The Principles of Sustainability in Contemporary Art

Ivan Ladislav Galeta, Spiral Mow, 2004

This essay appeared in a special issue of Praesens: Central European Contemporary Art Review published to accompany the Symposium on Sustainability and Contemporary Art at CEU Budapest as well as on GreenMuseum, where the full text can be found.

The Land art movement of the 1960s and 70s has often been seen as the origin of today’s environmental art. Land artists famously left the white cube of the gallery to make dramatic interventions in the living landscape. ‘Instead of using a paintbrush to make his art Robert Morris would like to use a bulldozer.’ This statement by Robert Smithson points to the ‘earthmovers’ preoccupation with marking, removing, and rearranging natural materials on a grand scale, arguably treating nature as a giant canvas. Although they were involved in a dispute with Greenbergian modernists, who disapproved of all art that tried to link to the real world, denied the connection of art to a specific historical context, and wished artists to remain within traditional disciplines, it could be argued that their polarised positions represent two sides of the same modernist coin.

A more fruitful ground for searching for the origins of today’s sustainable art is in the innovative practices of the conceptual artists of the same period. Their radical questioning of the art system, alternative strategies for making and presenting work, engagement with social and political realities, ethics, and encouragement of independent thought, are all important legacies for contemporary art. Furthermore, dematerialisation, through the disavowal of the art object and shift towards process-based practices, performances, actions, as well as ephemeral works that were created not to last, was an invaluable inheritance for later sustainable art, as of course was the desire of conceptual artists to provoke on the level of idea or concept. Regarding the interplay of art and nature, a highly resonant image from the late 1960s was the art student Goran Trbuljak’s gesture of throwing empty picture frames into the boundless sea.