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 greenmuseum.org 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. 

Cont. reading...

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