Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art,
curated by Stephanie Smith, Chicago and New York: Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, and Independent Curators International, 2005.
ECO- OR EARTH-ART of the last half of the 20th century often involved massive alterations of the landscape; think of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, De Maria’s Lightning Field, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Running Fence or The Gates. In Beyond Green, artists who are now approaching mid-life prime explore the implications of sustainability in, and for, art. In addition to the 20-plus pieces described, the book itself and the museum spaces that house the exhibition represent a commitment to “green-ness.” The book, for example, notes its paper is certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council and its inks are soy-based. The entire package – the works, the displays, the book – thus represent the practices of recycling, collaboration and other principles of sustainability. They also demonstrate, in contrast to earlier eco-art, the links between social justice and the practice of sustainability.
The art displayed in Beyond Green is, by turns, practical or playful, metaphorical or critical. A number of works are obviously the creation of art for the sake of provoking an art-based dialogue about sustainability. Dan Peterman’s Excerpts from the Universal Lab travel pods, plexiglas spheres on wheels, contain all manner of cast-off laboratory paraphernalia. It is both amusing and embarrassing to recognize in computer punch cards and tape reels, electronic gear, even a Nikon camera body, the detritus of my own professional career. Frances Whitehead’s Primary Plus is a collection of commercially available inflatable objects, such as booms used to contain oil spills, that will be returned to the suppliers upon completion of the exhibition. Allora and Calzadilla’s Under Discussion is a video record of the circumnavigation of a small island off Puerto Rico by a man steering an overturned board-room table fitted with a small outboard engine. It represents the ongoing discussion about the decommissioning of the island as a naval bombardment practice ground, with the local community often on the outside.
This exhibition also includes a number of (more or less) practical projects. Learning Group’s Collected Material Dwelling is a gazebo-like shelter made from corrugated cardboard, plastic bottles, fabric, rope and other materials, all of which are recycled. Kevin Kaempf utilizes small-business practices to create sustainable interventions for daily life under the People Powered logo. Loop: Multipurpose Coverall comprises cans of recycled paint and Soil Starter is an organza bag of compost. JAM creates stylish Noon Solar shoulder bags, whose solar panels can power small devices such as cell phones. Michael Rakowitz’s paraSITE shelters are uniquely designed for individual street-people. These tent-like lean-tos made of recycled plastic were set up next to buildings so they could capture waste heat.
What makes these works “art”? Their placement within the artificial confines of a museum imposes an immutability and inutility on them. As many of the pieces are meant to be dynamic or interactive with the world and people’s lives, this stasis leads us to question what they might be telling us about sustainability on the planet.
Two short, but informative essays preface the catalogue. Stephanie Smith and Victor Margolin place the exhibit in the context of explorations of “green” in early eco-art, as well as in other fields, such as design and architecture. Each exhibitor is then highlighted in six to ten pages of curatorial appreciation, mostly high quality photographs and descriptions of the work presented. These descriptions are often in the form of interviews that explore the motivation and intent of the creative process. The usual art detail for each piece, and short biographies of the artists, conclude the work.
Were I not an inveterate reader of the colophon page of books, I probably would have missed seeing the exhibit. On a recent flight to New York City, I read in this book just given to me by Alternatives to review, that the exhibit was on display. If you have the opportunity in 2007, look for it in Massachusetts, Ohio and Indiana; other venues may be added. But even if you cannot, the book is a strong statement on its own. As art exhibition catalogues go, this one is thorough, readable and superbly reflective of the work. Beyond Green represents an imaginative and at times provocative consideration of the meaning of sustainability and its practice. I plan to reuse my copy for a very long time.