Environmental art: a brief history from Vivaldi to Venus of the Rags

To tie in with a new exhibition by Gavin Turk, which puts waste and the one-use plastic bottle in the picture, we sweep up 12 more intriguing eco-art moments

Venus of the Rags by Michelangelo Pistoletto
Venus of the Rags by Michelangelo Pistoletto | Image: Juergen Schwarz/AFP/Getty Images

1716-17: The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi

Vivaldi’s violin concertos – symbolising for three centuries a world of climatic order – were reimagined last year by the composers Szymon Weiss and Szymon Sutor as a dystopian electro-classical work, performed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice.

The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi
The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi | Image: Alamy

1823: The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper

Cooper portrayed the frontiersmen of New York state as wanton destroyers of the natural environment in his novel The Pioneers. He went on, in The Prairie (1827), to tell a story set against the barren wastes of Nebraska, which stand as a warning of what man’s “folly may yet bring the land!”.

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1967: Venus of the Rags by Michelangelo Pistoletto

Michelangelo Pistoletto, a leading figure in Italy’s arte povera movement, created the first of a series of sculptures he called Venus of the Rags, which set a classical statue of the goddess against a pile of old bits of clothing.

James Fenimore Cooper
James Fenimore Cooper | Image: DeAgostini/Getty Images

1971: The Lorax by Dr Seuss

Dr Seuss is unusually downbeat in this tale about the environmental cost of corporate greed. It makes pretty bleak night-night-time reading for children and Seuss said it was written in anger: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

7,000 Oak Trees by Joseph Beuys
7,000 Oak Trees by Joseph Beuys | Image: Alamy

1982: 7,000 Oak Trees by Joseph Beuys

To tie in with the seventh iteration of Documenta, a contemporary-art exhibition that takes place in Kassel, Germany, every five years, Joseph Beuys began a project that eventually saw 7,000 oak trees planted in the city.

Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol | Image: Nancy R Schiff/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

1983: Endangered Species by Andy Warhol 

Warhol created 10 silkscreen prints of animals at risk of extinction, from the black rhino to the San Francisco silverspot butterfly. Six remain at high risk – the bald eagle was removed from the US endangered-species list in 2007 and the Pine Barrens tree frog was updated to “near threatened” in 1996, while the giant panda and African elephant are “vulnerable”. A set of the prints sold for $485,000 at Sotheby’s in 2014.

The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson
The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson | Image: Alex Lentati/Evening Standard/Eyevine

2003: The Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson’s installation set the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall ablaze with the light from a sun rising out of the mist. He said it was inspired by a hot day followed by snow, triggering thoughts of global warming. In 2018, outside the gallery, he planted 24 melting blocks of ice, fished from the waters around Greenland, to highlight scientists’ fears that all the island’s glaciers could be lost by 2200.

An Inconvenient Truth by Davis Guggenheim
An Inconvenient Truth by Davis Guggenheim | Image: Allstar Collection/Paramount

2006: An Inconvenient Truth by Davis Guggenheim

Davis Guggenheim’s film documented former US vice president Al Gore’s campaign to raise awareness about global warming. What started as a lecture by the man who, in his own words, “used to be the next president of America” became a global hit. Whoever said a dusty old Keynote presentation couldn’t be conjured into an Oscar-winning film? 

The Heretic by Richard Bean
The Heretic by Richard Bean | Image: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

2011: The Heretic by Richard Bean

Richard Bean’s climate-change drama premiered at the Royal Court, starring Juliet Stevenson. Ever the controversialist, Bean cast her as an earth sciences lecturer at a northern university who is a climate-change sceptic and finds herself being issued with death threats by a pressure group named the Sacred Earth Militia. This paper’s Sarah Hemming described it as “acerbically funny, challenging drama”.

2013: A Song of Our Warming Planet by Daniel Crawford 

Cellist Daniel Crawford, a student at the University of Minnesota, translated surface-temperature data from Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies into musical notes to create a work tracing the average yearly drops and rises in temperature since 1880. With low notes for cooler years and higher notes for warmer, the piece rises to a haunting conclusion.

Potomac Painting Float by Noel Kassewitz
Potomac Painting Float by Noel Kassewitz | Image: Jack Kassewitz, 2018

2018: Potomac Painting Float by Noel Kassewitz

The Washington DC-based artist Noel Kassewitz set herself the task of making paintings that were, in her words, “climate-change ready” – by which she meant built to survive “the flood”. She lashed buoys and found flotation aids to her pink canvases, creating rafts, on one of which she floated down the Potomac River in August 2018 to raise awareness about the risk of rising sea levels.

We Are Opposite Like That by Himali Singh Soin
We Are Opposite Like That by Himali Singh Soin | Image: Himali Singh Soin/Frieze

2019: We Are Opposite Like That by Himali Singh Soin

The 32-year-old artist Himali Singh Soin won the Frieze Artist Award in July for this film based upon footage she gathered on trips to the Svalbard archipelago and the Antarctic for National Geographic. Channel 4 asked her to address the “state of the nation”, and she used Victorian fears that Britain would one day be overtaken by a new ice age as a metaphor to talk about climate change, xenophobia, Brexit and a world after humans.

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Read our exclusive interview with Gavin Turk here.

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