BY Brian Dillon in Reviews | 06 JUN 07
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Issue 108

Land, Art: A Cultural Ecology Handbook

BY Brian Dillon in Reviews | 06 JUN 07

In a footnote to his Artforum essay ‘Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape’ (1973), Robert Smithson quotes the ecologist Charles Reich’s contention that, faced with imminent environmental catastrophe, we had best not be distracted by economic and political problems. ‘My feeling is’, counters Smithson, ‘that these “hard questions” are going to have to be faced – even by artists. All the bogus spiritualists […] won’t be of any help.’ As the critic Jeffrey Kastner points out in his contribution to this complex and ambitious volume, Smithson’s spirit inevitably haunts any contemporary discussion of art and environment; his legacy, however, ought to consist precisely of the refusal of environmentalist piety.

Land, Art (the comma is essential) is less a compendium of belated responses to a certain Smithsonian moment, of ecologists’ appeals to the tradition of Land art, than a conceptual toolkit for comprehending the linked future of the two terms in question. The book’s model is perhaps Making Things Public, the vast anthology of art projects and essays assembled by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel for the 2005 ZKM exhibition of the same title. Max Andrews has corralled a similarly disparate and suggestive array of writers and artists to produce a book that entirely eschews the consoling (even when apparently most concerned) rhetoric and imagery of mainstream environmental activism.

Instead, Land, Art addresses the specifics of art and agitation. Lara Almárcegui photographs wastelands at the edge of Europe’s industries, Nils Norman ‘Some Playgrounds in and around Tokyo’. Amy Balkin records her efforts to give away to the public a plot of desert she bought in California: the public sphere turns out to be fenced off at every turn. Thomas Hirschhorn discusses his Skulptur-Sortier-Station (1997) as a temporary, public intervention in economy and ecology. Meanwhile, the somewhat heroic history of Land art is rewritten as democratic and collective: Francis Alÿs’ When Faith Moves Mountains (2002) involved 500 people encircling a huge dune in Peru and attempting to move it with shovels while Tomás Saraceno attempts to capture the immensity of the sky above the Bolivian salt flats.

The most essential texts are those that risk the sort of dialectical thinking that Smithson recognized was lacking a quarter of a century ago. In an essay published in Artforum last year Bruce Sterling audaciously adduces the fashion world’s embrace of the green agenda (the kind of ‘greenwash’ that activists routinely decry) as hard evidence of how real global change, as opposed to local consciousness-raising, may occur. On one level it’s a preposterous, Swiftian, argument, but until environmentalists recognize and exploit the contradictions in global capital, they will be like Victorian philanthropists who looked at the poor and saw only victims, not actual historical agents.

A questionnaire elicited from Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus – the authors of the controversial essay ‘The Death of Environmentalism’ (2004) – advances a similar argument from very different premises. Advocating a new post-environmentalism, they point out that the now conventional distinction between the science of ecology and the politics of poverty means that neither can properly be addressed. Environmentalists behave as though some extra-human (actually, quasi-divine, hence the repeated insistence on looking within ourselves for sins against the environment) sort of nature were at issue, not a complex nexus of the economic, cultural and natural. Environmentalism, they conclude, ‘must die, so that a new, more relevant, expansive and powerful politics can be born’.

Brian Dillon

Brian Dillon is a writer. His latest book Affinities: On Art and Fascination will be published in spring 2023 by the New York Review of Books and Fitzcarraldo Editions, London. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.