"Environmental Art History, a winter 2021 seminar at the University of Michigan, began by asking how art can positively contribute to solving environmental problems. Following Rasheed Araeen's 2010 manifesto, we wondered what art can really "do." Must artists abandon their studios, as Araeen suggests, or is there still value in objects and contemplation? From these difficult questions, we turned to the past. What does an environmentally informed art history look like? To assemble an answer to this question, we spent the first half of the semester reading theoretical approaches: from classic texts in environmental history and recent ecocriticism in literary studies and art history, to debates over the "Anthropocene" and Indigenous critiques of "new materialisms." Dipping our toes into the theoretical waters prepared us to turn to the practice of environmental art history in the second half of the class; how have art historians crafted an environmental lens for analysis? Ultimately the students in this course, both graduate and undergraduate, produced their own forms of environmental art history. The following videos provide windows into their in-progress final projects, as well as a look at the concerns weighing on students during yet another pandemic semester.
Issues of environmental justice resonated with students throughout the course. The power and possibilities of environmentally engaged art are expressed in Celia Kent’s project on contemporary art and GMOs, and in Destini Riley’s mock exhibition centers on environmental artists of color. The critique of wilderness and what we deem “natural” also impacted students’ final projects. Helen Rhines turns a critical eye on the appeal of sculpture parks as “natural” spaces, productively asking why many seek nature at Storm King but not the Heidelberg Project; while Patrick Girard looks to urban architecture like Habitat 67 to rethink the appeal of the North American suburbs. Meanwhile, Sophie Underwood analyzes how animated films ask us to “make kin” with nonhuman beings.
Midway through the course, we considered the fraught genre of landscape. We pondered Anishibaabe curator Wanda Nanibush’s question of the exhibition Picturing the Americas: “are there paintings we just shouldn’t show anymore?” Art historian Caroline Gillaspie also visited the class to discuss the visibility and invisibility of environmental degradation and enslaved labor in paintings of Brazillian coffee fazendas. Yet landscape remains a popular genre for viewers and artists. Ally Eggleton discusses contemporary eco-artist Mariah Reading’s rethinking of landscape as zero waste, while Sabrina Kliza reminds us (through her own artwork) that landscape painting can provide a place of refuge and escape during a period dominated by the surging Covid-19 pandemic and the January 2021 insurrection. Of course, the idea of landscape, or “nature,” as a means of escape or a place of spiritual encounter has long histories, as taken up by Madison Cotner on JMW Turner.
This virtual seminar begins with two longer-form videos from the graduate students who took this course as an independent study; their work represents exciting new directions in environmental art history. Kaeun Park uses an environmental history approach to analyze Winter, Daesungri, a series of outdoor exhibitions in 1980s South Korea, that also offers a window onto changing views of “nature.” Soyoon Ryu presents an ecocritical analysis of Korean artist Lee Seung-taek’s work, with a close eye on materiality and environmental histories of the developmental state; she raises crucial questions about the tension between environmental aesthetics and ethics. Collectively, these projects represent a compelling look at the possibilities of uniting environmental studies and art history.
- Dr. Michaela Rife, April 2021