5 artists who work with nature

When the leader of the surrealists André Breton wrote “I seek the gold of time” – a phrase that would follow him to his grave – he was doing nothing more than poetically expressing a platitude about artists: they would be “seers”, in other words visionaries capable of apprehending the present world and perhaps even the world to come better than anyone else.

From this point of view, today’s visual artists have never been so obsessed with what can be considered the gold of our time, namely an awareness of the environment which is expressed through their numerous living testimonies. Not that flora and fauna have been absent from the repertoire of art throughout history. The French anthropologist, Philippe Descola, dated the first representations of landscapes that were not animated by men to the 16th century: the Alpine views of Bruegel the Elder (1). But, according to him, these representations expressed above all an opposition between nature and culture. The idea that man would have had supreme power, a superiority over what surrounds him, as if he were not part of it.

A new way to walk

It will thus have taken time for European and American art to no longer take forests, lakes, flowers or mountains for simple and beautiful scenery. Among the great pioneers of the genre, at the end of the 60s, on the other side of the Channel, a man with deep blue eyes would embrace the landscape in a completely new way. Richard Long (born in 1945) is a sculptor, photographer, performer but above all a surveyor. “My intention was to make a new art which would also be a new way of walking: walking like an art”. Generally considered as an artist of Land Art, he nevertheless refuses this denomination. “Land art is an American word that speaks of monumentality. To make these works, we buy land, we use machines. My practice is different. My work is a celebration of the world”. He can build an abstract sculpture using stones collected on his way as can be seen on the terrace of the CAPC in Bordeaux. Richard Long does not belong to any parish. He speaks neither of ecology, nor of communion with nature, nor of meditation… However, he has given birth to many followers.

In contemporary art, the use of natural elements as raw material to create will flourish from the 70s. We can thus evoke Giuseppe Penone who uses bay leaves or thorns in his installations or his paintings. More recently, Pierre Huyghe who stages bees and other animals in his “artistic ecosystems”, just like Tomas Saraceno who uses spiders to work on his natural sculptures.

Art as mission

In recent years, faced with the climate emergency, art has taken on very committed trends. Some major institutions and personalities have entered the subject as if on a mission. Thus, in February 2020, the Guggenheim Museum in New York dedicated its entire spiral architecture for a year to an exhibition by architect Rem Koolhaas. “Coutryside, the future” told how the countryside, this natural area inhabited by man, had become the key territory of the planet.

In Venice, Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza, the daughter of the baron whose name a Madrid museum bears, herself opened in 2019, in a disused church, Ocean Academy, a ‘academy to catalyze ocean knowledge, research and advocacy through art’. She explains: At the end of the XXIe century, the rise of the oceans will be such that it should lead to the migration of a billion people. It is time to take the view of the oceans”. In its programming, for example, it showed “Ocean in transformation”, an exhibition that is both aesthetic and documentary by the Territorial Agency, a collective of new genre architects. His installation consisted of a large number of screens animated by maps to tell the story of the ocean as an important place of exchange. From slavery routes to maps of the exploitation of natural resources in the seabed.

New commitments

In France, one of the pioneering institutions is the Cartier Foundation, now largely oriented towards social issues. She made a date with her exhibition “We the trees” in 2019 or that devoted to Claudia Andujar in 2020 which showed the work of the Brazilian photographer on the Yanomami Indians. More recently, as part of the Lille 3000 festival, the institution shows until October 2, at the Tri Postal, “Les Vivants”, 250 works from its collections “ in order to reinvent, with empathy and humility, a new terrestrial cohabitation with plants and animals”. We are now very far from the usual discourses on art…

In 2021, the philosopher of science Bruno Latour, a specialist in what he calls “the new climate regime” and who more and more often curates exhibitions, signed a show at the Center Pompidou-Metz with twenty-two artists. It took up the principles of its Biennial in Taipei under the title “You and I don’t live on the same planet” with a leitmotif, climate change, which according to him, will soon be “ at the center of all political discussions. We saw there for example the work of the Mexican Fernando Palma Rodriguez (born in 1957), who reinterprets, in his machines composed of objects of recovery, the mythologies of the Nawah people from which he is native. “In our language, the word waste does not exist. Recycling is an ancestral tradition,” explains the artist.

In a similar spirit, at the Palais de Tokyo, until September 4, “Reclaiming Nature” shows a proliferation of still unknown plastic artists. Curator Daria de Beauvais expresses her commitment: “the artists presented in this exhibition remind us of a fact: our capitalist and extractivist way of life is not viable”. An important branch of “green” art has become the voice of a new political consciousness.

(1) “Beyond nature and culture”, Gallimard, 2005.

Five living artists

Tomas Saraceno, poetic ecology

Installation views of Cloud Cities Barcelona, ​​by Tomas Saraceno, 2022. The work proposes to settle in height in a sort of cocoon designed with mirrors reflecting towards the sky. Courtesy Studio Tomás Saraceno and Mirador torre Glòries

The Argentinian Tomas Saraceno (born in 1973) is known for his spectacular achievements, such as in 2018 when he invaded the entire Palais de Tokyo with works that seemed absolutely unprecedented. Among other things, he used an army of spiders that weaved webs likened to living sculptures. Tomas Saraceno has spent time at MIT in Boston and at CNES (National Center for Space Studies) perfecting himself in the use of the sun or wind and banishing fossil fuels from his creations. In Barcelona, ​​at the top of a tower, he has just inaugurated his first permanent installation, “Cloud cities Barcelona”. He proposes to settle in one of the 113 small cells suspended like cocoons, covered with shimmering walls in order to observe the heavens. A structure for meditation.

Pierre Huyghe, dialogues between ecosystems

Pierre Huyghe, Untitled (Human Mask), 2014. A video that questions the relationship between man and animal.

Pierre Huyghe, Untitled (Human Mask), 2014. A video that questions the relationship between man and animal. Courtesy of Pierre Huyghe, Marian Goodman Gallery/Louis Vuitton Foundation/Adagp, Paris, 2022

The Frenchman Pierre Huyghe (born in 1962) is one of the most prominent artists on the international scene. He has taken part in such prestigious events as the Documenta in Cassel, has benefited from a retrospective at the Center Pompidou and is part of major contemporary art collections such as those of the Vuitton Foundation. Its creations take different forms, but as explained by Vassilis Oikonomopoulos, the chief curator of the Luma Foundation in Arles, who exhibited it at its inauguration last summer. “Huyghe is an artist who sets up ecosystems”. He thus invented a sculpture on which the bees come to agglomerate to make their honey, another within which a heating system creates an ideal habitat for the plants. But his most surprising work is “Human mask”, a 2014 film in which a monkey does the service in a cafe. Huyghe dressed him like a little girl and covered his face with a mask. The very tenuous gap between animal and human here creates a deep unease.

Giuseppe Penone, between human nature and the plant kingdom

Respirare l'Ombra, by Guiseppe Penone, 1998.

Respirare l’Ombra, by Guiseppe Penone, 1998. Courtesy of Giuseppe Penone and Marian Goodman gallery

The youngest of the members of the famous Italian Arte Povera movement, Giuseppe Penone (born in 1947), who recently became a member of the Academy of Fine Arts, first became known by intervening on plants to modify their growth: he sculpted a branch or a trunk by erecting obstacles. Since then, more generally, he often inserts elements of flora into his works to marry, as Philippe Descola would say, nature and culture. In his house, the canvases are covered with thorns and the walls lined with a mattress of marvelously fragrant bay leaves, as in the extraordinary work belonging to the Center Pompidou, “Respirare l’ombra”.

Zheng Bo, botany and political commitment

Pteridophilia II, video by Zheng Bo.  Her work is concerned with creating equality for all species.

Pteridophilia II, video by Zheng Bo. Her work is concerned with creating equality for all species. Courtesy of Zheng Bo and Kiang Malingue

The wildest green artist is Zeng Bo, a Chinese artist born in Beijing in 1974, who studied in the United States. He became known thanks to a film presented at Manifesta in Palermo in 2018 in which young men, naked in gardens, establish a very carnal dialogue with plants. Since then, success has smiled on him and he is currently in the credits of the Venice Biennale and the Sydney Biennale. He describes his creations as “eco-queer” films.

Ernesto Neto, between human nature and plant kingdom

Offering for a new conscience, 2022 by Ernesto Neto.  Spirituality, humanism and ecology have a determining influence on his work.

Offering for a new conscience, 2022 by Ernesto Neto. Spirituality, humanism and ecology have a determining influence on his work.Nicolas Brasseur /Ernesto Neto/Courtesy Galerie Max Hetzler

He is one of the stars of contemporary Brazilian art. Ernesto Neto became famous for his sculptures that we inhabit and walk through, soft monumental biomorphic structures filled with various materials. However, his creation took a particular turn, much more ecological and spiritual, since he came into regular contact with Indians from Amazonia living on the Peruvian border, the Huni Kuin. He now sets up entirely handcrafted pieces made from ribbons, in which he invites visitors to participate in meditation sessions. His message took a political turn with the coming to power of President Bolsonaro and the acceleration of deforestation.

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5 artists who work with nature

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