In developing a nature-specific dialogue that is interactive, rooted in actual experience in a given place and time, with nature the essential material and ingredient of the process, artists are ultimately developing a new language of expression. The emphasis is holistic, bio-regional and mutualist. Above all, it displays a respect for our integral connectedness to the environment. The earth is a living breathing organism whose elements - climate, geography, geology, other life forms - are an inviolable part of the human creative process. The inflexible stereotypes of art history, outmoded notions of avant-gardism and modernist aesthetics in general are the legacy of an era where progress was defined in purely economic terms. The land is no longer just a subject we represent through art. An essential freedom comes from identifying with the life process itself as art. It is one chance we have to ensure a viable art of the future. The imperial stereotypes of an art based in formal language, the segregation of humanity from nature, the platitudes that accompany the art object and nature subject have now passed into the catacombs of our museums and art galleries. Let us leave that labyrinth behind and celebrate nature whose presence is very much there, very much here. Essential for our psychological and physical sustenance, nature is here in your garden, there in your forest, can be found in a city park. A resurgence of ritual and respect for the cyclical process of life, an earth sensitive vision reaffirms nature is the art of which we are a part. The challenge is to break out of the limited conception that humanity is the centre of earth-based activity, to broaden our perspective, realize that other species, organisms, animals and plants are equally earth sensitive, the biogenitors of ecological diversity. They may even perceive the earth and us in ways we could never conceive.
From a native point of view, landscape cannot be characterized as either wilderness (i.e. a place in which human activity is not naturally present) or a scene (i.,e. a representation of a site) or a framed subject that embodies an idea of nature. The line between human culture and the culture of nature are indivisible. The M�tabetchouane Centre for History and Archaeology on the south shore of Lac St.-Jean in northern Quebec, with its replica of a Hudson's Bay trading post, is a place where on July 16th, 1647, the Jesuit founder Jean Dequen, a native of Amiens in France, arrived by boat from Tadoussac. Mike MacDonald, a self taught artist of mixed descent (Micmac, Beothuk, Irish, Portuguese, Scottish) whose nature works explore ways of healing cultural and biospecific differences, found a variety of introduced and indigenous species of plants growing in the surrounds of this historic site, a traditional native meeting place for centuries in pre-contact times. During the summer of 1996, he gathered and transplanted species of Native medicinal plants that included sweetgrass, northern sage, native onions, Iroquois ceremonial tobacco, Virginia tobacco, evening primrose, milkweed, Joe-Pyeweed, and Dyers camomile. These indigenous plants with medicinal properties were planted directly around the museum's walls to create a butterfly garden. Naturally growing varieties of viperine, wood strawberry, and hawthorn trees introduced by European settlers centuries ago, plants that have outlasted the early settlement buildings and continued to flourish in the wild were likewise "discovered" by MacDonald whose role was more that of an ethnobotanist than artist. Rock assemblages shaped to form footprints (an allusion to Jean Dequen's original "discovery" of this site in 1647) placed in the garden enabled visitors to move through the site without damaging the plants.
MacDonald's thesis that most plants that attract butterflies have medicinal, healing properties has resulted in subsequent reconfigurations of the butterfly garden that are a source of inspiration and healing, and painlessly beautiful. MacDonald's latest butterfly garden installed amid the ruins of Our Lady of the Prairie Church at the St. Norbert Arts Centre this summer, brought living colour to this site of a former Trappist Monastery, south of Winnipeg, in Manitoba. This heart-shaped garden was replanted with blue and white flowers, the colours used in the Catholic Marian Garden tradition. The place became a work of contemplation and healing, where past Judeo-Christian traditions brought over from the Old world were brought into perspective by a native intervention. An empty plinth overlooking the garden marks the spot where a statue once stood. The 10th in a cycle of 12 related works Patria (Homeland) by the world renowned environmental writer, educator and composer R. Murray Shafer will be performed there. The cycle relates the journey of two principal characters through the labyrinth of different cultures and social situations.
Located on the Pacific Flyway and the Fraser River Basin, the City of Vancouver has a particular environmental legacy and opportunity. To raise consciousness of songbird populations in city and country, and provide positive enhancement programs for songbird habitats in urban centres, artists Beth Carruthers and Nelson Gray, conceived of Vancouver's SongBird project after hearing the clear song of a robin rising above the background cacophony of industrial noise. Biologists, landscape architects, musicians, artists, planners, sustainability consultants and community groups assisted with the project, as did the Douglas College Institute of Urban Ecology and the Roundhouse Community Centre. Environmental concerns were expressed by specialists and city dwellers in the Living City Forum (1998 & 1999), and nature walks encouraged an awareness of urban bird habitats. FLAP (the Fatal Light Awareness Program) likewise made citizens aware of how millions of birds are killed annually in North America by collisions with office and home buildings that are unnecessarily lit up at night.
A broader than usual spectrum of the public has thus become involved in re-imagining the Georgia Basin's place in the world environmental spectrum and Vancouver has become a "songbird friendly" model for other North American cities. The core annual event of the SongBird project is the Spring Dawn Chorus Festival held in May. Begun in England 13 years ago these gatherings of people who await the songbird's dawn chorus are now celebrated around the world. The Babylon Gardens Initiative presented at the Roundhouse Community Centre, aimed at introducing to the public ways of encouraging bird populations in the city. Citizens were taught how to build feeders, nesting boxes, introduce ivy, trellises and bird baths into their home environments thus providing temporary food, habitat and water supplies for birds on balconies, rooftops, in window boxes and gardens. The Gardens of Babylon Balcony Challenge has now run for 3 years and winners are recognized for their positive bird friendly environmental interventions. The Nest, a structure woven out of willows and dried grasses by French artist and landscape architecture student Claire Bedat with assistance from public volunteers was installed outside the Roundhouse Community Centre in the fall of 1998 to celebrate humanity's connection to home, community and songbirds. As Claire Bedat says: "The making was in its essence a very intuitive rendering, as dedicated as a bird, I used each part of my body to shape and build the Nest. A nest is supposedly round, round like life, round like the body of a bird. Unconsciously I was participating in the making of a shelter, a refuge, the house of my body (...) Growth is often assimilated to change, I changed during the making of this project and feel emotionally empowered and bounded to a greater cause: preserving biodiversity on Earth."
Alan Sonfist, a pioneer of eco-sensitive projects in the 1960s and 1970s, for which his Time Landscape (1965) in Soho New York is perhaps the best known. For this project Sonfist introduced pre-contact plants, trees and vegetation to a site in New York. As Sonfist states: "One would observe, within each of the environmental sculptures, the struggle of life and death, as well as the human interaction in a historical forest. That's what the 19th century concepts were about. That is really what I am involved in, and what my thought process is trying to create. The natural cycles as opposed to doing an ecological model from a scientific point of view, or using pure history."
In the Mojave Desert at the main park in La Quinta, California, Sonfist completed a seven mile nature trail (1998) in a region of California otherwise encumbered by the introduction of non-native, northern species of trees and plants that consume unnecessary amounts of water. California bio-history is like bio-history anywhere, involves a layering of living species in the cyclical theatre of nature in time. ghost flower, bee balm, blazing star, desert star, cream cup, woolly daisy, Indian paintbrush, yellow cup, desert sienna, Devil's claw. The flux and flow of elements causes nature to reinvent itself in a myriad of ways. Sonfist's project involves reassessing each fragment of time, realize this nature layering takes place in a continuum, not one fixed moment. The locals who live near the site, seemed to favour non-natural nordic landscapes with maple trees, and grass lawns. Foreign plant and tree species are planted, landscaped into our cities and suburbs because they bring an "exotic flavour" to a place. How different is this from changing the channel on your TV in an endless search for "novelty"? Artificial environments, in this case in a desert region, require heavy watering, and are a desperate attempt to reduce biocultural diversity. Since the local indigenous plant species have been introduced to the region, the initially negative response, has been replaced by an enthusiasm about how beautiful and diverse the spectrum of flower arrangements Sonfist has brought to the place actually are. Sonfist's nature trail has become a visual laboratory of environmental understanding. The work has stimulated thought and controversy as well as providing a cathartic living environment for the people who live there. Plans are on for sculptors to introduce artworks along the trail at a later date.
For the Coast Salish Squamish nation on the West Coast of British Columbia whose numbers dwindled from 60,000 to a low of 150 after intitial contact with the white man, the world is conceived as a forest. The community of trees that grow in a forest is like a community of peoples whose health and history are inextricably linked together. Artist and activist Nancy Bleck and carver Aaron Nelson-Moody (Tawx'sin Yexwulla) have embarked on an intriguing project called Cedar People. The first stage of the project involves Nelson-Moody's carved rendition of the Society of Women in Stewardship of the Land, a "society within a society", raised from birth to act as leaders who look after the land. As Nelson-Moody states "There is no equivalent in non-Native society, as the women were as much medicinal doctors as they were environmental lawyers, as much libraries as they were land managers." A traditional ceremony has already been held to bless the log, and invitees witnessed the first stage of the transformation of this cedar wood into Slyn'i (cedar woman). Being the first of many such Welcome Figure carvings, it will be raised in a sacred site in the upper Squamish wilderness region this August. Culturally modified markings on the outside bark of ancient cedar trees can be found in such sites that indicate these places have been visited for thousands of years. Using traditional native tools, Nelson-Moody has created a twelve by three foot carving whose installation will be witnessed by the Coast Salish Squamish people and non-natives. The traditional society of women this work is dedicated to, are likewise "witnesses" who have participated through ceremony as "keepers of history". Other welcome figures will be made elsewhere, in collaboration with local carvers and participants - on site in Quebec, Germany, and Australia - locals carving traditions and motifs will be part of these initiatives.
In 1992 at M�ru in the Oise region of France, Jean-Paul Ganem created his first "agricultural composition" and this was soon followed by others in the Vend�e, Champagne, and Midi-Pyr�n�es of France and the 150 hectare Mirabel airport project in Montreal, Canada (1996). This summer, Jean-Paul Ganem has been involved in a large scale environmental sensibilization and community participation project titled Le Jardin des Capteurs. Created in collaboration with the Cirque du Soleil and Jour-Terre Quebec Le Jardin des Capteurs occupies a 2.5 hectare waste area adjacent to the Cirque du Soleil's permanent headquarters in the north of Montreal. The site referred to as the Miron Quarry, contains human waste excrement up to 100 feet in depth. Gas emission pipes (up to 400 feet below the surface), sporadically dot the surface of the land like periscopes. Operated by Gazmont Plant nearby, the gas pipe emissions provide natural gas/methane power for 10,000 homes. Ganem's art project involves youth from the St. Michel region of Montreal and volunteers from Montreal's Botanical Gardens. Thus beautified, Ganem's site intervention changes public perception of garbage and waste dumps, not only for the volunteers, but equally for those who visit the place or see it from the air. An end of the world wasteland becomes a beautiful rendition of the circus Big Top with colourful wedge-like land marks and overlapping circular motifs in varying dimensions. All this is made of living plant and flower species: red and yellow Cosmos, pink and red petunias, colza, beard-grass, wild heliotrope and buckwheat.. The colourful land markings and motifs overlap, with varying circular dimensions and shapes. An undulating path makes its way through the planting... Directional markers point to the more formidable areas of the Miron Quarry/Dump that will, over the coming years, be landscaped and transformed into a more substantial city park with a hill at its centre. Next year perennials will replace the present planting. Le Jardin des Capteurs introduces the notion that sites for human waste, the detritus of our urban consumer society can be recycled and beautified as sites, just as the goods and waste that end up there can be.
Approaching such initiatives from the aesthetic and design perspective Belgian artist Bob Verschueren is an artist who specializes in making vegetal art out of vegetal matter. His most impressive works include the Wind Paintings which are nothing less than spectacular. The Wind Paintings comprise lines of natural pigment that are dispersed by wind action. It was the unpredictability of the result that initially attracted Verschueren to this kind of art making. The experience came about after Verschueren quit traditional painting and found himself "no longer confronted by the limits of this horrible rectangle. The subject extended beyond any traditional aesthetic framework. A battle lost before you start one could say! One could not measure a work, one does not know what comprises the last grain of pigment, where it will go..." Vershueren lays variously coloured pigments in lines along stretches of sand for his Wind Paintings. Nature does the rest. The action of wind on the pigment turns the land surface into the canvas for these artworks.
German artist Mario Reis makes "nature watercolours" by placing a base material in flowing water and allowing the mineral and vegetal sediment transported in the water to accumulate on its surface. Water is the paintbrush that moves and dispaces the sediment and colour on these square canvases. Reis finds these configurations of silt, sand and sediment drawn from rivers all over North America in places as varied as the Yukon, British Columbia, Idaho, Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, Michigan, Alaska, Wyoming and Kansas to be as confounding in their variety of hues, shades, textures as any old fashioned artwork and much more challenging. Reis' likewise enacts such works in Mexico, Europe, Africa, and Japan. They are a powerful reflection on natural diversity. His approach is rigorous and truly global in scope.
The growth of an interactive approach to working with environment implies an acceptance of ourselves, as much as nature. These artists' actions carry a narrative on human history within their work, but circumvent artistic conventions of reproduction, containment and mimesis. Nature and art are less critically segregated, life takes precedence over the art. Links are established between human culture and the culture of nature. With each successive experimentation this new language of expression that involves understanding our place in nature become better understood. Elements from nature are the paint and nature is the canvas. Artists are the catalysts. There is no subject or object. This earth sensitive language of expression is tactile, physical and plays visually with various organic and inorganic elements in a given site. The creative growth experience is interactive. As we enhance our understanding of nature's place in our society, our civilization, our personal lives, so we better understand that our society's future will inevitably involve understanding and respecting nature's processes. Nature's endemic role as source and provider is what will enable us to achieve sustainability for all forms of life the earth in the future.
John K. Grande
- previously published in Public Art Review (Vol. 12, No. 1, Issue 23) Fall Winter 2000 issue
Writer and art critic John Grande's reviews and feature articles have been published extensively in Artforum, Vice Versa, Sculpture, Art Papers, British Journal of Photography, Espace Sculpture, Public Art Review, Vie des Arts, Art On Paper, The Globe & Mail, Circa & Canadian Forum. The author of Balance: Art and Nature (Black Rose Books, 1994), Intertwining: Landscape, Technology, Issues, Artists (Black Rose Books, 1998) and Jouer avec le feu: Armand Vaillancourt: Sculpteur engag� (Montreal: Lanctot, 2001). John Grande has published numerous catalogue essays on selected artists and has taught art history at Bishops University. He co-authored Judy Garfin: Natural Disguise (Vehicule Press, Montreal, 1998) and Nils-Udo: Art with Nature (Wienand Verlag, Koln, Germany 2000) and his latest book is David Sorensen: Abstraction From Here to Now (Centre culturel Yvonne L. Bombardier, Valcourt, 2001) Mr. Grande's Art Nature Dialogues will be published by SUNY Press in 2003.
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