Visual artists as ecological change agents

“Artistic projects can provide the necessary hope for solutions to the current global environmental problems, by extending and providing a model or a visualisation or an enactment of implications derived from scientific research.” SEI Research Affiliate Dr Adrienne Hunt explores the role of visual artists as ecological change agents.

Costa Rica Real Diorama taken by Adrienne Hunt while on vacation fieldwork in December 2017.

Ecological artist, Olafur Eliasson believes art has the power to change the world, and that because artists can communicate realities and myriad possibilities through visualisation and experiences, they have a responsibility to get people to understand and emotionally feel the contemporary issues.1 According to Andrew Brown, artists have been doing just that in incrasing numbers since the 1960s, with the result that ecologically-aware art is now part of the artistic mainstream.2  Worldwide, artists are successfully attracting funding as individuals and in collaborations within and outside their ‘discipline’ in order to confront the breadth of urgent issues challenging our future human existence. The scope of artistic output is broad, with themes being explored within and across the perceived boundaries of all the society-nature disciplines (politics, economics, science, ethics, etc.) and artistic approaches encompassing photo-documentation as commentary and question-raising, innovative installations in the environment, direct interventions and activism.

Expressing his confidence in the ability of contemporary artists, art critic Ben Davis called for them to provide the required vision to address our ecological crises. Davis might, therefore, be encouraged by the increasingly diverse modes of artistic ecological engagement.  But in order to provide the necessary vision, Davis suggests that artists abandon the approach taken in much contemporary work, which he deems dystopic, and instead aim for art with utopian aspirations. His concern is for the negative effect that such imagery is having on the psyche, by over-exposure to dystopic imagery of terrains of ruins and destruction – imagery that is inarguably an omnipresent feature of (the tree-less) movies about our sci-fi futures. Instead, Davis suggests that we all need to be able to envision alternatives from that of a defeatist imagining of the future and its cultural demoralisation, to a future worth fighting for.3

Perhaps because aesthetic representations and interpretations of the natural world are known to give pleasure to the viewer, i.e. are uplifting – they might be what we need instead of dystopic representations, which might be creating despair.  However, according to Timothy Morton4 – in this time of ecological awareness, aesthetic landscape art risks being criticised by placing the environment on a pedestal, and thus fetishising it as pastoral kitsch.  In Morton’s view,5 art that encompasses Kantian aesthetics, is a new take on the sublime and has no authority as ecological art for the current time, which should instead be based on ethics.  According to Paolo Magagnoli,6 the negative descriptors ‘nostalgic’ and ‘escapist’ can be applied to aesthetic landscape art, because it reflects a desire for a world that is better than the current, or worse still, is a masquerade of Utopia.  As evidence of a failure of vision, it might, therefore, paradoxically, be complicit in the status quo.  Artists have always drawn inspiration from the ‘natural’ environment, but in order to provide vision, the artist is required to carefully consider what is at stake when seeking to create ecologically engaged art with aesthetic sensitivities.

If visionary art is something that gives us hope and inspiration, then across the spectrum of ecological engagement, anything that makes us think harder about the way we treat the planet can offer hope that we may start to see things differently and change our behaviours in favour of the planet.  The world as perceived by the artist, may be portrayed in creative and playful ways, helping us look at any of the identified problems with new eyes, re-contextualising or re-interpreting problems in a novel way to prompt new questions that may lead to new creative solutions.  The very process of ecological art is science in action, even scientific experiment in action.

Artistic projects can provide the necessary hope for solutions to the current global environmental problems, by extending and providing a model or a visualisation or an enactment of implications derived from scientific research.  Artists can even push the boundaries with their projects, as they are able to be adventurous and creative in their vision, perhaps more so than scientists, who are often constrained by expectations and institutional requirements. They can engage the local and global community – inspiring action at many levels, as has been the case with the ongoing tree planting projects and the establishment of formal ecological research collaborations inspired by Joseph Beuys’s project 7000 Oaks.2

Ecological art practices are currently reflecting culture and loss and also vision. By referencing the society-nature dialectic, memory and guilt, by demonstrating a consciousness suggestive of a contemporary enlightenment, and by evoking and initiating creative interventions, artists are paving the way for a sense of hope, and a future worth fighting for.


1. Eliasson, Olafur. (2016). “Why Art Has the Power to Change the World.” Blog post from January 23rd, 2016, part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The World Economic Forum to mark the Forum’s Annual Meeting (in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 20-23). Access here.   
2. Brown, Andrew. (2014). Art & Ecology Now. London: Thames & Hudson.
3. Davis, Ben. (2016). “Art and the Ecological.” The Miami Rail, Summer 2016. Access here. 
4. Morton, Timothy. (2007). Ecology without Nature: Rethinking environmental aesthetics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.  
5. Morton, Timothy. (2010). The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 
6. Magagnoli, Paolo. (2015). “Introduction-Nostalgia: Pathological and Critical.” In Documents of Utopia: The politics of experimental documentary, 1-21. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dr Adrienne Hunt is currently a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Honours) candidate at the University of Sydney.  She has a professional background in clinical and applied health sciences, and in health education, and is an Honorary Research Fellow with the Discipline of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Sydney.

Website: http://www.adriennehuntsydney.com
Instagram: @adrienne_hunt_sydney