Environmental Art in the Public & Urban Space
A range of artworks including those with a historical approach to nature in art and the recent works with an ecological or political content come together to constitute what we call today Environmental Art. This environmental art expanded its horizons and from the two dimensional canvases hung up on the walls in the confines of a hall or gallery, came out to explore the public spaces in the urban arena.
In the year 1978, a vacant CBD lot in Wellington New Zealand was the first canvas when Barry Thomas and his friends decided to occupy it illegally. After dumping a whole lot of top soil, Thomas went on to plant 180 cabbage seedlings in the form of the word “Cabbage”. There was a flooding influx of contributing artists’ work and what started as a vacant lot of cabbages became a full-fledged event that lasted six months before culminating in a week-long festival to celebrate the indigenous variety of trees and the surrounding forest. In 2012, the country’s biggest cultural institution – Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa acquired the entire archives of the cabbage patch declaring it a significant part of the country’s artistic & social history.
It was at the end of 1970s and 1980s that the artistic landscape saw a shift of these works into the public, urban landscape. Robert Morris, for example started involving the county departments and public arts commissions to bring in art in the public spaces like an abandoned gravel pit. In 1982, employing a similar approach Herbert Bayer was chosen to create Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks which was a truly functional piece of work. Not only was it an effective measure for erosion control, but also as a place that served as a reservoir during heavy rains, and during the dry spells it was a gorgeous 2.5 acre park.
The scope of environmental art went through a continual evolution as it entered the arena of urban landscapes. Agnes Denes planted a two acre site with wheat which was initially a landfill that simply contained all kinds of urban rubble at the time. Wheatfield – A confrontation, in downtown Manhattan became an iconic work of environmental art that changed the urban landscape at the time. However, today in its place stands the Battery Park and the World Financial Center transforming a place of ecological context to one of economic emphasis.
The credit of introducing the key environmentalist idea of bringing back natural environment into the urban environment goes to Alan Sonfist. In 1965, he proposed his first historical Time Landscape sculpture, at the corner of Houston and Laguardia in Greenwich Village, New York that is visible even today. To demonstrate the instrumental role that nature will play in the upcoming challenges of the 21st century, Sonfist is attempting to invoke an enthusiasm for environmental issues among the public authorities and the citizens to recommend a number of many more such projects all across the metropolitan area. The sanctity of the environment and the nature is obvious in the works of these Environmental Artists.
The growth of environmental art in the public spaces has enthused the artists to employ the urban arena as another environment and as a platform to absorb new ideas and theories about the environment in front of a much larger audience.