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Category: environmental art

Biennial Impressions

Here are a few excerpts from this morning’s viewing of the Giardini at the Venice Bienniale:

I admired the simple and surprising, like the pavilion of books (though there was some irony there in the inflated wall texts). Above is a beautiful troupe l’oeil painting by Liu Ye. Look, no words!

Mark Bradford, "Niagara" 2006

Another really simple and really moving piece called “Niagara” by Mark Bradford in the U.S. Pavilion: it’s three minutes long and my sister and I watched it over and over marveling at the painterly flatness of the setting, while the young man, larger than life then smaller and smaller as he walks away, just walking, compels attention. Here the catalogue text quotes Zadie Smith: “he does more than is necessary with less than he needs.” Exactly.

Canada pavilion, Venice Biennial 2017

Finally, I was glad to see that the national pavilions had a sort of consistency and modesty that I hadn’t expected. The Biennial looks like a World’s Fair but it doesn’t exactly seem to be about competition. I’m clearly not in the art world, but as a visitor all the pavilions seemed the same size, of the same importance etc. My favorite, though, has to be Canada’s, which was so understated (I know, cliche) that I couldn’t even find the label that identified or described it. There was just this really interesting, dynamic space that actually had some relationship with its location: the water and light and wood in an unexpected composition.

More disappointing:

  • France’s pavilion, where various musicians enact their routines by setting up, rehearsing, performing at random. Just not that interesting to watch, though when the music finally starts it’s a nice break from the visual.
  • The over-sized, over-decorated stuffed sculptures by Phyllida Barlow in Great Britain’s pavilion. Admittedly not my thing.
  • Olafur Eliasson‘s over-complicated social project “Green Light,” which was not engaging despite its good intentions and despite my usual appreciation for his work.

Overall, though, lots to think about and admire, with more work stretching all across the city.

Slow Motion Picture

The clip above is a good representation of its film, Sweetgrass (2009): slow, deliberate, and beautifully shot. The artistry is apparent, but the filmmakers, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, have the good sense to make the “story” subtle. As in this excerpt, the documentary is not narrated or prefaced or even introduced except through these lingering images. Although it risks losing its audience, the strategy works by forcing us to pay close attention to what we see and hear. The quizzical expression on a sheep’s face. The sound of birdsong. The wind ever-rustling.

There is in fact a story here about change and motion, but it is told through stillness. Montana cowboys have driven their sheep to pasture in the Beartooth Mountains for decades, but the film documents the last run in 2003. As a documentary Sweetgrass is unsparing and unsentimental: it cuts from a silhouetted Marlboro man standing on a ridge to a foul-mouthed cowboy cursing out his sheep.

Barbash and Castaing-Taylor like to disrupt our assumptions about nature and the West. They linger on broken landscapes like the ones that begin this trailer, where lines cut across and interrupt the picturesque and sublime. There is beauty here, they imply, but don’t take it for granted.

The sheep themselves can surprise too. At the end of the trailer they transform from a few stragglers to a shifting abstraction that moves as one. In a breathtaking shot later in the film we see a shadowed mountain across a green valley. As the camera slowly moves closer we make out a line of white trailing down its side. Then the line of white appears to move. Then we see that the white line is actually hundreds of sheep making their way down the cliff. The mountain that seemed so motionless was never still at all and the camera’s slow motion made us see it (and the sheep) afresh. The filmmakers’ restraint is admirable: they let the story tell itself and its structure emerges organically from the material. They show a remarkable confidence in their own vision and judgment, and they earn it.


Litter Art

I was struck by these images on the New York Times website today. They were posted in honor of Earth Day by photographer Bryan Graf, who collected plastic bags that littered his neighborhood and made these airy sunprints of them. The refuse is lovely now, like mysterious jellyfish floating in a tea-stained sea. Set as a series the proliferation and ordinariness of garbage is also made rare and unique in subtle ways, each bag dancing to its own private tune. Graf states that he is investigating our relations with nature– “sometimes vexed, sometimes beautiful, always complicated”– but there’s an oblique comment on industry and consumerism too. There is the beauty of superfluity, when even the detritus of an everyday shopping trip can become purposeful and arresting.  These are the still lifes of our times, the remains of earth day.

Rock of Ages

I’ve made this photograph as large as possible on purpose: to approximate its impact. And also, perhaps, to play again with scale, which the photographer Edward Burtynsky manipulates here too. This is one of his “manufactured landscapes,” to quote the title of Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary about his work. Burtynsky is best known for documenting the human impact on nature, at oil rigs, cement pits, mines, and, here, a marble quarry in Italy. Despite the apparent social critique, the photograph remains beautiful. The red stripe of rubble running down the slope, the valleys and cliffs of the monumental stone, the abstract composition in gray, green, and pink are all lovely to look at. Though we know it is rock, the marble has a kind of flow that is reminiscent of a wave and Burtynsky makes use of that in this vertical slice of mountain. Of course this is an ugly industry and of course this force of nature is ravaged, but the quarry also creates beauty: the beauty of a statue by Michelangelo and the beauty of a photography by Burtynsky.


I’ve been watching Rivers and Tides, a terrific documentary about Andy Goldsworthy’s work, because I intend to teach from it.  But it doesn’t feel like work.  The camera pans slowly across snow, waves, grass, sky. Goldsworthy speaks in a lilting Scottish accent, slowly and calmly.  The effect is hypnotic and lulling.  And that’s before you look at the art.

Here you see one of Goldsworthy’s cones in a field beneath a tree on the campus of SUNY Purchase. Goldsworthy has left these markers, or wayfinders, all over the world, each exquisitely crafted out of local stones fit carefully into a three-dimensional puzzle.  The effect is both organic (stone material, pine cone shape, natural setting) and artful (man-made, designed).  The settings are always important to Goldsworthy’s environmental art. This photograph seems to show the tree towering over the dwarfed cone, but also protecting it, casting a light arm around its shoulders.  Tree.  Cone.  How inevitable.

Goldsworthy, who put these objects together, says in the documentary that “art for me is a form of nourishment,” then in a surprising elision he continues, “I need the land.”  The substitution, which goes unremarked, equates art and land effortlessly, naturally.  His work is elided too.