Art and nature: opportunities and new directions

Art and nature: opportunities and new directions
Published: Jun 19, 2014
A respected critic surveys the territory of 'nature' and the 'natural' in art today.


Kelly Richardson. Leviathan (detail). 2011. Photo by Colin Davidson.


There are many artists doing brilliant work with, in and about nature today. From revisiting the tradition of landscape painting to ritualistic performances, conceptual sound recordings or hi-tech projects involving close collaboration with neuroscientists, the range of the work being produced is dizzying. In a sense it's impossible to try and draw a thread through all of this diverse activity, but on the other hand, it's worth a try.

In August 2013, I was invited to give a talk at Wilderness Festival in which I attempted to place this 'new nature art' within a broader context — one that includes art history, but also philosophy, science, poetry, and an economic context that has seen arts budgets slashed and the 'creative industries' looking elsewhere for sources of revenue. This, modified a little subsequently, is that attempt.

The idea is to examine how some of the most interesting artists are looking closely at what we actually mean by 'nature' — how the concept of what is 'natural' is increasingly complex and tangled up with perception, ethics, technology, language, and a whole host of other issues.

Gordon Cheung. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. 2009.

It is also interesting to touch upon what is 'successful' work in this context, and by extension, why the concept of artistic 'success' might be a good way into an understanding of what the arts can offer that other disciplines cannot.

But let's begin with a few caveats.

Whether all this nature-focused art is increasing — at a time when our relationship with the natural world is at a moment of apparent crisis — or whether this is simply something that I've become increasingly aware of myself, it's hard to say. Clearly humans have been intensely interested in the external world ever since art began (whenever that may have been, but let's not get into that question...). But I do believe that things today are different: because of our changing understanding of what 'nature' means, and because of this apparently widening division between humanity and the natural world — a division which many are seeking to overcome.

Jacques de Vaucanson, Canard Digerateur. 1739.


If there is a division – and maybe we can return to this question later – then it is one that has instituted itself across many fields of contemporary life. Of course, within each field there is disagreement and discrepancy, but for the sake of clarity, we'll have to simplify. Let's begin with science.

Science, which has replaced religion as the dominant dogma of the modern age, is arguably particularly culpable here. For all the incredible advances of modern science – and it is indisputable that we now understand more about the natural world than ever before – it is still underpinned by a problematic worldview that dates back to Descartes and then the enlightenment.

The mechanistic worldview — that originated with Descartes's view of animals as 'automata' — and has been championed of late by prominent public scientists such as Richard Dawkins — is based on the idea that the world is a simple mechanism, governed by immutable laws. This view, which is still dominant in contemporary science, is incapable of seeing nature as anything other than an object – to be studied, ordered, controlled, dominated.

Lucas Cranach the Elder. Garden of Eden. 1530.

To that end, science, for all its apparent modernity, owes much to Christianity. As God instructed Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

Thankfully, this element of scientific thinking is facing strong challenges. American novelist, intellectual and activist Wendell Berry has said that “'the time is past, if it ever existed, where a scientist can discover knowledge, release it into the world and assume he has done good.”

Whilst the mechanistic view specifically has come under sustained attack from likes of biologist Rupert Sheldrake and moral philosopher Mary Midgley. As Sheldrake has written “Contemporary science is based on the claim that all reality is material or physical.” but “This view is now undergoing a credibility crunch. The biggest problem of all for materialism is the existence of consciousness.” The consciousness of both humans and animals, and maybe more besides. Sheldrake's book The Science Delusion and Midgley's Science as Salvation are both key texts here.

Derrida once described literature as “the institution that allows one to say everything, in every way.” We might therefore describe art as the institution that allows one to do everything.

Economics has also produced a problematic context — with the last two hundred years or so seeing the West's understanding of nature limited to its value as resource for industry and economic growth. Recent attempts have been made to encourage conservation by placing monetary values on the natural world. UK charity The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, for example, have recently launched a pan-European research project with the extremely clunky name of Quantification of Ecosystem Services for Sustainable Agriculture, which has so far come up with the statistic that ““pollinators alone are worth £430 million per year to British agriculture” Such initiatives are merely following the same logic of accounting and are doomed to failure.

In thrall to the accountants and management consultants, it's hardly surprising that politicians have been unable to do anything about bridging this divide. Politics is limited to four-year cycles and anything that requires long-term shifts in thinking is likely to be perennially pushed to the bottom of the to-do list.

Which is where the arts come in.

David Cameron. "Greenest government."



Recent years have seen a boom in 'new nature writing' with much celebrated publications by Granta, big sales figures for the dons of the genre such as Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane, and a host of independent publishers like Penned in the Margins, Longbarrow Press and Influx Press exploring place and the environment in a host of innovative and exciting ways.

At the same time, something similar has been happening to the visual arts. A cynical argument might be that, with dramatic cuts to arts funding, artists are increasingly looking to alternative sources of funding. Whilst the Tate remains happy to take money from BP, institutions and individuals with more integrity have been looking elsewhere.

Art Not Oil.

The Wellcome Trust, a biomedical institute primarily, has emerged as a significant source of funds, whilst smaller organisations such as Arts Catalyst, Cape Farewell and Artangel have all championed art that crosses over into environmentalism and science more broadly.

The arts are perhaps uniquely placed for this interdisciplinary approach, and this is a key point I think. As other professions have disappeared down the alleyway of increasingly specialisation, art — which is still a specialised profession — is able to remain more fleet-of-foot and polygamous. Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher who I'm slightly obsessed with, once described literature as “the institution that allows one to say everything, in every way”. We might therefore describe art as the institution that allows one to do everything.


This idea of doing everything or anything informs the work of both Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long, the two big British names of the so-called Land Art movement.

Richard Long. A Line Made by Walking. 1967.

A subsection of the still-nascent conceptual art movement of the late 60s and 1970s, Land Art sought to take art out of the gallery and into the external, often rural, 'natural' environment. Richard Long's most famous work is perhaps A Line Made by Walking of 1967. This saw the then 22 year-old artist walk back and forth along a straight line in the grass in the English countryside, leaving a track that was then photographed in black and white.

A recent book entitled The Art of Walking published by Black Dog Press demonstrates that Long's influence is still a strong one in contemporary art. Likewise, the works of Glasgow-based artist Amy Todman.

Amy Todman. Breathing Views, 1 & 2.

Inspired by the work of John Latham, one of the pioneers of art-science collaborative work and … Todman's  current series Breathing Views entails the artist undetaking a walk through West Lothian and making a single mark for each inhalation and one for each exhalation. Fusing print and performance and poetry, the project examines the idea of the view and changing viewpoints throughout a walk in order to examine, among other things, how it is impossible for humans to understand 'nature' without reference to ourselves – our own eyes and bodies, our conception of time, of interior/exterior, etc.

Back to the 1970s — and similar to Richard Long in terms of active engagement in the environment and an interest in documenting the fragile and the fleeting — is Andy Goldsworthy.

Andy Goldwworthy. Dandelion Flowers Pinned with Thorns, Cumbria. 1985.

His lovely photographic books have been extremely popular in the last decade or so. Goldsworthy, who I'm sure many of you will know, produces beautiful, often ephemeral sculptural works in the natural world – balancing boulders on top of each other or fixing a skin of leaves to a tree branch using nothing but his own saliva and a tonne of patience. Note the formal similarity with Long, and also the title here which depicts the process behind the finished' work. It reminds me of one of those  menus you get in upmarket organic restaurants these days...

But Goldsworthy has also been criticised for a lack of political awareness, a shallow understanding of the relationship between nature and social history, a limited conception of nature, and a lack of intellectual depth. “There is a deep loneliness at the heart of the work” Clare Hurley in World Socialist Web Site

Goldsworthy, say some, is simply a romantic. And, for reasons that we shall come to, there are few words as keenly avoided in the modern nature art/writing world as romantic. The new nature art is an intensely political and socially attuned business.

Edward Burtynsky. Silver Lake Operations # 2, Lake Lefroy, Western Australia. 2007. 

Two increasingly prominent names in contemporary art are Mariele Neudecker, who recently had a pair of big shows down in Brighton and Ed Burtynsky (who incidentally was featured in the first Journal of Wild Culture, when it was a print publication in Toronto and when Burtynsky was a pretty much unknown photographer). Burtynsky, whose huge, sublimely beautiful photographs depict humanity's relationship with nature at its worst – oil spills.

He shows with Flowers in London and recently his works launched the redeveloped Photographers Gallery. His work is pretty amazing, in a rather samey way.

In 2005, he declared his wish that his work might help persuade millions to join a global conversation on sustainability. Can art have this kind of impact?

But as ever with fantasy, it’s a fine line away from ridicule, over which this arguably teeters.       



This became particularly clear to me in the process of curating Nature Reserves, currently on show in London at a gallery called GV Art, one of the leading proponents of art that engages with science. I don't want to go on too much about my own show — you can simply go and see it, it's on until September 13th! But I'd like to pick out a couple of things.

The first is the sheer number and diversity of artists working in this area. The exhibition's focus was, I thought, fairly narrow — the relationship between humanity and nature with specific reference to knowledge production and systems of archiving. But we held an open call for submissions and I was amazed at the number of people — artists, poets, academic — who submitted work, and work of real quality. It was pretty amazing, and the curatorial process became one of exclusion as much as anything else.

The research process brought to my attention just how much work is going on this area, often in a highly collaborative and mutually supportive way: Alec Finlay, whose current work is The Dukes Wood Project; Amy Todman, who I've already mentioned; Camilla Nelson, a poet and academic whose work examines issues of authorship and authority; painter Paul Smith; Luke Franklin, whose degree show project (Art and Science MA at Central St Martins) involved setting up four bothes in secret, remote locations in the highlands of Scotland — library, studio, study, gallery.

Luke Franklin. Bothe — Library.

Luke Franklin. Bothe — Gallery.

I'd also like to pick out some of the artists in the exhibition itself: Liz Orton, Amy Cutler, Hestia Peppe and Laura Culham. What's interesting here is the idea of re-presentation and mediation, which I'll come back to.

Liz Orton. Splitters and Lumpers. 2012.

Amy Cutler. PINE. 2013.

Hestia Peppe. Microbial Familiars. 2013.

Laura Culham. Dead Grass. 2013.


On the international scene, art that engages with nature was an especially strong presence at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Every two years sees a six month-long extravaganza that sees historic sites such as the Arsenale, Giardini and sundry grand palazzos across the slowly sinking city play host to contemporary art from across the globe. This year, art that sought to engage with nature was a strong thread throughout, with some works more successful than others.

Berlinde De Bruyckere. Cripplewood. 2012.

One of the strangest works was in the Belgian pavilion, where JM Coetzee has curated the work of Berlinde De Bruyckere; his introductory text setting the tone for a fantastical intertwining of something resembling mankind with a crippled kind of nature. The work — a colossal sculpture of a fallen tree, its branches intertwined to form a single trunk-limb, patched up and bandaged, pollarded and felled — is especially powerful under a grey, gauzy, slowly waxing gloom. But as ever with fantasy, it’s a fine line away from ridicule, over which this arguably teeters.

Antti Laitinen. It's My Island. 2007.

Similarly ‘rooted’ is Antti Laitinen’s work for the Finland Pavilion. On show is documentation of an old work, The Island, for which the artist constructed an island in the Baltic Sea, one sandbag at a time, as well as the more recent Forest Square series. This involved Laitinen chopping down a 10x10 metre square section of Finnish forest, sorting all the different materials – soil, moss, wood etc – and rebuilding the forest arranged by colour. Outside the pavilion when we visit, he’s busy nailing trees (back) together. Unfortunately, due to the constraints of the pavilion, this seems to me to be less successful than the other Laitinen project with which I'm familiar, It's My Island, 2007 .

Aurelien Froment. Pulmo Marina. 2010.

I also loved Aurelien Froment’s video piece, Pulmo Marina, on show at the Palazzo Contarini Polignac as part of the Victor Pinchuk-funded Future Generation Art Prize. Here, a simple, beautiful video of a jellyfish is presented with a blandly folksy US voiceover that explores our changing conceptions of these strange animals. Historical, mythical, and contemporary scientific understandings of jellyfish are all introduced, before the defining moment — a perfectly judged self-reflexive turn which suddenly jolts you into an awareness that this has not been filmed deep in some fathomless ocean inaccessible to humans, but in a carefully spot-lit tank in an aquarium in Monterey Bay. Jellyfish can’t be tagged (or they’d sink) and can therefore only be observed and studied in artificial environments such as this one. “Jellyfish just don’t fit the categories,” we’re told.

Richard Mosse. The Envlave 3. 2012.

Richard Mosse. The Envlave 1. 2012.

Richard Mosse. The Envlave 2. 2012.

But the major triumph at Venice this year is the work of Richard Mosse in the Ireland pavilion. I was familiar with Mosse’s work from the Gordon Cheung-curated Immortal Nature exhibition at Edel Assanti back in 2012, so I kind of knew what to expect. But I was apprehensive: for me, the strength of his work had been the sense of latent threat within the landscape, and I was worried that the more direct focus on war and political violence would somehow compromise that. But I was completely wrong.

The video installation was completely beautiful and genuinely harrowing. Using now defunct military-grade infrared film to document years of violence in the Eastern Congo, Mosse's work, entitled The Enclave, is one of the best things I've seen in ages. Like all great art, it prompts many thoughts, suggests many purposes – the relationship between documenting subject and documented object; the resistance of the world’s complexities to singular narrative overlay; the overlooked and oppressed; the violence of exclusion. But, in the context of thinking about the environment, it makes us look again at landscape — suddenly, now, a place of both otherworldly beauty and hidden terror. Always able to be rethought anew.


Mediation — that is the difference vs Romanticism, a recognition that all experience is mediated in advance — by language, culture, etc., and that the pure engagement espoused by Coleridge et al was always an illusion. Everything today is touched by man — so much so that the current geological era has been named the anthropocene.

Kelly Richardson. Leviathan. 2011. Photo by Colin Davison.

2012 saw Richardson hold no less than three shows up in the north-east of England, where she lives in Whitley Bay. Her work is unapologetically forward-looking. The biggest piece, which took over the Spanish Dome in Whitley Bay, was Mariner 9, a vast film installation depicting an imagined occupation of Mars — and produced using imagery and technical data borrowed from NASA and put together with a cutting-edge scenery generation software programme called Terragen.

Kelly Richardson. Forest Park. 2007.

Surprisingly, Legion is the first time that Richardson has been able to show multiple works in the same gallery, and the resulting show deftly charts a clear career progression. Like one of her own films, the show takes us in a loop, from recent, large-scale, multi-screen installations, back to earlier works — smaller in scope — and round again to a troubled now. Short, looped works from 2005 to 2006 establish an uneasy relationship with cinema's established tropes: the camping trip, the lone car in a desert, the suburban Gothic. Richardson's childhood home spins on its axis in a bland Canadian suburb; a mosquito net forms a kind of second screen, smearing the sky to violet, orange and cyan; the sound of crackling popcorn encapsulates the discrepancy between cinema foyer and the 'great outdoors'.
 And yet, perhaps the popcorn here is not so much encapsulating the discrepancy as eliding the boundaries. Nature, notes the NGCA wall text, is “always already mediated”; always already in quotation marks. The camping trip is arguably no more authentic than the multiplex. This questioning of authenticity asserts itself through a kind of tricksiness: Leviathan (2011), for example, with its Biblical title, is suggestive of some kind of apocalyptic flood, but is actually of bald cypress trees in Texas. Similarly, in Exiles of the Shattered Star (2006), a Lake District idyll is dominated by falling, flaming meteorites, but they're only overlaid in post-production — they never land, only glide out of view. And in the Great Destroyer (2007-2012), receiving its world première in the NGCA's project space, eight screens of vividly lit forest are periodically interrupted by screeches of urban noise — a car alarm or a chainsaw. Then you read that they're actually caused by the male lyrebird, one of nature's most astounding mimics. What then is natural?

Kelly Richardson. Mariner 9 (Pixel Palace). 2012. 

Critically, Richardson's form of irony-laden questioning is not the sort that plays itself out in a tailspin of postmodern apathy, but forms part of a strategy for rigorous thinking about humanity's relationship with nature. By problematising any simple concept of the 'natural', Richardson actually makes the questions more urgent. The later, larger, slower-moving works are instructive in this sense. The Erudition (2010), for example, sees spectral frost-white trees flickering on and off in the night, whilst Forest Park (2007) maintains a similar feel, with fading halogen lights breathing raggedly in the hot breeze. Crickets rustle in the background. From the three-screen Leviathan, a dark spread of water ripples out across the worn tiling of the NGCA. Forest Park, observes Richardson, is “named after what it replaced, or destroyed”.


But is all this work – however 'good' – actually going to achieve anything?

Well, yes and no... Much of the contemporary 'new nature art' or 'new nature writing' scene is concerned with reframing the debate, attempting to help people rethink their relationship with the environment, reimagine their place within it, and reconsider the potential of their own individual and collaborative agency. Is all this focus on the framework within which action or thought takes place actually hindering the ability to carry out meaningful action or thought? Or can these only take place once new paradigms have been established? None of these things can be measured.

Wieland Payer. Lithograph. 2011.

Back in November 2012, I attended an event at Toynbee Studios in East London. Produced by independent publishers Penned in the Margins in association with climate change charity Cape Farewell, the event saw contributions from a number of interesting figures, most prominently perhaps poet Tom Chivers who runs Penned in the Margins, writer and curator Rachel Lichtenstein, and Ruth Little of Cape Farewell. She was discussing some of the successes of their project, which is most notable for organising Arctic voyages for artists, scientists and communicators. Ian McEwan’s novel Solar is probably the most high profile outcome. Is such art compromised by its climate change agenda? How different is Solar to, say, Shane Meadows-directed Somers Town (which was entirely funded by Eurostar)? And what difference does it make?

What marks the truly brilliant work of art in this context is the ability to simultaneously fit within and overrun, to support and undermine.      

Well, to return to Derrida's ideas of freedom and responsibility, we can begin to see how art is so well suited to the interdisciplinary approach, to situate itself not as a bedrock or an overview, but something that flits between discourses, commenting upon them and changing them from both the inside and the outside.

We might also argue that within the freedom instituted by art/literature is a certain ambivalent relationship to that freedom: “the freedom to say everything,” says Derrida, “is a very powerful political weapon, but one which might immediately let itself be neutralised as a fiction.” There is therefore, Derrida suggests, a responsibility, a moral duty towards maintaining irresponsibility: “refusing to reply for one’s thought,” he argues, “or writing to constituted powers, is perhaps the highest form of responsibility. To whom, to what?” The question is left open.

Tessa Farmer. Still from The Insectuary. 2007.

But there is a sense in which this ethical responsibility to maintain the openness of irresponsibility is actually threatened when art is subsumed within an agenda (even an ethical one). This is an especially prominent problem in the sphere of art-science collaboration, and art that attempts to convey specific ideas about nature, when it risks become 'merely' a tool for communication and public engagement. Hence the importance of maintaining vigilance, of energetically reacting against the reduction of art to some kind of tool to be used, and of ensuring that ‘quality’ (whatever that might mean) is the primary priority at all times.

 What marks the truly brilliant work of art in this context is the ability to simultaneously fit within and overrun, to support and undermine. One might cite any number of examples from across history, but some of the examples that we've discussed should suffice for a start — Kelly Richardson in particular, but also Laura Culham, Mariele Neudecker, Richard Mosse, and so many others.

In this way, art is not simply involved in the interpretation of nature; it is intimately involved in the very question of what 'nature' might actually be.

Red Earth. CHALK. Wolstonbury Hill performance, 2011.

TOM JEFFREYS is a London-based critic and editor. He is currently the Online Editor at the Institute of Arts & Ideas, and Editor of The Learned Pig. This piece was written in 2013 during his tenure as the Editor of The Journal of Wild Culture.


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