When the surrealist leader André Breton wrote “I am searching for the gold of time” – a phrase that will follow him to his grave – he was doing nothing more than a poetic expression of a vulgarity about artists: they would be “clairvoyants,” in the words of visionaries capable of making sense of the present world and perhaps even the world To come better than anyone else.
From this point of view, today’s visual artists were not obsessed with what might be considered the gold of our times, that is, the awareness of the environment expressed through their many living testimonies. This is not to say that plants and animals have been absent from the repertoire of art throughout history. The French anthropologist Philippe d’Escola dated the first performances of landscapes not moved by men to the sixteenth century: the Alpine landscapes of Bruegel the Elder (1). But these perceptions, according to him, expressed above all a conflict between nature and culture. The idea that man would have absolute power, superior to what surrounds him, as if he were not part of it.
A new way to walk
Thus, European and American art took time not to take forests, lakes, flowers or mountains for simple and beautiful landscapes. Among the great pioneers of the genre, at the end of the sixties, on the other side of the canal, was a man with deep blue eyes who embraced the landscape in a whole new way. Richard Long (born 1945) is a sculptor, photographer, artist but above all a surveyor. “My intention was to make a new art that would also be a new way of walking: walking like art.” He is generally considered an artist of land art, but he nevertheless rejects this doctrine. “Land art is an American word for impact. To do these works, we buy land, use machines. My work is different. My work is a celebration of the world.” He can build an abstract sculpture using the 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, nor about communion with nature, nor about meditation … However, he has generated many followers.
In contemporary art, the use of natural elements as raw materials for creativity will flourish since the 1970s. Thus we can evoke Giuseppe Benoni who uses bay leaves or thistles in his installations or paintings. More recently, Pierre Huegg has been rotating bees and other animals in his “artistic ecosystems”, much like Thomas Saracino using spiders to work on his natural sculptures.
Art as a mission
In recent years, in the face of the climate emergency, art has taken highly committed directions. Some institutions and key figures entered this topic as if on a mission. And so, in February 2020, the Guggenheim Museum in New York dedicated its entire year-long spiral architecture to an exhibition by architect Rem Koolhaas. The movie “Coutryside, the Future” told how the countryside, this natural area inhabited by humans, became the main region on planet Earth.
In Venice, Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisa, daughter of the baron that bears his name in the Museum of Madrid, was opened in 2019, in an abandoned chapel, the Oceanographic Academy, “Academy to stimulate knowledge, research and advocacy for oceans through art”. She explained: At the end of the twenty-first centurye A century later, the rise of the oceans 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 featured The Ocean in Transformation, an aesthetic and documentary exhibition by the Regional Agency, a group of architects of the new genre. Its composition consisted of a large number of screens animated by maps to tell the story of the ocean as an important place of exchange. From slavery routes to maps of exploitation of natural resources on the sea floor.
In France, one of the leading institutions is the Fondation Cartier, which is now largely oriented towards social issues. She has scheduled her exhibition We Are the Trees in 2019 or the exhibition dedicated to Claudia Andujar in 2020, which featured the Brazilian photographer’s work on Yanomami Indians. Recently, as part of the Lille 3000 Festival, the Foundation presents until October 2, in the Tri Postal, “Les Vivants”, 250 works from its collections “ In order to reinvent, with sympathy and humility, a new earthly symbiosis with plants and animals.” We are now very far from the usual discourses on art …
In 2021, philosopher of science Bruno Latour, a specialist in what he calls the “new climate system” and who often sponsors exhibitions, signed a show at the Center Pompidou Metz with twenty-two artists. She addressed the principles of her biennial in Taipei under the title “You and I do not live on the same planet” With the leitmotif, climate change, which, he says, will soon be “ At the heart of all political discussions. There we saw, for example, the work of Mexican Fernando Palma Rodriguez (born in 1957), who reinterpreted the legends of the Noah people from which he arose, in his devices of objects for healing. “In our language, the word waste does not exist. Recycling is an inherited tradition”, The artist explains.
And in a similar spirit, in the Tokyo Palace, until September 4, the film “Restoring Nature” shows a proliferation of little-known plastic artists. Curator Daria de Puvis expressed her commitment: “The artists presented in this exhibition remind us of a fact: our capitalist and extractive way of life is not viable.” An important branch of “green” art has become the voice of a new political consciousness.
(1) “Metaphysics and Culture”, Gallimard, 2005.
Five live artists
Thomas Saraceno, poetic ecology
Argentine Tomas Saraceno (born in 1973) is known for his remarkable achievements, as happened in 2018 when he invaded the entire Tokyo Palace with works that seemed totally unprecedented. Among other things, he used an army of spiders that weaved webs resembling living statues. Thomas Saracino has spent time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston and at the National Center for Space Studies (CNES) mastering the use of the sun or wind and keeping fossil fuels out of his creations. In Barcelona, on top of a tower, he has just opened his first permanent facility, “Cloud Cities Barcelona”. He proposes to settle in one of 113 small cells suspended like cocoons, covered with sparkling walls to watch the sky. structure for meditation.
Pierre Huegui, Dialogues between Ecosystems
French artist Pierre Huegui (born 1962) is one of the most prominent artists on the international scene. He has participated in prestigious events such as Documenta in Cassel, and has benefited from a retrospective at the Center Pompidou and is part of major contemporary art collections such as the Vuitton Foundation collections. Her creations take many different forms, but as explained by Vasilis Okonomopoulos, chief trustee of the Loma Foundation in Arles, who showed them at its opening last summer. Huyghe is an artist who creates ecosystems. Thus he invented a sculpture on which bees clumped to make their honey, another sculpture in which the heating system creates an ideal habitat for plants. But his most surprising work is “Human Mask,” a 2014 film in which a monkey serves up in a café. Huyghe dressed him up like a little girl and covered his face with a mask. The very fragile gap between man and animal here creates deep anxiety.
Giuseppe Pinoni, between human nature and the vegetable kingdom
The youngest member of the famous Italian Arte Povera movement, Giuseppe Penone (born 1947), who had recently become a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, became known for the first time by interfering with plants to modulate their growth: he carved a branch or stem by erecting obstructions. Since then, and more generally, he often incorporates elements of plants into his works of marriage, says Philip d’Escola, Nature and Culture. In his house, the panels were covered with thorns and the walls lined with a mattress of wonderful, fragrant laurel leaves, as in the extraordinary work of the Pompidou Center, “Respirare l’ombra”.
Zheng Bo, botany and political commitment
The wildest green artist is Zeng Bo, a Chinese artist who was born in Beijing in 1974, and studied in the United States. It became known thanks to a film presented at the Manifesta in Palermo in 2018 in which young people, naked in the gardens, have a very physical dialogue with plants. Since then, success has smiled at him and he is currently on the list of the Venice Biennale and the Sydney Biennale. He describes his creations as “environmentally friendly” films.
Ernesto Neto, Between Human Nature and the Plant Kingdom
He is one of the stars of contemporary Brazilian art. Ernesto Neto is best known for his Inhabitant and Walk in Sculptures, massive structures with massive bio-forms filled with various materials. However, his creation took a special turn, more ecological and spiritual, as he was in regular contact with the Amazonian Indians living on the Peruvian border, Honey Quinn. He now makes entirely handmade pieces of ribbon, inviting visitors to take part in meditation sessions. His message took a political turn with President Bolsonaro’s rise to power and the acceleration of deforestation.