Photo: Sydney Schmeltz
James Nisbet is one of the professors in the Visiting Professor programme of Uniarts Helsinki's Academy of Fine Arts.

Art students are concerned about the climate crisis

At Visiting Professor James Nisbet’s lectures, students discuss the role of energy in creating art.

How much and what kind of energy was used to paint the Mona Lisa? How about exhibiting it, copying it, sharing it on the internet, using it as material for other works of art?

These are examples of questions contemplated on the Academy of Fine Arts’ course on Art and Energy that discusses the role of energy in creating art. The course is led by James Nisbet, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of California. He is one of the professors in the Visiting Professor programme of Uniarts Helsinki's Academy of Fine Arts.

Nisbet’s topic is very timely as it is related to questions of climate change and sustainable development that are becoming more important also in the art world.

“Arts are too often thought of as a kind of separate, purely individual or intellectual pursuit, even though in reality the art world is a multibillion-dollar multinational industry that involves millions of airline miles and the complex climate systems within the galleries, among other things,” says Nisbet.

Nisbet’s interest in energy and art was evoked when he studied the relationship of so-called land art in the 1960s and 1970s and the environmental movement that came about around the same time.

“The environmental art and environmental movement are usually disconnected in histories of the period. Was it really so, was a research question that I was curious about.”

Land art is art realised in the environment with minimal expression, and it was born in part as a protest to the commercialism of galleries. Famous land artists include Walter de Maria and Robert Smithson, both from the United States. Smithson’s massive spiral earthwork sculpture “Spiral Jerry” in Utah’s Great Salt Lake is probably the most famous piece of land art.

The answer to Nisbet’s question was, “as so often in academic research”, yes and no.

“These artists weren’t perhaps thinking of environmentalist terms as we might think of them today. On the other hand, they were strongly affected by ecology as a way of understanding the world, as a part of the general consciousness and world views being shaped at that moment.”

Even if only few artists discussed themes related to the environment or energy consumption in the 1970s, the situation is completely different now. The artists discussed during Nisbet’s lectures include Ursula Biemann, a Swiss video artist who documents oil pipes and the exploitation of natural resources, and Mark Dion, an artist from the United States whose works focus on trees and forests.

According to Nisbet, his students in both Finland and California worry about energy consumption and environmental issues.

“Every single student is very concerned about the climate crisis and environmental sustainability, and they think about the ethics and responsibilities of their own work. There is no outside to energy in the production of art.”

Energy consumption and its effects on the environment have been discussed since the 1970s, and the connection between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming has been understood for even longer. Despite this, consumption and emissions keep on growing.

“This is one of the challenges of working in this area. There is so much frustration,” says Nisbet.

However, he still believes in the possibilities of art as a promoter of social change. According to Nisbet, the power of art is in its own ecological diversity, its ability to act as an interface between different ways of working.

“Political activism – also among artists – is important. But it’s also important to have artists who conceive of their work more as a kind of laboratory, as interactive social behaviour that looks for solutions that are different from those that science or politics produce,” says Nisbet.

Uniarts Helsinki's Academy of Fine Arts invites distinguished, international artists and experts of different fields of art to its Visiting Professor programme. Other Visiting Professors in 2019 include David Batchelor, Christian Benefiel, Monster Chetwynd, Peter McDonald, Ruth Pelzer-Montada, Mira Schor and Emily Wardill.

Silja Ylitalo