Biodiversity, Environment, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, North America

ENVIRONMENT: Conservation as Artists' Muse

Enrique Gili

SAN DIEGO, California, Aug 25 2008 (IPS) - Pulled-together socialites and not-so-sloppy artists recently gathered for an atypical art exhibition in San Diego that combines art with wilderness conservation, using contemporary art to investigate vanishing worlds and the people that inhabit them.

Giacomo Castagnola's sustainable designs use egg crates and recycled paper.  Credit: Enrique Gili/IPS

Giacomo Castagnola's sustainable designs use egg crates and recycled paper. Credit: Enrique Gili/IPS

Nature has served as the artists' muse for millennia – now it was their turn to return the favour.

The exhibition "Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing World" is the six-year culmination of a multi-continent art project that sent eight mid-career artists on two mini-residencies to UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world, with instructions to create new works of art inspired by the people and the landscapes they encountered.

The spectrum of the heritage sites selected was as diverse as the artists represented. Most live and work in the United States but come from culturally distinct backgrounds, with artists hailing from as close as Baja, Mexico and from as far away as China.

Their task was to capture through mixed media – film, photography and sculpture – a fast-changing landscape that Westerners seldom get to see or experience firsthand, ranging from Brazil's coastal rainforest to alpine peaks.

As the paint dried and assistants scrambled to make last-minute adjustments, curators shepherded patrons from room to room, commenting on the creative process to a curious and sometimes perplexed crowd of onlookers.

So can art promote conservation, without preaching?

"I think it's about opening your mind to what's going on in the world. What I like about the show is that it's not didactic. The artists are not telling you what to think. It's more poetic than that," said senior curator Stephanie Hanor of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MACSD).

Inside the art world, the term conservation is generally synonymous with preserving mouldy Old Masters – not dodging aggravated wildlife captured on film in the name of preservation and enlightenment.

The co-founders of the exhibit, Brett Jenks, executive director of the conservation group Rare, and MCASD president Hugh Davies, wanted to alter that perception. At the time of the project's inception, the term global warming was a mere blip on the media horizon. Now environmental considerations are entering all aspects of U.S. life, from pumping gas to the high-brow aspirations of the art world.

The challenge was to select artists capable meeting the task of conveying the ephemera of a fleeting natural world into a museum setting. "We picked artists who have a history of research, who have a history working offsite, whose studio practice is really about engaging [the audience] in that way," said Hanor.

Fortunately for the wildlife, the tactics of conservation-minded artists have changed. The renowned 19th century painter John James Audubon, widely credited with creating the conservation movement, was often portrayed with gun in hand. In the field, Audubon shot and killed hundreds of birds prior to illustrating them in vivid detail.

Today's commissioned artists take a kinder, gentler approach towards their art and their elusive subjects. Mark Dion, for example, explores the boundaries of taxonomy, natural history and science, often challenging and collaborating with experts in the field. Taking a clue from the Sierra Club, he intends to lead a natural history tour of the Tijuana River Preserve in tandem with experienced naturalists.

Inspired by a childhood fascination with Komodo dragons, Dion ventured to Indonesia's Komodo National Park in 2005. He returned two years later. Deeply impressed with the commitment of impoverished park rangers there, Dion decided to create functional art on their behalf, designing an Indonesian-inspired pushcart used by park rangers to haul essential equipment to and from remote work sites.

The Peruvian Tijuana-based architect Giacomo Castagnola designed two rooms where patrons can learn more about sustainable design. The furniture used in the exhibitions lounge was composed of egg crates and recycled paper. "It's about creating a space that's sustainable," he said.

The knowledge that many of these sites are threatened weighs on the minds of patrons. "Many of these parks exist on paper," said the Jenks of the group Rare, which focuses on the underlying reasons for species loss and human factors.

According to UNESCO, 30 of the over 800 World Heritage sites listed are endangered, due to multiple threats ranging from armed conflict to encroaching human habitation.

Marco Ramirez "Erre", a Tijuana-based artist with a background in construction and conceptual art, observed those threats firsthand. He visited the Three Parallel Rivers, a preserve in the southwest region of Yunnan Province in China. The mountainous ecosystem, which borders Tibet, is home to the giant panda. Rugged terrain, 5,000-metre peaks, deep gorges and untamed rivers ensured the region's isolation for millennia.

The biologically rich 1.7-million-hectare preserve is currently under threat from resource exploitation and breakneck commercial development resulting from China's rapid economic boom, which has led to environmental degradation.

Impressed with local building techniques, Erre's installation paid homage to the self-sufficient inhabitants of this once isolated region and to a disappearing way of life, recreating a 20-foot Tibetan-style wall embedded with television panels that depict changes in the built environment and how people live.

The influx of tourism and subsequent industry, he feared, would lead to the Three Parallel Rivers ultimate demise. The artist lamented: "If you really want to preserve a place, don't go there."

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