There’s a stereotype of the artist as a hermit, stuck inside his studio all day, that plagues art history, but in fact throughout the past century, many creators—in particular those active over the past decade—have considered the relationship between themselves and the environment, as well as the destructive effects of climate change. To celebrate Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, ARTnews has assembled a list of the best environmentalist artworks. Below, a guide to the most incisive works focused on land rights, ecological disaster, Anthropocene, biological reclamation, and more.
Robert Rauschenberg, Earth Day (1970)
One may not immediately think of Robert Rauschenberg as a political artist, but indeed he used his boundary-breaking art toward political means, and environmentalism was one of his favored causes. In 1970, on the occasion of the first Earth Day, he was commissioned by the American Environment Foundation to create a poster. Rauschenberg’s featured an image of a bald eagle surrounded by photographs of deforested lands and machines turning up dirt, casting a dark image of what had been done to the world’s land. But, in spite of the foreboding tone, Rauschenberg’s project had an uplifting aspect, too—the funds earned from the 10,300 posters sold went toward environmentalist groups.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Running Fence (1972–76)
Environmentalists have often targeted Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work, alleging that their massive interventions involving hundreds of thousands of square feet permanently damage the surrounding ecology, but the artists often denied the accusations—and even attempted to be transparent about the effects of their pieces on nature in order to avoid them. Running Fence, a project that featured 24.5 miles of fabric stretching from the 101 freeway, north of San Francisco, to the Pacific Ocean, marked the first time the artists issued a report on environmental impact of their work. Since then, Christo has made a point of using sustainable materials in his art.
Ana Mendieta, “Siluetas” (1973–80)
During the 1970s, many feminist artists began exploring the relationship between women’s bodies and natural environments. Key among them was Ana Mendieta. For the series “Siluetas,” she used her body to create imprints in landscapes that she said reminded her of her home country, Cuba, which she fled for the United States in 1961. The first works in the series were staged in Mexico, though there were also ones created in Iowa; all of them were temporary, existing now in the form of photographic documentation. Mendieta’s “Siluetas” evoke complex collisions between past and present (experts have discussed visual parallels between them and sculptures of ancient goddesses), and point out how much we have in common with our natural surroundings.
Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan (1982)
A key member of a loose movement known as ecofeminism during the 1970s and ’80s, Agnes Denes has been known for creating works that envision more ecologically friendly futures. This project, her most famous work, involved the planting of two acres’ worth of wheat in a landfill in Lower Manhattan. The grains occupying a plot that was then worth $4.5 billion may have seen pointless—Denes once wrote that the piece “called attention to our misplaced priorities”—but the artist had people harvest the seeds after Wheatfield’s run was completed, as part of an arts initiative with the aim to end world hunger.
Lois Weinberger, Das über die Planzen/ist eins mit Ihnen (1990–97)
Even though Lois Weinberger had a tendency to disavow connections to environmentalism, the late Austrian artist’s work has offered creative examples of how organic materials could be used to reclaim industrial spaces. With Das über die Planzen/ist eins mit Ihnen, which was permanently installed in Kassel, Germany, after debuting at Documenta X in 1997, Weinberger sowed ruderal plants—weeds, in this case, that can grow any in climate—along a 330-foot-long stretch of disused railway track. The plants, which are not native to Kassel, have continued to grow and are now considered a part of the local environment.
Rebecca Belmore, Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to their Mother (1991)
Created shortly after the Oka Crisis, in which the Mohawk people in Quebec, Canada, rebelled against government forces after their land was nearly turned into a golf course, Rebecca Belmore’s Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to their Mother was perceived as a powerful statement about Indigenous land rights. Belmore, a member of the Anishinaabe First Nation, set up a giant megaphone and had visitors to Canada’s Banff National Park speak into it, directly transmitting their messages to the surrounding land. Belmore’s piece highlights the ways in which advocacy for Indigenous land rights dovetails with environmentalist activism.
Mel Chin, Revival Field (1991–ongoing)
Can art right environmental wrongs? With his Revival Field project, Mel Chin has been trying to reclaim soil that has been overly polluted through the planting of organisms known as “hyperaccumulators,” which suck up toxic chemicals and are then harvested and burned. Chin first tried staging Revival Field at a Superfund site in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1991, but the project unexpectedly grew ensnared in National Endowment for the Arts controversy during the time of the Culture Wars and lost its funding. Then, after environmentalist groups got involved, the project was finally staged. Chin has returned to the project various times, restaging it in locales, such as New Orleans after its soil was contaminated with lead following Hurricane Katrina.
Chen Zhen, Fu Dao/Fu Dao, Upside-Down Buddha/Arrival at Good Fortune (1997)
Shortly before the start of the new millennium, many Chinese artists began pondering the ways that the environment of their country was being dramatically altered by enterprises that were rapidly growing because of globalism. Subverting the concept of fu, or good fortune, this work resembles a sanctuary, with its bamboo ceiling including refuse as part of its ceiling. According to Chen Zhen, the work questions “the relationship between nature, the Buddhist tradition, and the fast-paced proliferation of consumer products in Asia.”
Maria Thereza Alves, Seeds of Change (1999–ongoing)
Do seeds contain deeper records of world history than we realize? Maria Thereza Alves has mulled the question with her ongoing project Seeds of Change, which is reliant on archives and research to consider how the release of ballast—any material that is used to stabilize ships, in this case often sand, stone, and soil—at ports may have changed the natural ecology of Europe as we know it now. Along with moving goods around the world, Alves proposes, these ships also brought forth new kinds of species of microorganisms and plants to the continent. What’s been traditionally been perceived as being native to Europe may be foreign after all.
Maya Lin, Storm King Wavefield (2007–08)
Maya Lin may not immediately come to mind for environmentalist work—the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. remains her best-known project—but indeed she has contributed significantly to the field, offering up creative ways of reusing land toward artistic means. With her iconic Storm King Wavefield, she worked with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to turn a mass of land once filled with gravel into a ridged field that appears to undulate. To maintain the work, permanently installed at the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York, the artist installed a natural drainage system intended to have minimal impact on the surrounding environment.
Otobong Nkanga, Baggage (2007–08)
The baggage of this work’s title is twofold—it refers both to the weight of history and to the bags of sand that Otobong Nkanga shipped between the two countries in which she is based, Belgium and Nigeria. A restaged and tweaked version of a similarly titled Allan Kaprow piece, Nkanga’s work alludes to the transport of people and natural objects—sometimes by force, sometimes not—between Africa and Europe, in the process attesting to how colonialism has fundamentally shaped the environment as we know it now.
Pierre Huyghe, A Forest of Lines (2008)
Perhaps no artist has displayed such a strange passion for transplanting natural materials to art spaces as Pierre Huyghe, who, over the past two decades, has staged a number of oddball interventions that have made use of materials such as live dogs, bees, dirt, and giant rocks. A Forest of Lines was a temporary piece created for the 2008 edition of the Biennale of Sydney that lasted just 24 hours, but it remains one of his most well-known works. For it, he placed 1,000 living trees in the Sydney Opera House, turning the performance space into a forest. Music by Laura Marling guided viewers through the space, in what Huyghe labeled a “displacement.”
Olafur Eliasson, Ice Watch (2014)
Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson has dedicated a career to focusing on climate change and natural phenomena through minimalist sculptural interventions, and Ice Watch remains his most iconic work. For it, Eliasson brought 12 giant chunks from icebergs in a fjord off the coast of Greenland to Denmark, and he installed them in front of Copenhagen’s city hall, allowing them to melt away entirely while viewers climbed on them and admired them. Eliasson, who has since re-staged the piece in London and Paris and acted as a U.N. climate ambassador, has said the work is intended to offer concrete proof of climate change in action.
Daniel Steegmann Mangrané, Phantom (kingdom of all the animals and all the beasts is my name), 2014–15
The immersive digital forest in this VR piece may be seductive, but its beauty conceals a dark context. For the work, Daniel Steegmann Mangrané worked with a technology firm to design a virtual rendering of Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest, which is considered one of the most rapidly shrinking environments known to man. The Rio de Janeiro–based artist said he relied on VR technology with the hope of bringing viewers into closer communion with fauna that is slowly falling prey to humanity’s destructive tendencies.
Forensic Architecture, Ecocide in Indonesia (2015)
Over the past decade, a number of artists have grown interested in using research to attest to environmental destruction across the globe. With this project, Forensic Architecture, a London-based group that uses data analysis to investigate incidents of political strife, researched fires that raged in Indonesia in 2015, destroying more than 8,000 square miles of land. According to the group, the blazes can be related to the Indonesian government’s longstanding practice of seizing land from Indigenous communities. Those lands now play home to palm oil plantations.
Judy Chicago, Stranded (2016)
Many think of Judy Chicago first for her iconic feminist artworks of the 1970s and ’80s, but in fact, she’s addressed a number of important issues throughout her career, and one is the impact of humanity on the world’s ecology. Her latest series, “The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction,” which recently debuted at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. and is set to appear in her forthcoming de Young museum retrospective, meditates on death, destruction, and extinction, and environmentalism. In this work, Chicago portrays a polar bear that’s just barely able to nestle its body on top of a rapidly shrinking ice floe—a symbol, the work tells us of, “climate change and the exploitation of the environment which is now greater than nature can withstand.”
John Akomfrah, Purple (2017)
Like many John Akomfrah film installations, Purple navigates a complex web of interconnected historical strands, each of them linked to ecological destruction. Coursing through it is an interest in the ways that weaponry and conflict have fundamentally altered the earth as we know it today. In drawing parallels between global warming and wars of yesteryear, Akomfrah shows that climate change is itself the result of political strife—he’s even called the work “a person of color’s response to Anthropocene and climate change.”
Cecilia Vicuña, Quipu Viscera (2017)
In the recent years, Cecilia Vicuña has returned repeatedly to the concept of quipu, twisted knots of fiber that are used by Quechuan people to pass along histories of conflict and trade. Quipu works such as Quipu Viscera, which was shown in New Orleans, a city still reeling from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, feature knots strung from a hanging structure; this one features groupings of pink, purple, and yellow fibers that cascade down the ceiling to the floor. Vicuña’s quipu pieces have sometimes been exhibited outdoors by the artist, where the works are exposed to the elements, to allude to the ways that Indigenous knowledge and land are often subject to destructive forces.
Susan Schuppli, Nature Represents Itself (2018)
This analytical piece focuses on the Deepwater Horizon controversy that unfolded in 2010 after 4.9 million barrels of oil in a BP-operated facility spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. In the months that followed, BP offered satellite imagery of the spill—and it was later revealed that the company manipulated the images to understate the environmental impact. Susan Schuppli’s installation combines digital renderings and documentation to consider how nature doesn’t lie—the data that can be obtained from polluted waters holds the truth about its chemical composition.
Hito Steyerl, Power Plants (2019)
Hito Steyerl’s name is more often associated with dense videos pondering the circulation of digital imagery and the role technology plays in shaping capitalism as it stands right now, but in the past few years, she has cast her attention on Anthropocene and environmental doom. Power Plants, an installation focused on our obsession with predicting the future, harnessed a combination of videos, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence to envision fauna blooming 0.04 seconds from the present. Steyerl suggests that technology’s ability to offer such imagery may induce awe, but it does little to shift climate change—as digital petals unfold, species outside the museum space are going extinct at a rapid pace.