The politics of materials

In my last column I wrote about how art can be political and why politicians should pay attention to it. It got me thinking about whether art is inherently political, regardless of whether its content is specifically political. Considering that many visual art forms are very material-intensive, it seems like the politics of the materials themselves automatically transfer onto the art piece.

As you probably know, materials and products are not always extracted, grown or manufactured in an environmentally sustainable manner. To try to encourage companies to be more socially and environmentally sustainable, the consumer can “vote” with his or her dollar—he or she can decide to consciously purchase, and therefore support, companies that uphold the values of sustainability in their practices. An artist is no different from an ordinary consumer; by choosing to work with specific materials, artists are voting with their dollars. But artists create consciously and purposefully, with intention. This intent assigns a certain amount of ethical responsibility to the artist, more than that of the average consumer. Therefore, we could say that artists have an increased responsibility to consider the environmental and social impact of their materials.

One artist who does consider this is Nicole Dextras. She creates garments out of leaves, flowers and edibles like vegetables and grains to express a desire for a more sustainable fashion industry. Dextras’ work is delicate and ephemeral, and easily decomposes back into the earth without major impact. Her work is definitely in line with the sustainability ethos, but it caused me to wonder whether work made from plants has to be about sustainability and whether work not made with plants can be about sustainability. Specifically, can artists consciously choose to not be sustainable?

Luckily for my column, I got a chance to think more about this question this weekend while I was helping the artists from the performance/installation piece “How to Build a Forest,” which you can experience this weekend in Page Auditorium. The piece is an interactive, complete experience of the building and taking down of a forest. The forest is constructed out of an assortment of ethereal alive-seeming objects, most of which are manmade and disastrous for the environment either while being produced or in disposal. While working on the piece, I was really struck by the oxymoron of how such a beautiful organic-seeming “forest” can be created out of materials which are anything but beautifully organic.

The artist Shawn Hall and the collaborative team Katie Pearl and Lisa D’Amour, the duo known as PearlDamour, are aware of this juxtaposition. A “field guide” is given to audience members that attempts to trace the origins of the materials used to create the artificial foliage. “Forest” is an example of artists consciously working unsustainably in order to inspire thought on issues surrounding the environment and humans’ relationship to it.

Most sculptural and installation art, however, is not purposefully unsustainable, but rather unsustainable by default. Generally, the origin of materials is not considered at all, and neither is the decomposition of the piece. This becomes especially problematic when considering large sculptures and installations, both of which use large quantities of material, thereby increasing whatever environmental impact those materials have.

For instance, Jacob Hashimoto’s installation pieces are beautiful created-environments—that is, spatial experiences—yet I wonder about what happens after the exhibit. His piece “Silence Still Governs Our Consciousness,” shown in Rome in 2010, consists of hundreds of paper kites, creating an airy, cloudlike atmosphere. Paper need not be an unsustainable material, since in theory it can be successfully recycled and decomposed, but the problem with many materials often lies in the quantity being used. And for this specific piece, a whole lot of paper was used.

Maybe Hashimoto had a plan for the environmentally-friendly disposal of his piece. But if he did, he didn’t mention the after-life of his work on his website.

There are several possibilities for the relationship between sustainability and art. I just walked through examples of sustainable art about our relationship to the natural environment, unsustainable art about our relationship to the natural environment and unsustainable art not about anything related to sustainability. The final iteration is sustainable art that is not about the fact that it is or isn’t sustainable. I’m not sure what this would look like, but with shrinking resources and the need to decrease our carbon footprint, perhaps artistic responsibility requires a future that consists completely of sustainable art.

Hannah Anderson-Baranger is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Thursday.


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