RYAN GRIFFIS

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Review: Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art
Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago
6 October 2005 - 15 January 2006

For the April 1991 issue of Art Forum, critic Jan Avgikos contributed an article exploring the works of artists involved in various ways with the “environment,” including Mark Dion, William Schefferine, Meg Webster, and Peter Fend among others. In the end, the author saw a major flaw in the “green” desires of these artists - by trying to serve as a mediator between nature and culture, it returned us to “old myths that seek to naturalize culture.” The same year as Avgikos’ critique, a group of international business leaders formed an organization that would represent the voice of industry in discussions about how to deal with environmental crises. In preparation for the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, this organization, eventually becoming the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), would make sure that governments would not take action to solve ecological problems without their consultation. Their logo is a globe-like symbol surrounded by a ring composed of some kind of liquid drops and gear teeth. And, of course, it’s green. The WBCSD’s image seemed to offer what the artists could not, a convincing merger of nature and culture that would serve capital’s desires for economic expansion. Naturalized culture sells.
This collision of affect and economics found in the ongoing battles over environmental conditions forms the context of a new exhibition at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum titled “Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art.” Curated as a traveling exhibit by Stephanie Smith, “Beyond Green” brings together several individual artists and collectives tackling contemporary concerns of sustainability. Obviously building upon the problems of artists, writers and designers of the 1990s invested in environmental discourse, Smith is rather expansive in her definition of sustainability to include emerging models, while also remaining conscious of the immediate institutional frame at work. The exhibition is self conscious of its role as a producer of waste and energy expenditure, making note of the Museum’s attempts to use the show as impetus to make itself more environmentally responsible in exhibition design.
The relationship between design and art, certainly a prominent theme in the current art market, comes to the forefront in the work of the selected artists as well, forming a thread connecting them that is as important as that of sustainability. A utopian, DIY sensibility ran through much of the work, providing solutions - or simulations of solutions - to the material problems faced by various global constituents. Nils Norman contributed “Ideal City, Research/Play Sector,” (2005) a mural size print that depicts fantastical designs for alternative, multi-use spaces that have more than a tinge of dark humor embedded in their utopianism. For “Beyond Green,” Norman also explored notions of utopia in public space through a course taught at the University of Chicago. The collective Learning Group explores equally utopian visions of space, but with their “Collected Material Dwelling,” (2005) these desires are temporarily materialized as a structure built from discarded plastic bottles.
Not all design solutions participate in utopian thinking, as the problems they deal with contain an inescapable reality. A “Hippo Water Roller,” (2005) an actual industrially produced object designed to facilitate the transport of water over long distances by foot, is re-presented by Marjectica Potr? from her larger “Power Tools” series. The revelation that this water moving device also protects the person pushing it from potential land mines, illustrated in an accompanying drawing by Potr?, makes the geopolitical relationships between harsh social and natural environments all too clear. Likewise, Michael Rakowitz’s “paraSITE” series (1998), updating Krzysztof Wodiczko’s earlier “Homeless Vehicle,” uses the language of modernist architecture to make a ubiquitous, yet mostly hidden, homeless population visible. Rakowitz structures, custom designed for specific individuals, implicate the built environment, using the “waste” air from ventilation systems for structural support and heat. Free Soil, an international collective of artists, attempts to expose the massive, opaque infrastructure of food transport. With their multi-faceted project FRUIT (2005), visitors are asked to think about the ecological and social ramifications of eating food that has traveled half way around the world.
Many of the works generate an allusion to empowerment, both actual (as in WachenKlauser’s “Material Exchange” community effort, 2005) and symbolic (Allora and Calzadilla’s video meditation “Under Discussion”, 2005), revealing attempts at generating autonomy in the face of globally-scaled crises. Such autonomous interventions are not necessarily anti-establishment, however. Jane Palmer and Marianne Fairbanks, collectively known as JAM, propose a consumable solution to the energy problem - very fashionable carrying bags with flexible solar cells for recharging personal electronic devices like cell phones and iPods ("Jump Off," 2005).
With all the focus on “sustainability,” the unspoken centrality of “development” in all of this can all too easily go unchallenged. “Beyond Green” makes some crucial challenges to the economic imperatives that have so far driven the success and failure of environmental policy, providing a literal reflection on the “greenwashing” of corporate identity. But the question of whether or not we can design our way out of the problems of development remains.