Dec 1, 2011

REVIEW | Beyond Green toward a Sustainable Art, Stephanie Smith (Ed.) and Victor Margolin (Ed.), Smart Museum of art, University of Chicago, 2005

Beyond Green Toward a Sustainable Art is the catalog for a traveling art show that explores several ideas and practices of artists working with sustainable art. Sustainability “speaks to a wide spread desire to find socially and environmentally responsible… ways of living and working” rather than focusing only on the environmentally consciousness, or “greenness” of art.  Beyond Green and the artists involved in the exhibition focus on the aspect of recycling and up-cycling, community, activism, and food systems among other ideas of sustainability.   

Beyond Green contains 13 installations from individual artists and collaborative groups alike.  The book begins with a curator’s essay about the idea behind Beyond Green.  After the essay each artist, in alphabetical order by last name, is highlighted in their own chapter.  Each chapter includes an introduction to the artist or collaborative and a full page photo of the work that was included in the exhibit.  Each chapter contains either an interview with the artist or an artist statement about their previous work and the ideas behind the work included in the exhibit.  The interviews give rare insight into the artist’s background and thought process regarding the work on display.  These insights allow the reader to put the work into a context that could be otherwise missed when readers are not able to visit the exhibit in person.  
The curator, Stephanie Smith, requested each artist creating work for this exhibition not think only about sustainability in the materials that they use for the installations, but to also take into consideration the traveling aspect of this show. Each artist or group considered how the art would be packed and transported to each venue and incorporated travel into each design.  Some artists created work that deflated, one artist created a crate for shipping that could just be opened and became the display at each location and one collective decided to leave the furniture they created to a women’s shelter once the exhibit was over.  
Free Soil is a collaborative group that produced an installation including a Fruit stand made of wood with a cloth awning and realistic oranges.  The installation is titled F.R.U.I.T., and it explores the link between cities and the agricultural systems that supply that urban population with food.  The interactive installation traces the paths that fruit takes to get to the local stores and includes highlighted information about cost, economics, and environmental information.  The Fruit stand includes information sheets that the artist encourages viewers to take with them and spread the information. 
Kevin Kaempf is an artist that works under the name People Powered.  The installation in Beyond Green, titled Transport I, is a compilation of two community projects.  The first is a community compost that People Powered organizes.  People Powered takes kitchen waste from local participants and composts the waste.  Once the waste is ready People Powered packages the compost and distributes it back to the participants.  The other project is a paint recycling project for all of the half used paint cans that accumulate after remodeling projects.  The community comes together with their used paint and People Power combines all of the paint together to make one color and repackages the paint to be distributed in the community after the exhibition is over.  The installation its self is set against a wall painted in the community paint color and includes instructions to be taken by viewers on how they can start their own community compost or paint recycling project. The artist states this during his interview about the effectiveness of his installation from city to city:

The work (Transport I) could gain or lose punch depending on where it is presented.  The projects initiated in Chicago are a direct response to the lack of infrastructure in place for adequate community recycling.  Certainly the city government here is trying to address this, and they are making headway.  But we as citizens may be able to organize and develop possible solutions much more quickly… obviously these specific pilot programs are less relevant if exhibited in a city where these issues are addressed by the city government. However, the projects still resonate on the metaphoric level of addressing over consumption in our culture.

These are just two of the thirteen installations that are featured in Beyond Green.  Both groups take what could have been an information stand and developed a way to grab the attention of the viewer by placing it in the context of art.  Each installation provides handouts to take with you to spread the knowledge of the artist whether it is research information or how to start your own community project.  Beyond Green is just about that, looking past what is just on the surface seen as a fad of “green art” and finding the deeper meaning of developing a lasting impression for future generations.     

-Vanessa Stuart


  1. If you think about it, art has been pretty destructive overall--from multiple-ton slabs of steel turned into sculptures to carving faces of our leaders into mountainsides to the fact that paints used to be made from rare minerals and pigments that could even be poisonous, the grand scheme of art is to make a lasting impression, on or at the expense of the planet. It is a show of dominance over Nature, in a way - bending Mother Nature over a table and doing the unmentionable.

    The pieces you talk about here seem more like social activism pieces that deal with "being green" rather than truly sustainable art and I wonder if there will ever be such a thing. Things like bonsai come to mind, the type of work some of them do becomes really interesting in a sculptural way, although I imagine that if you try to merge the two you would be met with great resistance.

    I imagine people think of bonsai as a hobby along the same lines as those people who have meticulous miniature train sets where guys in flannel shirts stay in their wood-paneled basements, or backwards in the case of bonsai, wearing gigantic eye-magnifying glasses as they lean in real close, biting their tongue and holding their breath, trying to find the perfect spot for their scale replica of an oak tree. I wish it wasn't so because bonsai is actually pretty cool.

    -Eric Gustafson