The grass-roots of environmental and participatory art

La Repubblica Delle Meraviglie

The grass-roots of environmental and participatory art

by Diego Mantoan

To re-think the present, to hope for a sustainable future, the answer of Sasha Vinci e Maria Grazia Galesi – the winners of the Sustainable Art Prize 2017 promoted by Ca’ Foscari University of Venice with ArtVerona – is plain and radical: we must found everything anew! Beginning with society, as made of men and women; our relationship with nature, as finally equal; economic progress, as necessarily sustainable; the relevance of culture, as a pillar of humanity. From the perspective of the two Sicilian artists, hence, it is not sufficient to adopt greener technologies or renewable power sources; nor is it useful to find easy solutions to green-wash our conscience. To the contrary, it becomes necessary to engage as individuals and collectively with this challenge. The awareness of problems must turn into a creative action capable of a profound renewal. The plan for a concrete utopia shall be laid out, artists holding the role of catalyst of society’s positive energy.


The performance and, even more, the narrative structure invented by Vinci/Galesi for their debut in Venice reaches back to grass-root experiences of a fertile period in environmental and participatory art over the last decades. Thanks to Land Art of the 1960s and 70s, art progressively became aware of wider environmentalist topics. Two early Earth Works in particular may be linked to Vinci/Galesi’s The Republic of Marvels: on the one side the environmental recoveries by Nancy Holt, on the other side the landscape inventions by John Latham. By contrast to the celebrated biotope-inceptions of her husband, Robert Smithson, such as the Spiral Jetty in the Salt Lake of Utah, Holt rather intervened on environments for their regeneration, after being used and discarded by humans. For her Dark Star Park (1979-84) in Roslyn, Virginia, the artist rescued a piece of derelict land at a highway crossroads and did so by starting with a new territorial tale. Indeed, besides growing grass, she decided to put megalithic structures aligned with the stars, thus creating a park for astrological sculptures and instilling this plot with lively lyricism. Later on Holt was invited to regenerate a landfill in New Jersey with the project Sky Mound (1988), which became a hillside park plus observatory. An analogy can be drawn to the earlier experience of John Latham, founder of the Artist Placement Group with his wife Barbara Steveni, and several waste bings he worked on in Scotland. Again the artist was called to address the toxic residue of industrial development that had altered the Scottish landscape indelibly. Since the hills filled with mining dump couldn’t be removed, Latham approached them as in a collective psychoanalysis by confronting society with the scars inflicted upon the landscape. Trying to come to terms with these environmental abortions and to avoid them in the future, the artist analyzed the hills, draw their shape, imagined a mythological foundation rather than a human one and, finally, gave them a name. The hills were baptized Niddrie Woman and Five Sisters (1975-76), hence becoming part of collective imagination and an admonishment to the society that caused them.


As a result of a narrative process, the performance of Vinci/Galesi matches perfectly this historic tradition. However, to the contrary of Holt and Latham, the two artists are not the only source of the new tale. By means of various workshops and seminars, Venice and its university became an open lab for the collective elaboration of a social, political, economic, environmental and scientific utopia, which should reimagine the foundations of a truly sustainable future. The Republic of Marvels thus activates an ample constitutional process that involves all those who aspire creating an optimal place for humankind. Because of this fundamental aspect the project by Vinci/Galesi recalls other renowned examples of environmental and participatory art, first of all the action 7000 Eichen (1982-1987) by Joseph Beuys. In the attempt of afforesting the city of Kassel in five years, the time-lapse between two documenta exhibitions, the German artist unloaded a mountain of monoliths in front of the Museum Fridericianum; each stone would have been removed and then placed next to an oak newly planted in the city. Beuys started a process he couldn’t see terminated, but which involved hundreds of people, volunteers ands collectors. The action was even restaged by the DIA Center in New York under the title 7000 Oaks (1988). The oaks grew high and strong, while the monoliths beneath them stayed short, though they silently testify the event of a collectiveness deciding to restart from nature, instead of building monuments. It is a choice shared by Vinci/Galesi, since they trust the ephemeral lifespan and delicacy of flowers, like metaphors of natural life and symbols of constant rebirth. Their presence in the urban structure of the Lagoon appears to conquer Venice, a city that emerged from water in perfect symbiosis with its natural habitat. Taken together with the monumental aspect of Venice, the flowers generate an image of humankind that finds its way back to nature – or at least of a society that doesn’t avoid to take responsibility with regard to its environment.


Precisely this integrated perspective on matters connects the action of Vinci/Galesi to the most recent experiments of environmental and participatory art, such as the numerous projects of 2007 for the group show Weather Report at Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Colorado. Curated by Lucy R. Lippard, one of the most influent female art critics and activists for women rights, the exhibition in Boulder was a perfect overview of artistic projects that – leaving apocalyptic and shocking tones behind – rather tried to involve the viewers at an emotional and intellectual level, in order to subvert their convictions. Following this strategy Sherry Wiggin created various Carbon Portraits (2007), that is visual representations of the Carbon Footprint of visitors she had interviewed, hence putting the public in front of their individual responsibility. Chris Jordan, on the other side, confronted the public with its collective responsibility by means of photo collages titled Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait (2007), for instance representing the number of SUVs bought in the USA or the true quantity of plastic bottles used by Americans every five minutes, which is 2 millions. Back to flowers, according to a study of the University of Vienna, Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison created a video titled The Mountain in the Greenhouse (2001) showing a rocky peak which progressively lost its fauna: because of climate change, flowers were climbing up until they disappeared forever. Again addressing climate change, Mary Miss installed the public artwork Connect the Dots: Mapping the High Water, Hazards and History of Boulder Creek (2007), which consisted in pinpointing big blue dots on various buildings and poles around the city, in order to visualise the likely water level of floods caused by a likely natural cataclysm.

The action of Vinci/Galesi, the like of the projects for Weather Report, belong to a novel and quite effective category of environmental and participatory art: besides having the audience engaged in reflection, they are very beautiful! It is a peculiar trait of great artist to be capable of formalising utopia, melting in one image both ideas and aesthetic qualities. Furthermore, Vinci/Galesi enrich us with another present: that is, allowing us to reimagine this utopia together with them. Their Venetian action wouldn’t have been possible without the practical aid and imagination of the students involved in the project. Hence, the artists leave us with two powerful messages. The first one with regard to our planet: no one can save it by himself or herself, many (or even all) of us are needed to succeed. The second message is to look confidently at the possible futures, which – instead of being dystopian or nightmarish – could be as beautiful as a carpet full of flowers.