Beyond the Mirror: Indigenous Ecologies and ‘New Materialisms’ in Contemporary Art

Jessica L Horton & Janet Catherine Berlo


Many Native North American artists working today do not accept the terms of ongoing negativity. Recent works by Durham, Rebecca Belmore, Will Wilson and Jolene Rickard share a concern with the liveli- ness of matter that can provide the grounds – at times quite literally – for looking beyond the mirror. While there is evidence of the indigenous phi- losophical precepts that inform the work, the artists locate their practices in an extensive and shared contemporary landscape that includes the space of exhibition, thus short-circuiting a romantic gaze that might locate indigenous art or bodies in nature somewhere else. Their works issue an invitation to a wider audience – including us, a pair of non-Native, English-speaking scholars writing this article – to seriously consider the relevance of indigenous intellectual traditions to the contem- porary global challenges of co-habitation.

Certainly, the four artists’ work dovetails with a wider trend in eco-art that TJ Demos describes as ‘comprehending ecology as a field of interlink- ing systems of biodiversity and technology, social practices and political structures’.15 But a systems approach to the environment can still support forms of anthropocentrism, so long as humans are treated as privileged arbiters of the future. In each of the four projects we discuss, artists grant environmental entities the agency to push back, to punish or reward human activity, to remind people of their precarious position in a relational world where allies are essential to flourishing, as the quotes that open this article emphasize. In lieu of an exhaustive account of these works, we focus on a single material agent in each project, tracing its complex forms of movement and affiliation into spaces of exhi- bition. Seeking to bind viewers into a shared fate with material friends and foes, the following works raise the possibility of an ethics premised on mutual recognition and shared livelihood.

In stone, a substance that is indigenous to every place on the globe, Durham has found a material ally to match the mobility of contemporary art and commerce.16 In Encore Tranquilite ́ (2009), the artist staged an encounter between a giant boulder and single engine aeroplane in an aban- doned airfield outside Berlin. In a widely published story, the antiquated ex- Soviet plane was deemed unsafe by European standards and was slated for sale in Africa, tying its fate to the ethical failures of the neocolonial market- place.17 The boulder came out on top, nearly splitting the plane in two. The implied buoyancy of substrate worked against European metaphors that link it to inertia: ‘stone dead’, ‘stone faced’, ‘stone cold’. While Franke reads Durham’s many works with stone as staging the disruptive force of Europe’s repressed ‘other’, we emphasize an equally affirmative strain: the lively rock acted as an unexpected ally in a tale of global injustice, a potential saviour of countless undervalued human lives that demanded acknowledgement for its intervention before the eyes of viewers. When stone and splintered plane were relocated to the foyer of the Muse ́e d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris for Durham’s 2009 retrospective, ‘Rejected Stones’, the materials indexed an encounter that took place in the past.18 Visitors could only scan the scene for clues: Did the stone fall from above or sail through the air? Was it local to Europe or a hit man from Africa? Was the plane it targeted in motion, empty, defunct? Here, material evinced not only liveliness and ethical orientation, but also the ability to know things, marking the limits of viewers’ capacities to control their sur- roundings. Durham lets stone tell its own part in the story.

While relating to Durham’s work does not necessarily depend upon recognizing indigenous influence, highlighting such connections across the intellectual boundaries we have described can certainly enhance an understanding of its philosophical and political dimensions. Personified stones are a well-established feature of indigenous landscapes across the Americas, appearing at travellers’ shrines, in sentient architecture, or as people temporarily stilled: Durham has written of Indian pilgrimages to the sanctuary of Chalma in Mexico, during which ‘those who give up or try to stop or turn back become stones’, awaiting new life via the decisive kick of a future pilgrim. In a famous 1960 essay that we quote in the epigraph, anthropologist A Irving Hallowell likewise recounts Anishi- nabe peoples’ understandings of stone as ‘other-than-human persons’ whose animate potential can be latent or active. Anishinabe language grasps stones in a state of becoming – a concept communicated word- lessly in Encore Tranquilite ́, where resting stone threatens to spring back into action.20 Durham (who is Cherokee, but widely intellectually engaged with transnational indigenous materialities) articulated a politi- cal role for animate stone under colonial conditions in a poem published in 1983, following his involvement in the American Indian Movement (AIM). ‘They Forgot that Their Prison is Made of Stone, and Stone is Our Ally’ was inspired by the incarceration of AIM leader Russell Means.21 In it the stones spoke ‘the language of the Sioux; what other language could a South Dakota stone speak?’.22 Conversing with the walls allowed the jailed man to forge sustaining networks of communi- cation and alliance, thus keeping objectification at bay. While Durham’s early poem described the stones’ address in English, his work since the late 1990s foregrounds a materialist language of collision and debris – one in which the agency of stones no longer needs linguistic translation to be ‘read’ by international visitors.23 If befriending stone could help humans shed their shackles in what Michel Foucault deemed the quintessential architecture for modern surveillance, the prison, then why not also in the neocolonial marketplace – and the modern museum?

Jessica L Horton & Janet Catherine Berlo (2013) Beyond the Mirror, Third Text, 27:1, 17-28, DOI: 10.1080/09528822.2013.753190

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A Research Report by Beth Carruthers 

It might seem at first blush that artists and scientists approach the world in very different ways. In popular culture, the former might be stereotyped as frivolous and disconnected from the “real world”, and the latter as unimaginative and concerned only with “hard facts”. Like most stereotypes, these are doomed to inaccuracy. In reality, the two have much in common, and where they do not, they can be most complimentary. Environmental philosopher Allen Carlson for instance, claims that one can have aesthetic appreciation of the environing world only through science, ie, through understanding how things work together beautifully in natural systems.


Beth Carruthers 2006

Artists and scientists alike begin their working projects and processes with a question – an enquiry. They are located within and asking questions of the same world. Processes and final manifestations of the work can differ greatly, yet goals may be parallel. Increasingly, when it comes to ecology and the environmental sciences many artists, scientists and environmental groups are asking similar questions and looking for solutions to the same, increasingly global, problems.

Similar questions about how we may improve human/world relations might involve finding and designing solutions to polluted waters, recovering and preserving habitats and species, educating people about the mystery of the other than human world and how everyday lifestyle choices impact this habitat we share.

Increasingly, the sciences and environmental groups are looking to the arts for partnership, collaboration and translation of vital information into forms that reach individuals, communities and organizations. The arts can facilitate a process of learning through the engaged senses, bypassing conditioned patterns of thinking and allowing other ways of knowing to come forward, at times subtly, at times overwhelmingly. Whether the work focuses on natural, cultural, or political aspects of their environing world, artists have always been sensitive and responsive to the world. The role of artist as catalyst, critic, and educator is hardly a new development. Oftentimes the work has been urgent, prodded into becoming by the nature of a crisis, catastrophe or political repression.

Never, though, has the role of the arts been so urgent as it is in the face of what is now obvious to all as an immediate global crisis within our sustaining and environing world. Because this crisis has been and continues to be nurtured and produced by past and current cultural practices and ideologies, artists, immersed in world and cultural practices, are ideally situated to locate and develop responses.

But if environmental groups and scientists increasingly look to artists for collaboration, many contemporary artists are just as frequently turning to scientists and ecologists for their detailed analysis of our interdependent world. As collaborators in artistic projects, ecologists and scientists provide in-depth research about, and a sophisticated understanding of, the interconnectedness of natural systems that can prove inspirational and efficacious in the design and implementation of EcoART works. 

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Benefit Oriented Socially-Engaged Art

Jing Yang

Over the past half century, numerous art practices have expanded the field of art production across disciplinary boundaries and become more involved with non-art social institutions and organizations. These practices are often undertaken beyond the conventional venues such as galleries and museums. Focusing on dealing with social and political issues, these practices depend on, and value, the collaborative participation of people in communities. This unprecedented tendency has changed all aspects of art making, perception and distribution. These practices together demonstrate a multiform and contingent nature. Under the umbrella term “socially engaged art”, there are a variety of projects that differ from each other based on their purposes and, consequently, working methods. This dissertation sets forth the concept of benefit-oriented socially engaged art (BOSEA). Based on in-depth case study of the Art for the Disabled Scheme, and the Art and Culture Companions, this dissertation develops a better understanding of benefit-oriented socially engaged art practices within the framework of socially engaged art and their position within the whole scene of contemporary culture and art. Benefit-oriented socially engaged art practices aim at bringing benefits to individuals and communities through art-based services. These practices are often ignored and excluded from art discussions due to their practical purposes and functional mechanisms. This research reveals that although situated on a fuzzy territory between art and non-art, between art and social work, benefit-oriented socially engaged art practices still embody aesthetic value. The blossom of these projects reveals a new thinking about the relationship between contemporary art and society—art is used as a service to enhance the well-being of people, and a new way for artists to adopt creativity for providing holistic solutions in order to make social change on the grassroots level. The study of benefit-oriented practices points to an open future for art, and reveals the possibility to synthesize different research paradigms into a more unified worldview based on new understanding of the function of art and artists. 

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Environmental Art

By Sam Bower 

From an environmental perspective, we are living in transitional times; the practices we engage in now have far-reaching implications for the survival of the earth and all its life forms. “Environmental Art” is an umbrella term for a wide range of work that helps improve our relationship with the natural world. Art provides a lens through which to explore all aspects of society--from urban food production, climate policy, watershed management, and transportation infrastructure to childhood education and clothing design--from an ecological perspective. This paper provides a brief history and salient examples of projects and practices in this field over the last several decades. Although primarily meant to provide a U.S. perspective of the Environmental Art movement, all of the work cited exists within a networked global system characterized by the rapid exchange of ideas. 


In ancient cultures whose people managed to live in the same place for thousands of years, the behaviors and infrastructure necessary for survival were also deeply connected to art, rituals, and artifacts of considerable beauty and significance. These sustainable practices--spread and maintained as culture, not just practical policy and engineering-- also formed part of a coherent world view in which each element (a carved doorway, ceremonial costume, or a planting song) gained strength and resonance from the larger system. Viewed from this perspective, contemporary Environmental Art practice offers an opportunity to incorporate some of these approaches back into modern industrial civilization by offering a more holistic view of the role of art in service of our communities and ecosystems.

In a contemporary context, the Environmental Art movement is considered to have emerged from the political and social turbulence of the late 1960s and early '70s. Artists were inspired by new understanding of environmental issues and ecological theory as well as by the urge to work outdoors in non-traditional spaces. Since these early beginnings, the field of Environmental Art has grown dramatically into a diverse global cultural movement that has expanded the role of art and artists in society

Environmental Art often takes into consideration the ecological impact of the ways an artwork was constructed and disseminated, as well as long term effects on non- human life and systems.

“Environmental Art” is an umbrella term that refers to a wide range of work that helps improve our relationship with the natural world. Many artistic practices such as land art, eco-art, and art in nature as well as related developments in social practice, acoustic ecology, slow food, interaction design, bio-art and others can be considered to be part of this larger cultural shift.

In recent years, critical scholarship, university programs, and institutional support for this type of work have grown. The Internet has played a pivotal role in the dissemination of artists’ work, promoting civic discussion and increasing access to often remote or ephemeral projects internationally.

The field of Environmental Art is as diverse as the natural world that inspires it. Art provides a lens through which to explore all aspects of society--from urban food production, climate policy, watershed management, and transportation infrastructure to childhood education and clothing design--from an ecological perspective. The rich cultural practices of our ancestors combined art and respect for the natural world in almost everything they did allowed them to hunt, farm and pattern their lives with the land and the seasons. Their art was sustainability. We are slowly seeing this whole-systems approach emerge again today, through contemporary approaches to art and environment. 


s a field, Environmental Art can be categorized in many ways.

By time: much environmental art is designed to disappear or transform while some is designed to last for centuries to provide long-lasting infrastructure, to educate or empower communities, or to heal the land.
By place: non-localized and distributed digital works, repeatable templates that can be recreated anywhere, or site-specific installations.
By method: individual projects made by artists in their studios or broad-based collaborations between artists and others such as scientists, educators, or community groups.

Human activity affects other people just as it does the world around them. Most art is designed with a largely human audience in mind, even when its actual impact is much greater. Environmental Art often takes into consideration this larger context, the origin of materials used, and the ecological impact of the ways an artwork was constructed and disseminated, as well as long term effects on non-human life and systems.

Different historical terms can serve to cluster the work by function and historical artistic context. (See this essay from the website for a discussion of terminology or search the web using these terms for books or online resources to learn more.)

Land Art, Earthworks, and Earth Art

This broad category of work had its origins in the U.S. in the late 1960s and early 1970s and generally refers to both small- and very large-scale outdoor sculpture made from earth or cement and construction materials, arranged in minimalist geometric forms. Robert Smithson’s iconic Spiral Jetty (Great Salt Lake, UT, 1970) is a classic example. A 1,500 foot coi of basalt rocks 15 feet wide set into the shallow flats of a lake bed, its function was primarily conceptual and aesthetic, not ecological. The site is fairly remote and as the water level rises and falls, the rocky form is sometimes completely submerged.

Several artists of this period also worked in desert landscapes of the American Southwest and created architectural scale work designed to highlight the movement of the sun or astronomical phenomena (like Nancy Holt or James Turrell), while others moved soil or documented temporary interventions that explored spatial relationships outdoors or made the act of piling, or digging, into art. These artists were influenced by the egalitarian and environmental movements of their time and tended to focus on the transfer of contemporary art ideas outdoors, beyond gallery walls and into remote places, to create works that could not easily be collected or sold. 

Art in Nature

Some early Land Art did tread lightly on the Earth. Dennis Oppenheim carved rings in snow along the U.S./Canadian Border for Annual Rings (1968) and Richard Long engaged in well- documented walking projects in England during that same period. These conceptual projects can be seen as precursors for what is also known now as “Art in Nature”–ephemeral outdoor installations and simple geometric forms assembled from natural materials found on site. These stunningly beautiful ephemeral sculptures are often made from colored leaves, flower petals, twigs, icicles, raked sand, or stacked stones, which are then photographed. Some may only last minutes before they return to the earth, so documentation plays a central role in this work. The focus is usually on creating objects or subtle changes in the landscape that highlight geographical features or explore the natural forms of the materials themselves. This form of art may celebrate the beauty of nature but does not usually address ecological issues directly.

The British artist Andy Goldsworthy is commonly associated with this approach and frequently shares his work through framed photographs in galleries or in coffee-table books. Art in Nature artists have a strong reverence for natural form and beauty and a desire to create a minimal impact on the land in the production of their work. There can be a spiritual dimension as well, with mandalas and structures designed to bless or protect the land. Some commissioned projects can involve fallen trees, dry stone masonry or more “permanent” installations in museums and sculpture parks. Art in Nature can also engage the public directly in stacking stones or creating temporary shapes using natural materials on beaches or in public areas, offering participants a personal contact with nature that inspires deeper commitment.

Ecological Art

Also known as eco-art or sustainable art, this work addresses environmental issues directly and often involves collaboration, site restoration, and "eco-friendly" approaches and methodology. The form of an ecological artwork often emerges directly from its function in service to communities and ecosystems. According to a group known as the ecoartnetwork, 

ecological art seeks “to inspire caring and respect, stimulate dialogue, and encourage the

long-term flourishing of the social and natural environments in which we live.”

The work of the pioneering collaborative duo of Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison and their studio illustrates the trajectory of this type of work. With their early food-related works the Harrisons called attention to issues of backyard farming and food security. For example, for their Portable Fish Farm: Survival Piece #3 (1971), they installed a functioning fish farm inside a gallery and eventually caught, cooked, and served them to the public. Today, the Harrisons engage in large-scale mapping and collaborative planning projects to re-envision the resettlement of entire countries or bioregions. Their work generates dialogue and proposes bold new visions for dealing with global climate change, through poetic dialogues, printed and projected maps, and 3D landscape models.

Other leading figures have addressed land-use issues through projects that have inspired numerous variations internationally. In these projects, artists designed habitat sculptures, created toxic soil and water clean-up installations, and developed urban gardening related concepts. Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape (1978) was a small fenced plot of pre-colonial native vegetation in NYC; Patricia Johanson created larger-scale innovative landscape designs like Fair Park Lagoon in Dallas, TX (1981); and Agnes Denes planted two acres of wheat in Manhattan for Wheatfield: A Confrontation (1982). Betty Beaumont’s Ocean Landmark (1978-1980) reprocessed 500 tons of coal waste into blocks to form an artificial reef 40 miles off the New York Harbor. Other artists such as Lorna Jordan bring art and ecological design principles to bear in projects like Waterworks Gardens (1996), a large and verdant wastewater treatment park.

Ecological art projects range from the humorous, poetic, and visually captivating, to imminently practical initiatives that might not look like “art” at all but serve to shift public perception about important issues in innovative, memorable ways to create lasting change. For an ecological artwork to succeed, the science and the practical implications need to be thought through, so many of them involve collaborations with scientists, architects, educators, community members, and resource managers. For artists doing this work, the research and creative discussion that emerges from these interactions can be as important as the finished projects. 

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