Eco-Art Actions and What They Can Yield

The following article was originally published in The Democracy Chain in February, 2023.

Eco-art actions in museums appear in the media with increasing regularity, including this platform (see DeWitt Cheng, “Performance Politics”). The publicity follows a codified format, typically featuring an image of an activist or activists frozen before an iconic work of art, having glued themselves to the artwork’s frame or splattered it with soup or oil. While questions linger about the full extent of damage done to the art — and the extent to which these efforts negatively provoke the vulnerability of works on display — these intimate protests nevertheless claim to support the ultimate preservation of the objects they compromise. Activists performatively threaten violence against art works like a prat-fall. People glue their hands to the frame of “Primavera,” for instance, piercing the tableau of Botecelli’s seasonal homage, in which Greek mythology is drawn into a 15th Century Christian framework, depicting as many as 138 different floral varieties in the process. As a result of this action, “Primavera” is activated in a new way by contemporary performers (the activists) who call attention to the world we now find ourselves in, one in which the weather (and seasons) are cataclysmically in flux. 

The photo op passes, the activists are removed, the frame is deinstalled for repairs, and all is more of less as it was. Except, the activists suggest, witnesses should consider the larger context of the climate crisis which compromises the sustainability of life and culture at large. In that sense, the art works themselves — and the cultural canons they represent — provide a metonymic device. Within the action of the activist, the charisma of a given artwork stands in for all of extant culture and the potential culture that has yet to be produced.

These gestures further call attention to environmental standards inherent to institutional space. While normalized over prior centuries, the endeavor of the museum, in the larger sense beyond the signifying works, is becoming increasingly precarious. Artists like Hans Haacke, Nan Goldin, Fred Wilson, and Andrea Fraser trace the often controversial relationship between critical art gestures and the nexus of wealth that museums have become. Yet it’s hard to predict exactly what the outcome of these staged critiques might be. As Aruna d’Souza points out in Art in America, “Rolling with criticism — or even embracing it — has become a go-to strategy for museums to demonstrate publicly their progressive values and open-mindedness.” Institutional reflection thus becomes part of the performance, one activated by these artists who call out the nuanced and often hypocritical financial relationships that sustain public platforms for culture. Do other formats offer more critical integrity? Working groups, for instance, or social practice events that eschew the arguably lucrative art object?

We might consider recent examples like Black Power Naps at MOMA, volume 4 of the Inside-Out Art Museum’s vernacular correspondence project in Beijing, “Let go of the past and make the new: Continue to learn in uncertain weather,” or the Center for Native Arts and Cultures recent working group on land reclamation at Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, ”Never Settle: The Program by New Red Order.” Such projects, like eco-activists gestures, aim to leverage the stability of institutionalized colonial space to make space for change within the witness’s mind. Yet that same reliance on institutional space may remain problematic. As D’Souza later adds:

In “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” an essay first published in Artforum in 2005 and reprinted in the New Museum’s Haacke catalogue [“Hans Haacke: All Connected,” 2019], Fraser argues that one of the crucial insights of the work of Haacke and others involved in institutional critique is precisely that there is no “outside” to the art world; artists cannot exist in an antagonistic relationship to the institutions of art because artists are integral to the institutions of art. Art does not exist as a social concept outside its institutionalization. And so it follows that even protesting a museum exhibition is still a form of participation since the gesture takes meaning from its relation to the art world.

The effort to maintain a constant, stable climate free from natural elements like the weather (or, arguably, social strain) proves increasingly forced and, we might even say, reliant upon a colonial mindset in which objects, animals, artifacts, and specimens can be gathered and displayed. Such impulses lie beneath some of the oldest museums. But the weather may get the better of them yet. Consider, for instance, the astonishing photographs of the Louvre from 2016. In an article about how museums are relocating collections in anticipation of flooding, Mechtild Rossler, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, says: “We have a lot of museums whose collections will be affected if they are not stored properly.” And while the River Seine has always been flood-prone, the increasing frequency of floods has driven the Louvre to open a conservation center where they can store the majority of their collection safely. “Other major museums are also taking notes from the Louvre. The British Museum is building storage space for archived artifacts in Shinfield, some 64 kilometers [40 miles] west of London.” 

Certainly, there have been any number of responses that critique the practical effectiveness of eco-activist gestures. It’s worth pointing out that ninety-two museum curators signed a petition against these actions in November of 2022. Their affiliated statement as reported by ArtNews states how:

In recent weeks, there have been several attacks on works of art in international museum collections. The activists responsible for them severely underestimate the fragility of these irreplaceable objects, which must be preserved as part of our world cultural heritage. As museum directors entrusted with the care of these works, we have been deeply shaken by their risky endangerment.

Museums are places where people from a wide variety of backgrounds can engage in dialogue and which therefore enable social discourse. In this sense, the core tasks of the museum as an institution — collecting, researching, sharing, and preserving — are now more relevant than ever. We will continue to advocate for direct access to our cultural heritage. And we will maintain the museum as a free space for social communication.

To my knowledge these gestures have yet to occur in American institutions, although artists here, as elsewhere, produce an abundance of politically motivated artwork inspired by environmental issues. Kim Abeles “World Leaders in Smog” is one example. Textile artist Michelle Glass’s collaboration with environmental justice groups, “We Are Here/Estamos Aquí,” produced 2,500 feet of fabric illustrating the air quality index, panels that activists then held up publicly during Earth Day 2022 in a staged protest. Or, returning to within the gallery, Kahlil Robert Irving’s solo show at the Walker Art Center, “Archaeology of the Present,” which uses ceramics to reconfigure and mash-up of history and identity, offering an exquisite portrait of our times. Incredible gestures emerge from such efforts, each employing forms of institutional critique that — like the aforementioned projects listed above — remind us of the need to complete the project of decolonialization. Given the extent of the fresh insight they yield, we might be able to revise the museum-context to integrate it with instead of excluding it from the weather.

Even if eco-activist disruptions are primarily sensational, they unearth interesting and necessary questions about the status of museums (and by proxy nation states) in a world governed by the climate crisis and capitalism, questions that fundamentally challenge the stability of a universal canonical perspective. Such disruptions rely on the ritualized viewing practices that museums induce and, in my view, call attention to the frame of the museum, pointing beyond our current moment to the underlying power structures that enable a museum to keep time and weather at bay.