Nature Awareness

Andy Goldsworthy gets up before dawn on a winter’s day to make his art. He draws his materials from nature, in this case, icicles that have formed on the underside of rocks and tree branches. By breaking them just so with his hands, he arranges the pieces in a spiral form that seems to wind snake-like in and out of a projecting rock. The ice pieces create a brand new icicle, one that sparkles and glints in the light of the rising sun. But the sunlight, which transforms the sculpture into a dazzling serpentine of ice, also melts the fragile joints and, one by one, the pieces drop away and art returns to nature.

By using the forms and materials of nature, by “shaking hands with the place” as he puts it, Goldsworthy makes audiences more aware of nature’s patterns and nature’s rhythms. His evanescent sculptures made of ice and leaves and natural dyes straddle the abstract categories of nature and culture, emphasizing that, in the end, all art takes place in an environment and according to a particular ecology of means.

For many modern artists, it is the task of art to reawaken the senses, including our sense of nature, which has been dulled by technology, urban life, and rapid travel. As chronicled in the documentary Rivers and Tides, Andy Goldsworthy uses his art to draw us back to nature, to become aware of the cycles of sun and tide that have been obscured by too much coffee and concrete.  So too have other artists — such as Robert Smithson and his infamous Spiral Jetty of rocks in the Great Salt Lake or Cuban artist Ana Mendieta and her female forms inscribed in snow, mud embankments, and marshes — brought art out of the gallery into the open spaces.  For many of these artists, nature is an active participant in the work, just as Walter De Maria’s Lightening Field relies on the cooperation of the heavens to “complete the art.”

Similarly, environmentalists have insisted on reminding us of the importance of being aware of our surroundings, of the role that nature plays even in the middle of skyscrapers and highways.  From this awakened awareness they urge action to preserve and sustain nature. This awareness extends from the smallest link in the evolutionary chain — the endangered snail darter, perhaps — all the way to the globe itself, which, according to scientist Richard Lovelock in his Gaia hypothesis, forms a living creature that regulates itself in the same way that a human body will unconsciously rely on circulatory and respiratory systems.

Has our awareness of nature led merely to its further exploitation, as more tourists arrive to disturb the rainforests and artists make their mark on the landscape? Has the awareness of nature been packaged and sanitized for consumption as we spoon up Rainforest Crunch ice cream and slather Brazil nut oil conditioner into our hair?  Have environmental movements acquired power by playing on public awareness of the degradation of nature only to trade that power for influence with developers and politicians?  How can we integrate an awareness of nature into lives that have been largely torn from nature? How can we simultaneously hold awareness of nature and awareness of social justice in our minds?

On a trip to Provisions, check out the art of Goldsworthy, Mendieta, and Smithson in Land and Environmental Art by Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Walls, listen to the compilation of nature songs in Sing Another Earth Song for Me, Mister!, watch the avian travelogue Winged Migration, leaf through the entertaining magazine The Ecologist, and view a selection of stunning nature photography at the website of the Nature Photographers Online Magazine.

Comments are closed.