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Frieze London 2021

Challenging the Art World's Material Waste

As the COP26 conference approaches, how individual artists and artist institutions are responding to the demands of the climate crisis

BY Tom Jeffreys in Frieze London , Frieze Week Magazine , Opinion | 01 OCT 21

‘We are birds that do not kill.’ This declaration opened California-based artist Helen Mirra’s 2019 manifesto CATHARTES 19, setting out a series of principles and practices responding to concerns for climate collapse, plastic waste and the treatment of nonhuman living beings. Poetic, but practical and concise, the declaration contained both general ethical statements as well as specific commitments to which galleries wishing to work with Mirra must adhere: that physical artworks should be decomposable and therefore not include plastics or acrylic paint, for example, or that non-instrumental travel should be discouraged, and not-flying incentivized by galleries and institutions ‘offering equivalent cash to artists in lieu of covering flight and lodging costs’.

Cecily Brown, There'll be bluebirds, 2019, oil on linen, 135 × 170 cm. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Genevieve Hanson

CATHARTES 19 has become a touchstone for artists and arts organizations seeking to reduce their environmental impact. The publicity around the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) taking place in Glasgow this November, in tandem with August’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), means there is no longer any excuse for ignorance or negligence. The increasing frequency of extreme weather conditions, including this year’s floods, hurricanes and wildfires, has made what once seemed a distant threat a present reality.

Last October saw the launch of Gallery Climate Coalition1 (GCC), a nonprofit organization founded by a group of London galleries including Thomas Dane, Kate MacGarry, Lisson Gallery and Sadie Coles HQ. (Frieze is also a founding member.) The aim is to develop and share the necessary tools to reduce waste and lower the carbon footprint of the commercial gallery sector by 50 percent over the next decade, in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement. Tools include a carbon calculator, which enables galleries easily to calculate their carbon footprint (shipping, travel and building energy use are the largest contributors for most commercial galleries) and to start taking immediate action. ‘People wanted to take positive steps, but they didn’t know how,’ says GCC managing director Heath Lowndes. ‘There is a lot of misinformation and confusion. Our aim is to dismantle the hurdles that create inaction.’ Within a year, the coalition has already grown to more than 500 members in 20 countries.

Crystal Bennes, Salisbury Crags (from the living room window), 2020, Ilford HP5 processed in star anise developer. Courtesy: the artist

In addition, GCC has announced a series of donated works to be auctioned by Christie’s to raise money for ClientEarth, a charity that uses the law to pressurize governments and corporations into reducing their environmental impact, starting with a Cecily Brown painting in an evening sale in London during Frieze Week. The auction house, which has also joined the GCC, has announced its new sustainability goals in early 2021, including a 50 percent reduction in carbon and converting to 100 percent recyclable packaging and printed material.

While GCC foregrounds a global strategy led by data, other organizations are making changes inspired by a sense of place and local community. Many credit Julie’s Bicycle for the vital work they have been doing in this field since 2007. For Cample Line, surrounded by cattle farms in rural Scotland, it’s clear that the entire region will undergo significant changes over the coming years. On the back of working with Mirra on a solo show in 2020, Cample Line has implemented a number of small changes, including no longer using vinyl lettering on walls, switching to fully compostable paper cups and working only with local printers. Similarly, the recently established contemporary art festival Margate NOW takes inspiration for its 2021 edition from its outdoor garden setting, with commissions focused on ephemeral projects with a low carbon footprint, such as artworks made of biodegradable natural materials.

Across the UK today, artists are adopting practices to minimise their impact upon the world: Nottingham’s Yelena Popova mixes her own paints from found materials in a conscious refusal of the petrochemical industry; Edinburgh’s Crystal Bennes (who happens to be my wife) employs alternative photographic techniques to avoid the use of animal products such as gelatin; the peripatetic but currently-London based Himali Singh Soin is growing radiation-absorbing plants in the Indian Himalayas. The collective Cooking Sections won a nomination for this year’s Turner Prize for their ongoing CLIMAVORE project and their Tate Britain exhibition ‘Salmon: A Red Herring’ (2020–21), which draws attention to the catastrophic practices involved in salmon farming; the collective have worked with institutions such as Aberdeen Art Gallery and the Serpentine Galleries in London to remove salmon from their catering menus.

Agnes Denes, Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule – 11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 Years (Triptych) 1992–1996, 1992–2013. Courtesy: the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York

At this year’s Frieze Masters, there is a chance to put these contemporary developments into a wider historical context. Rare book dealer Peter Harrington is showing 800 first-edition publications, original maps, manuscripts, photographs and artworks that chart an intellectual history of climate change: from a 16th-century Italian translation of Aristotle to the first full-colour ‘Earthrise’ photograph issued by NASA in 1968, the collection provides fascinating insights into changing conceptions of the planet and our relationship to it. In the Spotlight section, acb Gallery from Budapest is showing work by Agnes Denes, one of the great environmental artists of the past few decades. Denes is known for major land interventions such as Tree Mountain (1992–96) – a massive earthwork in Ylöjärvi, Finland, comprising 11,000 trees planted by 11,000 people – and Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan (1982), two acres of wheat planted and harvested by the artist in New York.

‘Infinite growth is not possible in a world of finite resources,’ says Lowndes, ‘and our current model is based on infinite growth.’ It thus remains unclear whether the art market can become truly sustainable without a radical overhaul of our entire economic system? Small shifts can make a big difference, but radical change must come soon.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, October 2021 under the headline 'Turning the Page'.

Main image: Selected volumes from the collection ‘One Hundred Seconds to Midnight – Sounding the Alarm for Climate Change’. Courtesy: Peter Harrington, London; photograph: Norman Wilcox Geissen

1. Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC) is an international charity and membership organisation providing environmental sustainability guidelines for the art sector. Participating in this year’s fair, they will share advice and resources with the public from their booth at Frieze London, encouraging a discussion on how the art world can reduce its impact on climate change.

Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh. He is the author of two books: The White Birch: A Russian Reflection (Little, Brown, 2021) and Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot (Influx Press, 2017).