Illustration by Ben Beechener

Thousands of images and videos of climate change circulate online across the globe. Despite this flood of climate imagery, it is apparent that we need to tell new visual stories about the causes, impacts and solutions to climate change now more than ever. We need to move beyond the standard visual vocabulary of people admiring solar panels and feeling guilty over polar bears adrift on melting ice caps to better represent the climate change threats and solutions. To communicate how climate change is interwoven with multiple other monumental challenges we face — from education to poverty to racial justice––there is a growing need for visual communication that conveys the severity of these interconnected crises.

Images are important because they represent the issue in people’s minds; they are what people think of when they think of climate change. Complex concepts like climate change are given power through imagery that creates a common understanding. Environmental art compiles a range of artistic practises –  both historical approaches to nature in art and more recent ecological and politically motivated works. This genre of art has evolved away from formal concerns, worked out with earth as a sculptural material, towards a deeper relationship to systems, processes and phenomena surrounding social concerns. It has become a focal point of exhibitions worldwide as the social and cultural aspects of climate change come to the forefront. “Environmental art” often encompasses “ecological” concerns but is not specific to them. It primarily celebrates an artist’s connection with nature using natural materials. This is best understood concerning landscape artwork and the evolving field of ecological art. The area is interdisciplinary in the fact that environmental artists embrace ideas from science and philosophy. This practice encompasses traditional media, new media and critical social forms of production, embracing a full range of landscape/environmental conditions from the rural to the suburban and urban, as well as urban/rustic industrial.

Nils-Udo – A key figure of the Environmental Art Movement

Art in Nature

Nils-Udo is one of the main figures of the environmental art movement. He has been creating this form of art for decades and he is known for creating “utopias” in nature, trying to prove that they can be real. As the artist explains: “Even if I work parallel to nature and only intervene with the greatest possible care, a basic internal contradiction remains. It is a contradiction that underlies all of my work, which itself can’t escape the inherent fatality of our existence. It harms what it touches: the virginity of nature…To realize what is possible and latent in Nature, to literally realize what has never existed, utopia becomes reality. A second life suffices. The event has taken place. I have only animated it and made it visible.”

Looking at the interaction between urban, nature and the human-environment relationship, Nils-Udo works with a variety of textures and media to show the multiple complexities of such connections.

Ecological art is a genre and artistic practice that seeks to preserve, remediate and visualise the life forms, resources and ecology of Earth. It applies the principles of ecosystems to living species and their habitats throughout the lithosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, and hydrosphere including: wilderness, rural, suburban and urban locations. It is a distinct genre from Environmental art in that it involves functional ecological systems-restoration and socially engaged, activist, community-based interventions. Ecological art also addresses politics, culture, economics, ethics and aesthetics as they impact the conditions of ecosystems. Ecological art practitioners include artists, scientists, philosophers and activists who collaborate on restoration, remediation and public awareness projects.

Agnes Denes – The mother of the Environmental Art Movement

Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan

Denes is interested in humans’ perception of natural cycles and stewardship. Without any doubt, her most famous environmental art project is Wheatfield, a Confrontation from 1982. Denes spent six months creating it, which included planting a field of golden wheat on two acres of a rubble-strewn landfill near Wall Street in Manhattan.

Two hundred truckloads of dirt were brought in and 285 furrows were dug manually and cleared of rocks and garbage. The seeds were sown by hand and the furrows covered with soil. The field was maintained for four months, cleared of wheat smut, weeded, fertilized and sprayed against mildew fungus, and an irrigation system was set up. The crop was harvested on August 16 and yielded over 1000 pounds of healthy, golden wheat.

Climate change communication is a topical and relevant issue. It is widely acknowledged that public communication about causes, impacts and action alternatives is integral to addressing the challenges of the changing climate. Climate visualisation concerns the communication of climate information and data through different information technologies and different modes of visual representation. In the context of climate change communication, climate visualisation is highlighted as a potential way of increasing public engagement with climate change. Through aesthetics, communication and activism we can promote different perspectives on climate change impacts.

“Humans are visual animals: our understanding of the world is dominated by what we see and how this makes us feel. But despite decades of public engagement (and the proliferation of research on the verbal and written communication of climate change), there is sparse evidence on which to base a choice that thousands of journalists, activists, bloggers and educators face daily: how to communicate climate change effectively using the visual medium.”

Climate Outreach, a UK-based charity aiming to expand public engagement with climate solutions across a broader spectrum of society, captures the essence of ecology and artwork perfectly.