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The Ugly State of "Eco-Art"

Why the best environmental art doesn't carry a 'message.'

I'm constantly being drowned in new art, brought in on waves of headlines, email forwards, blog posts. Increasingly, it's disposed towards whatever seems green. A lot of it is bad. Terrible, actually. So I'm constantly asking myself, does it have to be?I'll give you an example, which appeared last summer at the twelfth installment of Documenta, the storied art fair in Kassel, Germany. The piece consisted of a 50-foot long flowerbed, raised on dowels and planted with seeds from 70 different plant species. Above each were small placards, printed on one side with fetish images and, on the other, a short primer on the "biopiracy" the seeds represent-that is, global corporations mercilessly foisting their engineered crops upon poor populations.Instead of being an art piece, this seems like a C- science-fair project, "assisted" by an overbearing parent who only wears hemp fiber and buys wheatgrass by the palette. At best, it's mere propaganda. Of course, art has often served as propaganda. But the reason that art is art (and not simply propaganda) is that it provides something more.Like what? Pulling up the pieces that have struck me most in the last year or so, I'd argue that good, green art doesn't carry a ‘message.' Like a fact of the world, the meaning arrives only after interpretation. It's not delivered to you by someone toting faddish words like "monoculture," bludgeoning you with their own understanding of current events. Rather, it can be indeterminate and nearly blank-but not quite neutral.The artist Mark Dion says as much: "I'm not one of these artists who is spending time imagining a better ecological future. I'm more the kind of artist who is holding up a mirror to the present." For Neukom Vivarium, on a Seattle street corner, he created a custom greenhouse and installed inside it a 60-foot, rotting trunk of a western hemlock that was slowly devoured by fungus, lichen, and bacteria. Dion was fastidious about recreating the same process found on a dank, nameless forest floor.This is a physically huge piece, where the artist's hand is reduced to a feathery touch-casual viewers would be hard pressed to pinpoint where exactly the art lies. Still, it confers a visceral, sensory connection to the creeping, invisible changes that define the natural world. For my money, that outclasses the bitter medicines offered by more literal-minded artists. Though the piece seems like it's about that tree and its fanciful warehousing, it's really consists in the entire system being dropped into a city's overflowing center-a forgotten gift, barely alive but still breathing.Another example. An art collective known as the Bruce High Quality Foundation built a quarter-size scale model of a BP gas station. Working lights were powered by the acid gradients produced by hundreds of lemons and limes, arranged in the form of BP's petaled logo.I hated this piece when I first saw it, though I liked their previous work. They're best known for a prank they pulled: When an artificial island created by Robert Smithson was towed around Manhattan behind a tugboat, they chased the tugboat around with a little rowboat pulling a replica of the Gates, originally by Christo and Jean-Claude. I thought the BP piece was dumb, at best: greenwashing, corporate motives, blah. We know BP's checkered present and its feverish attempt to fashion a fig leaf from a solar panel.But then I thought a bit about how closely that piece actually resembles something that BP itself might rig up in one of its feel-good commercials. It's a little something like Tina Fey, quoting Sarah Palin to lampoon Sarah Palin-you make something absurd simply by restating it. This isn't soul-saving art, but it's a clever tactic worth remembering.What the BP and Dion pieces share is the first-impression of vagueness that nearly buries the artist's motives-why they did is the last thing you ask before figuring out either of the pieces. Each avoids the common failings of eco-art-didactic, pompous, self-assured. Those are the same shortcomings shared by political art in general. Here's the great Peter Schjeldahl, writing on the subject, eight years ago in the New Yorker:"Most political art is bad art and worse politics…The drive to politicize art may be honorable, saying, ‘This is an emergency. Let there be hard light. Away with moonbeams.' …Most [artists] strike a political posture only when it's in fashion. Beyond that, who even cares what an artist has to say about politics?"And here's the legal philosopher Fernando Tesón, blogging on Volokh Conspiracy:"Many people see political art as a healthy form of social criticism…I disagree. Political art hinders critical thinking. It reinforces people's fundamental default beliefs, and sometimes it does so by questioning their superficial beliefs."Replace "political" with "environmental," and I'd say, right on.Photo from the Bruce High Quality Foundation

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