By Brad Priest, Designer at DG2 Design
Implemented in many different ways and in a variety of media, Environmental Art in the most rudimentary sense can be any work of art that interacts with its immediate surroundings. While it can have deep meaning – often pointing to historic, political or cultural references – some of the most intriguing works of Environmental Art are simply meant to reveal the beauty in nature or our built environments. Two accomplished artists using such basic motivations in their creations are British artist Andy Goldsworthy and the Bulgarian-born Christo. These artists each use quite different techniques, however they share in the objective of using art to highlight the subtle beauty of our environment.
Andy Goldsworthy’s work is focused on using natural materials to create intricate sculptural forms, which are often built in-place in their natural settings; leaves, twigs, stones and flowers are his paints while the forest floor, meadow and stream is his canvas. Meticulously detailed and elegantly crafted, his art requires the viewer to spend time in examination to fully appreciate its significance. One of the most interesting aspects of his work lies in the fact that his use of found natural materials necessitates that his creative process be somewhat spontaneous and improvised. In an excerpt from a 2015 interview with NPR, Goldsworthy commented on why his art is typically not “designed” in normal sense of the word:
“Design implies a sense of mapping something out, and then you follow the plan; [but] these things grow, and the process of making it parallels that of growth. So in the making of a work — layer by layer, stone by stone, branch by branch, leaf by leaf, petal by petal, one being added to the next — something grows in front of you. And the process of growth is obviously critical to my understanding of the land and myself. … It’s a lot more unpredictable, the process is far more unpredictable, and with far more compromises with the day, the weather, the material.”
Sycamore Leaves + Sycamore Tree, 2013, Scotland
Twig Ripples in Stream, Unknown Year, Scotland
In contrast, Christo’s art (in collaboration with his wife, Jeanne-Claude) uses a more planned-out, avant-garde approach to create bold visual impacts that force viewers to see their environments from new perspectives. Exaggerating this visual impact is the typically massive scale of each project. Brightly colored swaths of fabric are draped over buildings and across landscapes in mind-boggling quantities, creating a contrast that calls attention to the forms and topographies of environments that may have otherwise been taken for granted. As such, his methods have been characterized as providing “revelation through concealment” (Bourdon, David: “Christo”, Harry N. Abrams Publishers, Inc., New York City, 1970.). Despite their apparent simplicity, the technicalities required for the execution of many of Christo’s works are immensely complex. Most take years or even decades to plan, and once built are only on display for a week or two. In an interview with Interview Magazine in 2014, Christo summed up his process:
“I always say all our projects have the two distinct periods: the software period and the hardware period. The software period is where the work exists in the mind of the thousand people who try to stop us and the thousand people who try to help us. And this is the period when the work exists only in the mind and in the drawings. And then there is the hardware period, where the project gets built.”
“Wrapped Trees” by Christo + Jeanne-Claude, Installed in 1998 in Bazel, Switzerland (after 32 years of planning).
Regardless of technique or style, Environmental Art can present its viewers with experiences not typically found in other popular art forms. By calling attention to the character of natural and built environments, whether it be at the scale of a pebble or an entire city block, this type of art offers new perspectives on the physical world and how we interact with it. As Landscape Architects we often have the same goal in mind with our projects. We combine our knowledge of the land with our engineering and design capabilities to create outdoor spaces that invoke reverence for the environment in their users. We look to artists like Goldsworthy and Christo for inspiration and strive to inspire others through our work every day.