Yearly Archives: 2009

Launch of Arcola’s Green Sundays


Join us at the launch of Arcola’s Green Sundays, more details at
Download full Winter/Spring 2008 Season Brochure Now:

The Water’s Edge     3-28 Feb by Theresa Rebeck A modern Greek tragedy that explodes the American family from within.
With Madeleine Potter, Robert Cavanah, Mark Field, Cressida Trew and Kate Sissons.

Book Tickets Now: or 020 7503 1646

South Bank Show Awards ‘Diversity Award’ Nominee 2008 Best Off-West End ‘Enemy of the People’ Nominee 2008 CBI Growing Business Awards ‘Green Award’ Winner 2008
Peter Brook Empty Space Awards ‘Established Studio’ Nominee 2008
Charity Awards Highly Commended 2008 
Arcola Theatre is a Regularly Funded Organisation of Arts Council England.

Peter Brook Empty Space Awards ‘Established Studio’ Nominee 2008
Charity Awards Highly Commended 2008 
Arcola Theatre is a Regularly Funded Organisation of Arts Council England.

The significance of a plastic bag

MICHAELA CRIMMIN: One of this week’s pleasures – pleasure with a big kick in its tail – was opening the October Gallery’s exhibition of work by Chinese artist Huang Xu, entitled Fragments. Big photographic works featuring plastic bags, tattered and torn and beautiful and fragile. For me these are warnings – plastic bags as a collective memento mori and curiously reminiscent of Dutch seventeenth century paintings of flowers. I’ll never look at a plastic bag in quite the same way. I know they were banned many years ago in Rwanda. How shameful is that? A country recently torn apart and they can think about the environment. And we seem to find that so terribly difficult.

The work in this exhibition refers to economic wreckage as well as environmental wreckage – and the two are anyway, as we know, very closely related indeed. Fragments. Wreckage and waste. We are all pretty much convinced that the consumers amongst us, across the world, are culpable of the most remarkable amount of waste.

There’s huge seduction in wealth as most of us know, and there’s also destruction. It seems entirely appropriate that the artist in his work does what other artists have done before – Huang Xu presents to us beauty in entropy. An integral quality of interesting art is its capacity to hold contradictions and paradoxes, and layers of meaning. This work is not didactic, it’s too complicated and delicate for that, but it leaves me pondering big societal issues which are ultimately of choice.

We are at this unpredictable moment in our history – despite ‘civilization’ – with societies themselves fragile and often fragmented. At the RSA this week we profiled a film on Burma, True Stories: Burma VJ, shot by brave citizens during the 1988 and 2007 uprising against a brutal regime – here’s one example among so many. Chuck in climate change, remember the recent cyclone in Burma, and we are at a moment in the huge sphere of time that will literally determine survival, or not, for future generations.

Another current version of environmental, social and economic melt down at its most literal is in Australia with the graphic, heart rending accounts heard and seen on the media this week. The consequent societal revenge-taking – blame – is mostly being directed at arsonists, rather than at the economics of forestry, or at climate change. So much easier to pin down an 18-year-old spotty pyromaniac than try and understand the bigger picture.

The October Gallery, working in partnership with China Art Projects, say on their website that their interest is the trans-cultural avant-garde. That is to say, the work of artists who, whilst working at the forefront of their own respective cultures, assimilate into their work elements from other cultures as well. Huang Xu’s work is a very good example.

And here perhaps it our salvation: we have an opportunity to join together in tackling the dauntingly enormous challenges by first acknowledging, often through images, the ramifications of what we are creating – the significance of a plastic bag whether you are in Rwanda, China or the U.K. may be ridiculously prosaic but it is also a signifier and an everyday prompt to change our damaging way of living.

Illustration: Fragment No. 1 by Huang Xu, 2007 October Gallery

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology Blog

The strange shape of environmental politics

I’m hazarding there are three possible responses to environmental politics:

1) The eco-modernists. (Beloved of big business, progressive bureaucrats and technophiles; believe if we work hard, eco-modernism can save us).
2) The “Keep Calm And Carry On” contingency. (Most people. Suspicious of change, and therfore not keen on the above, or…)
3) The radical alternative-ists. (Loathed by both the above. Broadly utopian and egalitarian and unlikely to have much purchase with category 1) who regard them as a bunch of feckless Luddites.)

These are leaky categories of course and we probably have a bit of each in all of us. Now I’m toying with how to reconcile the above with the Mary Douglas/Michael Thompson/Matthew Taylor ideas of cultural theory, because on first glance they don’t fit too snugly. Cultural theory sees society as containing separate cultures that are in constant conflict. Mary Douglas wrote in  A History of Grid and Group Cultural Theory:

In conflict compromise counts as betrayal. Opponents dismiss out of
hand evidence from other kinds of institutions. According to CT, their intransigence is neither irrational nor immoral. It expresses their loyalties and moral principles, and their responsibilities to other members of their society. 


… which is enough to make anyone who’s been involved even glancingly in environmental politics emit a knowing chortle.

CT then proposes you apply a grid to any society to try and identify those cultural loyalties. It suggests you look for four groups – the heirarchical, the egalitarian, the individualist and the fatalist. For a fuller explanation of these groups, look here.

I tie myself in knots trying to apply the theory to the environment issue (though Michael Thompson has attempted it in an essay called Cultural Theory, Climate Change and Clumsiness). To me, the four CT groups don’t fit at all neatly with my three categories.

Category 1) contains both the heirarchical and individualist. It would be well represented by Thomas L. Friedman’s Hot Flat And Crowded,
a book which suggests that American entrepreneurial know-how is the
only way to save the planet and which John Gray took apart spectacularly in his
review in last Sunday’s Observer.

Category 2) contains both the individualist and the fatalist, apparently happily co-existing.

Only category 3) appears to fit as the so-called egalitarian approach, but even that is dubious on closer examination. As right-wing critics of George Monbiot might say with some justification, and as the NUM have said about Climate Camp, there’s nothing that egalitarian about much of the green movement. 

If you follow the CT line, I suspect you’d say that the fact that the CT grid group doesn’t quite fit my categories is a potentially good thing, as it suggests alliances can be made that form what Michael Thompson calls a “clumsy” solution.

That may be true. I don’t know. At the moment the three groups I outlined at the top regard each other with the kind of contempt that would make even the doughtiest anthropologist’s toes curl.

Matthew Taylor is willing to explore a great deal of complexity in his understanding of those four paradigms – pointing out the conflicting paradigms at work behind Kyoto, say. I know Mary Douglas herself studied this when looking at environmental groups in the US in Risk and Culture which drew unflattering disctinctions between heirarchical environmental groups like the Sierra Club and righidly egalitarian ones like Friends of the Earth.

For the moment, I’m probably missing something, but I can’t really make the CT paradigm sit neatly onto the strange non-traditional shape that environmental politics has thrown up. That does nothing to challenge underlying fundamental insight behind Mary Douglas’s work; that problems like this have a crucial cultural dimension that is misunderstood by politicians, behaviouralists and other scientists. For that, take a look at, which Sacha Kagan and other academics have been working on for the past few years to conceive an inter-disciplinary approach.

Photo: Disrupted Ecosystems: Great Barrier Reef, Belize, by Susannah Sayler 2006. Courtesy of the Canary Project.

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology Blog

Hedwig Fijen on the politics behind chosing Murcia as the home of Manifesta 8:

This week Manifesta announced that Manifesta 8, the latest in the series of European art biennials, was going to be held in 2010 in Murcia in southern Spain. Curator/founder/director Hedwig Fijen gave the reasons to the Spanish press:

“We have chosen Murcia because it is a place of transit and crossing of cultures and because it is a region which has two faces two of the most urgent
challenges facing humankind, those of immigration and water.”

A little more here.

Chernobyl by Jaime Pitarch 2007. Manifesta 7, Bolzano, Italy

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology Blog

Cities on the Brain

Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide has received quite a bit of attention recently, and his website is chock full of other good reads.

I particularly enjoyed a recent piece in the Boston Globe on how cities dull our brain while also being fertile areas for innovation. Here’s an excerpt:

Now scientists have begun to examine how the city affects the brain, and the results are chastening. Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. While it’s long been recognized that city life is exhausting — that’s why Picasso left Paris — this new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so.

“The mind is a limited machine,”says Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of a new study that measured the cognitive deficits caused by a short urban walk. “And we’re beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations.”

The piece goes on to explain that some greenery, or trips to nature, help cognitive function. Without it, city dwellers are less able to cope and take advantage of all the ideas around them.

One argument is that this sort of explains the enduring interest in landscape paintings and images.

> Read the whole thing at How the City Hurts the Brain.
Go to Eco Art Blog

Turning Snow Into Oil Paintings

{Disappearing series, 2A, 2B, 2007, oil on canvas, 48×24 inches, by Diane Burko}

Clicking around the site for the upcoming show Out of the Blue, I found these works by Diane Burko. Some might question the need for more landscape painting, but these seemed to make sense to me. Sure, they could be photographs but in the post-everything art world, that argument is old hat. And something about translating this scene into oil creates a different relationship with the content. Plus the vertical diptych is killer.
Go to Eco Art Blog

Fungus Fight! No really, it’s for art.


On this blog there’s been some debate as to the preservation of environmental art and its merits. When does a work that is meant to decay become not-an-artwork, that is, just another rotting thing?

Curators in Venezuela are determined to never let it get that far– at least, not with traditional works of art. Paintings, tapestries and wooden objects in warm climes are prone to attack from fungi, insects, and bacteria. The curators have amassed for the 4th Cultural Heritage Conservation Forum in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas.

Of the tools used to combat art decay, one is bacillus thuringiensis, pictured above. It produces toxin crystals , when ingested by offending insects, causes a swelling that leads to a fatal rupture. Yeah, it makes bugs blow up. It’s also used as a pesticide in agriculture. One website describes the effect as “dying after indigestion.” The bacterium has also been spliced into genetically modified crops, creating, of course, controversy.
Whether the use of Bt to preserve works of art is a step towards ecological balance or yet-another example of our industrial-agriculturalized society (wah wah waaaaah), it at least highlights an important factor: that no artwork, whether designed to decay or not, is impervious to ravages of little hungry needling organisms.

Thanks to Current.

Go to the Green Museum

Recent and Upcoming Eco Art Shows

I’ve been busy as of late, getting ready for the recently passed open studios. I missed posting about the opening of one of these shows, but another one is coming up on the East Coast.

Anyway, here’s the info:

Out of the Blue, at Bergen Community College in NJ. Opening on Feb 17.

More at the show website.

EcoLogic LA, at Cypress College in Cypress, CA. Opened Jan 28 and runs through Feb 28.

More here.

Both of these shows were curated by the people behind Eco Art Space. I think it’s great that they are mounting shows on either side of the country, and also participating in the upcoming College Art Association conference in L.A.
Go to Eco Art Blog

APInews: Systems of Sustainability: Art, Innovation, Action

Just as we’ve received a reminder from the Community Arts Network RSS feed, we are reminding all of our readers about this upcoming event. We’ll both be there in Houston (my home away from home for the better part of the last decade) 

Sustaining our planet, our culture and our creative enterprise” are the topics of “Systems of Sustainability: Art, Innovation, Action (S.O.S.)” at the University of Houston in March. Part arts festival, part academic symposium, “S.O.S.” explores “how creative enterprise can be an integral tool for cultural growth and social change.” Organized by the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts and the Art Museum’s Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston, the event includes site-specific projects, participatory activities, lectures, scholarly panels and opportunities for dialogue with artists, researchers, activists and scholars such as Matt Coolidge, The Center for Land Use Interpretation; Lindsay Utz, GOOD Magazine; Robert Harriss, Houston Advanced Research Center; Liz Lerman, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange; and more. The symposium runs March 27-29, 2009. [LINK]


via APInews: Systems of Sustainability: Art, Innovation, Action .