Conservation as Artists' Muse

Giacomo Castagnola's sustainable designs use egg crates and recycled paper.
(Credit:Enrique Gili/IPS)

Conservation as Artists' Muse

SAN DIEGO, California -
Pulled-together socialites and not-so-sloppy artists recently gathered
for an atypical art exhibition in San Diego that combines art with
wilderness conservation, using contemporary art to investigate
vanishing worlds and the people that inhabit them.

Nature has served as the artists' muse for millennia -- now it was their turn to return the favour.

The exhibition "Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing
World" is the six-year culmination of a multi-continent art project
that sent eight mid-career artists on two mini-residencies to UNESCO
World Heritage sites around the world, with instructions to create new
works of art inspired by the people and the landscapes they

The spectrum of the heritage sites selected was as diverse as the
artists represented. Most live and work in the United States but come
from culturally distinct backgrounds, with artists hailing from as
close as Baja, Mexico and from as far away as China.

Their task was to capture through mixed media -- film, photography and sculpture --
a fast-changing landscape that Westerners seldom get to see or experience firsthand,
ranging from Brazil's coastal rainforest to alpine peaks.

As the paint dried and assistants scrambled to make last-minute
adjustments, curators shepherded patrons from room to room, commenting
on the creative process to a curious and sometimes perplexed crowd of

So can art promote conservation, without preaching?

"I think it's about opening your mind to what's going on in the world.
What I like about the show is that it's not didactic. The artists are
not telling you what to think. It's more poetic than that," said senior
curator Stephanie Hanor of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

Inside the art world, the term conservation is generally
synonymous with preserving mouldy Old Masters -- not dodging aggravated
wildlife captured on film in the name of preservation and

The co-founders of the exhibit, Brett Jenks, executive director of the
conservation group Rare, and MCASD president Hugh Davies, wanted to
alter that perception. At the time of the project's inception, the term
global warming was a mere blip on the media horizon. Now environmental
considerations are entering all aspects of U.S. life, from pumping gas
to the high-brow aspirations of the art world.

The challenge was to select artists capable meeting the task
of conveying the ephemera of a fleeting natural world into a museum
setting. "We picked artists who have a history of research, who have a
history working offsite, whose studio practice is really about engaging
[the audience] in that way," said Hanor.

Fortunately for the wildlife, the tactics of conservation-minded
artists have changed. The renowned 19th century painter John James
Audubon, widely credited with creating the conservation movement, was
often portrayed with gun in hand. In the field, Audubon shot and killed
hundreds of birds prior to illustrating them in vivid detail.

Today's commissioned artists take a kinder, gentler approach
towards their art and their elusive subjects. Mark Dion, for example,
explores the boundaries of taxonomy, natural history and science, often
challenging and collaborating with experts in the field. Taking a clue
from the Sierra Club, he intends to lead a natural history tour of the
Tijuana River Preserve in tandem with experienced naturalists.

Inspired by a childhood fascination with Komodo dragons, Dion ventured
to Indonesia's Komodo National Park in 2005. He returned two years
later. Deeply impressed with the commitment of impoverished park
rangers there, Dion decided to create functional art on their behalf,
designing an Indonesian-inspired pushcart used by park rangers to haul
essential equipment to and from remote work sites.

The Peruvian Tijuana-based architect Giacomo Castagnola designed two
rooms where patrons can learn more about sustainable design. The
furniture used in the exhibitions lounge was composed of egg crates and
recycled paper. "It's about creating a space that's sustainable," he

The knowledge that many of these sites are threatened weighs
on the minds of patrons. "Many of these parks exist on paper," said the
Jenks of the group Rare, which focuses on the underlying reasons for
species loss and human factors.

According to UNESCO, 30 of the over 800 World Heritage sites listed are
endangered, due to multiple threats ranging from armed conflict to encroaching human habitation.

Marco Ramirez "Erre", a Tijuana-based artist with a background in
construction and conceptual art, observed those threats firsthand. He
visited the Three Parallel Rivers, a preserve in the southwest region
of Yunnan Province in China. The mountainous ecosystem, which borders
Tibet, is home to the giant panda. Rugged terrain, 5,000-metre peaks,
deep gorges and untamed rivers ensured the region's isolation for

The biologically rich 1.7-million-hectare preserve is
currently under threat from resource exploitation and breakneck
commercial development resulting from China's rapid economic boom,
which has led to environmental degradation.

Impressed with local building techniques, Erre's installation paid
homage to the self-sufficient inhabitants of this once isolated region
and to a disappearing way of life, recreating a 20-foot Tibetan-style
wall embedded with television panels that depict changes in the built
environment and how people live.

The influx of tourism and subsequent industry, he feared, would lead to the Three
Parallel Rivers ultimate demise. The artist lamented: "If you really want to preserve a place, don't go there."

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