony).
Artists, along with the rest of the population of this planet, are becoming more environmentally aware. An argument could be made that artists, from the Romantics onwards, have been the avant-garde of the environmental movement; indeed, the idea of “green politics” is a creation of German artist, Joseph Beuys. Consequently there is interest in the arts community for environmentally sustainable or friendly products, as well as, environmental issues.
Some art materials, especially oil-based printmakers inks, can be dangerous to the health of the artist; others are harmless natural products. The Museu d’Art Contemporary Barcelona warns visitors not to touch the art because of “unstable and toxic” materials; the best ‘do not touch’ notice that I’ve ever seen. And if the materials used are dangerous to the health of the artist, then their manufacture is dangerous to the environment.
Some art materials produced are produced in quantities that its manufacture has environmental impact. The impact of paper pulp mills on the environment is well known. Marble and stone quarries require backfilling and re-vegetation and.
Most art is intended to be durable and as a durable good it is intended to last forever, at least centuries, and the durability and longevity of art reduces the overall environmental impact.
But the ecological footprint of art is larger than just manufacturing, there is transportation especially the transportation of the heavy materials for some sculpture, studio lighting, gallery lighting and climate control are amongst the other issues to consider.
One way to be environmentally friendly in art is to use recycled materials, saving money and reusing waste. Artists have been featuring the use of recycled material in their art from early in the 20th Century. Artists like Picasso, Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Hoch were early masters of collage and sculpture from junk. I haven’t been to the Sustainable Art and Design Centre in Newton, part of the Reverse Garbage initiative; it is a pity that the Reverse Garbage initiative in Melbourne closed many years ago, as it was an excellent resource.
I have noticed more Melbourne artists, including John Bodin, Emma de Clario, and Alison Hanly, are using Tony Knoll’s invention, the Panelpop supports for their art. These “minimal carbon” panels are made of recycled materials and they are very durable. The surface is very smooth and matt like plaster and digital photographs can be printed directly on the surface. Panelpop do not require glass over the photographs or drawings further reducing their environmental impact.