The Role of Art in Environmental Protection

Friday, February 12

By Nora Ryan

The Earth itself is one of the most beautiful spectacles we can experience. From gauged canyons to soaring mountains our Earth offers so much more than anything we could dream up. Artists have constantly tried to capture the ever changing landscape and forms that surround us, however one art form instead seeks to interact with our Earth, to build off of what is naturally there. It started thousands of years ago with indigenous works of art, for example, the Nazca Lines (which run up to 1200 feet long), Serpent Mound, or even in whole communities, like with the architecture of Machu Picchu. One group of artists gave this process a modern meaning starting in the 1960s, creating Land Art. 

Land Art, as a movement, is very straightforward. Artists must utilize the Earth herself in one way or another, to create a work of art. One artist, Agnes Denes, utilized the most natural process in the world, growing trees, to create her piece, Tree Mountain (1996). Situated within Ylöjärvi, Finland, Tree Mountain is a monumental and ever growing work of art. Denes first had a special hilltop formed with concentric rows for planting trees in a fibonacci pattern. Denes aimed to evoke ancient earthworks as well as mathematical precision, creating a meeting of the ancient and modern in this spectacle. Tree Mountain is made up of 11,000 trees planted by 11,000 people from across the world. Finland has pledged to protect this piece for 400 years, thus ensuring it’s longevity. 

However, as the piece continues to grow, the calculated planting of the trees begins to fade amongst the thick brush and outstretched branches. In this way, guaranteed longevity also guarantees the loss of it’s mathematical beauty. Beauty that Denes planned and pitched and worked on for 10 years, from the idea in 1982 to the beginning of planting in 1992. Denes sacrificed the aesthetic element for something so much greater, for the hope of a renewed environment, one that would have a personal connection to the 11,000 lucky people who were a part of the planting. Her work of art is such the opposite of the typically revered artists like Pollock or Warhol or Piccaso, who were all so self-centered that their art never truly attempted to push beyond its aesthetic qualities. Denes chose a new route for herself, one centered around an issue she cared about and an opportunity to help people. By ensuring it’s protection for another 400 years, it’s guaranteed for future generations, showing a commitment to creating future change, any way we can.

Tree Mountain is an ingenious way to guarantee the protection of a forest. A lot of modern art can be classified as art made for the sake of art, and while beautiful and deeply meaningful, it functions very differently from Denes’ piece. Not only has she literally created a gorgeous forest, but she has found a new way to bring attention to environmental justice. Often I feel as if environmental justice is lost in the political world, I mean it’s not as if trees can donate millions of dollars to campaigns. The work is left to us and with new environmental problems constantly being discovered, there isn’t time to waste on pleasing both sides and convincing people that science is, in fact, real. In this way Denes becomes an inspiration. She utilized her craft and her name as an artist to create change, she committed to an idea for the sole purpose of doing something good in the world. Denes found a way for her art to become a bridge between people and the environment, allowing those 11,000 people to get dirty and plant a tree, serving not just an art piece, but a future. 


Youtube Video

Atlas Obscura

PBS Article



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