The challenge of environmental art

Environmental awareness underpins much of my work but I’m consistently challenged on how best to represent this to an audience. Today I passed through Leicester and made a trip to see Tom Van Herrewege’s latest exhibition at the Leicester Contemporary. Tom’s work is humbling and powerful and adds a clever contemporary twist to make us think about what we are doing to the natural world around us, particularly how we have exploited animals for centuries in so many ways, and we seem to have lost sight of the original source of that exploitation. Ask a child what they think of when you say “mouse” and they are more likely to say “Mickey” or even “computer” than “harvest mouse”. Tom’s work brings this to the fore at an uncomfortable scale and I left with a heightened awareness of how animal appropriation is rife and at the core of our disassociation from the natural world.

I was lucky enough to have a conversation with Tom about the nature of contemporary environmental art and how best to tackle this complex and challenging subject. Do we confront an audience with doom and gloom to shock them about the state of the world and make them take action? Or do we show them only the beauty of what remains and what is worth hanging on to? My own belief is that a doom and bloom approach has more potential, so show what we have lost (or stand to lose) but give them a chink of hope that they can do something about it. The challenge is that nudging people to change their behaviour can easily be overwhelming and result in no change at all. The real skill is to give our audiences an achievable challenge, something that will push them slightly and result in a degree of satisfaction once it is achieved, which then encourages them to take up future challenges. This is supported by B. F. Skinner’s work on human behaviour (which I studied in the long distant past).

I also think humour has a part to play in environmental education and I’ve explored this several times in my own work. Humour can poke satirical fun at a hot topic like nothing else can and can rise above the parapet in these information overload times. I’m currently exploring an idea below to highlight the plight of the hedgehog in this country based on the shocking statistic that approximately 335,000 hedgehogs are killed on UK roads every year. It gets worse when we understand that the population was 30 million in the 1950s but by 1995 this was reduced to 1.5 million. As things stand, the hedgehog is on a direct path to extinction in the UK in this crowded land of roads and deadly tyres if we don’t do something about it.

Below I experimented with a projection of a family tree of hogs with their motorised assassins included. What do you see? I’m hoping this creates a narrative beyond the norm, I hope it makes you think about whether you’re in this tree somewhere, maybe you’re there multiple times, maybe you need to take yourself out of this tree, but how would you do that? As Tom Van Herrewege does with his clever juxtaposition of endangered species and contemporary references, the viewer is propelled into the work and they are left with a clear impression that they are part of the problem.

I plan to take this idea further as I think it projects way more than the gloom and doom of statistics that we have become very immune to over the past pandemic 18 months. So it will be part of a body of work, some doom but interspersed with achievable bloom. Watch this space…

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