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Women Artists and Environmental Issues
Feminisms and Other Engagements
15.05.2020 | Anaïs Roesch

Ursula Biemann, Forest Law, 2014, sync 2-channel, video essay, 38’, © Ursula Biemann

Nature has long been a source of inspiration and the subject of representation for artists. However, the major environmental crises of the twentieth century, such as climate change and the erosion of biodiversity, have challenged this approach, revealing its fragility. This increased awareness then transformed the relationship between visual artists and the landscape.

This shift took place in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. During an era marked by protest, many people began questioning the limits of art as it was practiced in the studio and exhibited in the museum. Artists left cities for large, open spaces where they could sculpt directly into the landscape. This is what would come to be called Land Art or Earth Art. At the same time, another movement, led mainly by women, called Ecological art was developing, of which Agnes Denes (b. 1931) was one of the pioneers. Amongst her best-known projects is Wheatfield – Confrontation (1982), located in an empty plot of land near the World Trade Center. She negotiated the right to grow and harvest wheat there, occupying the field in the middle of the city, estimated to be worth 4.5 billion dollars at the time, for four months. In response to the development of Land Art, which essentially expressed aesthetic and conceptual concerns, this work illustrates that eco-artists proposed a more urban, social and ethical practice. However, recognition of this trend came late, as it was overshadowed by the success of Land Art, which was concentrated around a few male figures and which erased the only woman in the movement, Nancy Holt (1938-2014), who was much less recognized than her colleagues and her husband Robert Smithson (1938-1973).

Since then, many female visual artists have taken up environmental issues in a variety of ways. Some, such as the French sculptor Marinette Cueco (b. 1934), are inspired by nature, working with vegetable and mineral materials in a spirit of frugality. Others, such as the Chinese artist Yin Xiuzhen (b. 1963) or Ursula Biemann (b. 1955) from Switzerland seek to denounce a situation or to raise awareness through their work. Others, such as Lucy Orta (b. 1966), propose solutions and imagine the world of tomorrow. Finally, some like Ana Mendieta (1948-1985), call for a spiritual and physical reconnection with the Earth.

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