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In this ever-changing human world, art is having a dialogue with the present and the unpredictable future. The increasingly serious environmental crisis has been sending alarming signals to people. A growing number of artists have joined the fierce discussion via public art design. Once again, nature issues have been associated with politics to turn public space into a platform for statement expression, art into a vigorous medium and the public into participants and cooperators of this discussion.


Martin Bricelj Baraga, an artist from Slovenia, made use of open-source software to convert the air quality of Boolna into visual images, enabling users to read precise measurement results on the reading equipment to learn the severity of air pollution.


The artist Maya Lin converted geographical features, including underground rivers, mountains and seabed floors, into large-scale installation made up of aluminium pipes, and audiences could go into these installations to experience the existence of the natural world in person.

Olafur Eliasson, an artist from Iceland, and Minik Rosing, a Danish geologist, worked with each other to place 12 huge icebergs from Greenland glaciers on the square in front of Pantheon, Paris, in response to the ongoing Paris Climate Summit at that time. Olafur said that “I hope this artwork can build a bridge among  data, and feelings of scientists, politicians, heads of states, and ordinary people.” The icebergs, fragile and ethereal, attracted many audiences to touch them, who would associate their feelings with the natural environment that was suffering from irreversible influence. This work is the response to climate change by providing a direct, perspective and tangible experience with the reality of melting the ice. It expresses a process of changing, disappearing. It appeared on the road and looks like the public facilities that are connecting passers, while it indicates the strake reality of climate change. In this case, these ice themselves are the part of the melting glaciers of the Arctic that can produce meaning and people’s body as a vehicle to perceive, then achieve a shifting of consciousness. The process of disappearing of these ice as a symbol which reconstructs a narrative context to build a relationship with the audience and arouses feelings of proximity, presence, and relevance of that we witness the climate change.  Comparatively, the public art project called Ice Monument by Liu Zhenchen on the square of Hôtel de Ville de Paris (Paris City Hall) appeared more joyous but it seemed to uneasiness and sorrows in the process of destruction and reconstruction, melting and cancellation. 

Olafur Eliasson always transforms the problem of weather and climate into a perceptive place and attempt to change the status of people’s acceptance. In 'The weather project '(2003), he creates a scene of sunset, beautiful but aggressive. The vast orange halo covered everyone, and the audience becomes a small black shadow in the orange space. And it seems to indicate the real relation between the sun and human beings. Eliasson takes the natural phenomenon of weather as the archetypes and integrates them in dramatic narratives and amplified expressiveness. When the viewer engages with the fantastic place, they seem to be into this perceived world, discover the story behind it. And the surrounding environment provides an active state which can increase the sense of immersion and participation.

Kit wise also explore “witness of the age Terror” in his work(The sea, The desert, The stone, The shell, 2014).  He pointed out the problems with keen intuition and formed the temporality and time in artworks to link pastness with presentness. He records the picture of the disaster in Japan and collages with a mirror and an orange square to create a sense of presence. The reflection from the mirror span time and space to return of the history and the international orange square symboling disaster rescue stimulates a strong feeling that encourages viewer thinking.  

Hiroshi Sugimoto is a Japanese photographer and contemporary artist. In the exhibition 'Lost Human Genetic Archive' (2016), he integrated different medium, including his work, antiques, fossils and books writings and the historical material collected by himself, to depict a lost world. His photography expresses a feeling of stillness while recording a dynamic process. He utilises the slow shuttle speeds to perceive the elapse of time, indicating the eastern philosophy. All of the photos are in black and white that trigger a strong feeling of depth, mysterious, and the precipitation of the time, rather than focus on the objects in the photo. These pictures as a channel connecting us with the past, the history, producing a sense that we are gazing at each other. “Today the world died, or maybe yesterday!” This story is imaginary and a little bit humorous. Still, when you gaze them and realise the history behind these objects, we are standing inside of this story and in an autonomous space to reconsider the human civilisation, awareness and contemporary society. While In the work sea of Buddhas, he uses the repetition to express the reincarnation in East culture, and this could be his expectation the world.

Ninth Wave is one of the most experimental representations of socially engaged art, which is rebellions action performed on August 8, 2014.

It consists of three parts: the daylight firework performance, a ‘Noah’s Ark carrying 99 dying animals as well as a painting drawing by gunpowder explosion.


The fireworks describe an epical scene which provokes a sorrowful emotion and fiercely psychological effects. It is easy to be associated with the terror case:9/11 event, as well as the atomic bomb. Cai refers to it as the sign of disaster and explores the symbolism of eastern philosophy and cultures in his performance. This work illustrates the destruction and the decline of nature to the viewer. And it suddenly caught the public into a panic, and immediately become a hot ‘accident’ reported on the Internet.

This work reflects his consideration of the relationship between human and the ecological environment and responds to the issue of air pollution and the incident of dead pigs floating down the river. Benefited from the Internet, this performance has accessed to everyone. However, participation in the second space caused a series of negative comments which differs from the first space. So for online engagement, I will hold a neutral attitude. Recording the changes of the time and space in contemporary art could promote the concerns and an active confrontation of the age of terror, and participation might be a significant part of site-specific works because of the contribution to the continuous internal perception among the people. The development of mass media is also beneficial to the engagement of the community. However, the explosion of information and network expression might be used as ‘cultural industry’ and ‘ideology’ to obfuscate and manipulate the judgment of values. The documents of the ninth wave draw broad concerns on the Internet, while more than half of the comments are critical and passive. The video documentary of it has been edited and fragmented, then infinitely replicated and finally evolved into an ideological manipulation.

Although Cai Guo-Qiang claims that the materials, including gunpowder used in this work, are environmentally friendly, there are a large amount of news and reports questioning the problem related to the pollution and the waste of resources. That is to say that media could play the role of dominant, engaging the online community. However, the explosion of information also can cause a major loss of orientation as well as the distortion of the truth. Therefore, the autonomous space of public art is crucial, and it can grab attention via various methods, events in a collective experiment could achieve and extend to wide and active responses. And these autonomous space always create in the first spot(the body as Site of the senses) rather than the second scene (online space) since nowadays, most of our daily language has become instrumental, and human beings believe that it was invented ad a utility. It might be not in all case, but in China, online space is usually used by ideology manipulation.

There is no denying that technological development has endowed the propaganda of art and promoted the development of art and the mass culture of society. Still, there are some potential threats: democracy. For example, according to Baudrillard’s description of “the transition between virtual and real” media, information and products may be copied indefinitely, creating an illusory and independent world that can eventually evolve into a manipulative method (Baudrillard, 1988). Now, the information explosion has led to a problem, a fundamental lack of direction and a lack of realism. Ideology created by media plays the role of dominant force to promote prearranged facts (Virilio 1995). Therefore, the attempt to carry out social engagement with the help of online space still has its limitation, the productivity dominated by technology and mass culture cannot guarantee artistic autonomy.

All these artworks which seem to be straight-forward are, to some extent, still impractical and artistic, which are more like a cultural metaphor. As to other artists who try to address environmental problems via scientific methods, they are actually faced with a greater dilemma. American artists Helen and Newton Harrison started their efforts to improve the eco-environment through public art design from the 1960s and 1970s. Years of investigation, research and social club organization well established their fame as social activists. At the same time, their identity as artists allowed them to think out of the box to bring forth brand-new conceptions and measures. The artist, Betsy Damon, who designed Living Water Garden for Chengdu, China, was also a founder of the American environmental protection organization, “Keepers of the Waters”. The ecological landscape park covering an area of 2.4 hectares was built into a set of the organic water purification system, which can effectively improve the water pollution caused to Chengdu’s moat through use of technologies, including aquatic plant purification and anaerobic treatment.

Artists, including Mel Chin and Patricia Johanson, have also attempted to resolve a series of practical ecological problems through similar ways. Their actions, dilemmas, and creation modes have triggered audiences’ association with art practices of Christo. Though living in different eras, both were once or are endeavouring to help resolve the most pressing social problem at present.


Take “Ant Forest”, an online transaction project for example. It is an action for public good designed in the mode of games. Users contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions through walking, use of public transportations, network payments, and replacement for second-hand products. Every day, users can collect carbon energy from their environmentally-friendly actions, and grow a virtual tree. As more and more carbon energy is collected, users can grow a real tree which is funded by Ant Forest of Alipay and its partners for the public good, or safeguard a corresponding protected area to encourage more users to join the low-carbon and environmentally-friendly actions.

In studying how other artists create their artworks and reflect environment-related problems therethrough, I find that artists have tried different types of media, forms and artistic approaches. Their creation motive has decided the artwork form and emotional expressions from the expression of aesthetics to emotional stimulation and to information transmission. All these have become key factors for artworks to realize their intervention among audiences. What I would like to do is to establish a relatively clear network connection for these artworks from the perspective of discovery of nature, local remodelling, and social activism, respectively.

Discovery of nature means that, through observation of the natural environment and interaction with it, the artist revolves around the environment to express his or her passion or awe for the environment.

Local remodelling means that the artist stimulates a sense of urgency among audiences through his or her artwork, thus leading audiences to pay attention to the environment and participate in discussing environmental issues. This process is also related to community reconstruction.

Social activism, educational purpose, interdisciplinary cooperation – Recovery of the ecosystem. Though art and audiences’ understanding of artworks is subjective, it is undeniable that art projects can live up to their instructional value, and activate the community to promote recovery of the ecosystem.

How should we get along well with the environment? Artworks themed on nature have not yet provided a referential answer, but these works have furnished the public with new perspectives and abilities to discover problems, cope with those issues related to their immediate interests, and stimulate the public care for nature and for mankind.

Shoulders of giants

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