Visions at Environmental Art

Environment means responsibility Art stands for freedom

Mr. Markku Hakuri
Professor, Department of Art, Aalto University, Finland


One’s opinion of the world depends one’s perspective. The world is a mesh of events. The smallest movement – in the observer or in the world – provides a new perspective. The same things are seen differently. There is no correct perspective, no correct way. The existence of numerous alternatives creates uncertainty and diversity. Rules of correctness and their strict obedience breeds repetition. A tolerance of diversity and uncertainty lays the foundations for pluralism and emotional wealth. Therein also lies a dream of freedom. Art is a dream. 


The Environment is a State of Mind

The environment is space, place and landscape combined. The landscape is an experience of place. We are part of the environment. We are attached to it. When we change place we also change ourselves. This provides the frame of reference – to know your place. It is the reality associated with the social and gender-based environment.

We can try to rephrase the above in different terms. The environment is a state of mind, and a state of mind is an experience created by the subconscious from a moment spent in the environment. The environment is everything.

Everything depends on the point of view. How to place oneself in the world? Our sensory perception shapes our experiences of the environment. Together, sound, smell, light, color, touch and emotion form a unique experience of space. The chill of a park in November can be experienced by going to the park. It can also be seen by looking out of a window or at a television screen. One can also hear a story about the chill of the park. When the perspective changes, the experience of the environment will also change.

Emphasizing perspective will underscore seeing. At best, seeing is insight into the environment. The environment is a comprehensive sensory experience. The environment, space, place, landscape and nature form a framework that achieves a specific shape in everyone’s mind depending on perspective. The environment is a mental image produced by the senses of what is the best possible moment for that particular existence. 


Environmental Art

Environmental art is a public statement on the aesthetic, ecologic and ethic issues of the environment. As a concept, environmental art broadly encompasses different areas of the arts. Appearing under this rubric are markedly different and complex solutions with varying aesthetic and social emphases, from monuments celebrating individuals to topical statements on current issues. We have seen burning barns, a tear-shaped spring, cows made of scrapped cars, steel balls fallen from the sky, and artists covered in mud. Environmental art can also include architectural solutions, road design and related landscaping, parks and gardens, and generally speaking our environment as a visual entity. Despite this, environmental art is often perceived mainly as outdoor sculpture, three-dimensional objects of value underlining permanence and gradually laying claim in essence to their place in the environment and in history. Environmental art is also often installed as an addition and ornament to architecture, in which case its purpose is to increase the visual added value of a built space.

The extent of the whole concept of environmental art, however, permits views and comments on our environment in a variety of ways. Our conception of the environment is based on everyone’s own interpretation of their environment and its aesthetic values. Art is a way of perceiving the world. Underlying artistic interpretation are always the events of the past, the personal history of each observer, and in particular the experiences of childhood. The present is the mirror of the past and, when desired, vice versa.

In this connection, I choose three perspectives to review basic issues related to my visions of environmental art. They are: Local cultural history and the national landscape; The complexity of contemporary society and globalization; and Factors related to environmental change. These perspectives could well be given briefly in three terms. They entail the past, the present and the future.


Local cultural history and the national landscape

We have a heritage of a national identity and imagery provided by history, millennia of human occupation and settlement beginning with hunter-gatherer culture and emerging through agrarian culture into the present day.

The history of settlement in Finland is the basis of my experience of the environment, and most of that past has already become legend. Nonetheless, my basic experience of the environment is still partly based on our historical frame of reference: man is part of nature. The Finnish experience of nature has traditionally been associated with lakes and forests. Underlying that experience has often been a feeling of communion with nature that has been achieved in solitude. Our environment has been a sanctuary where we have always had our own place. By serving our environment and by tending to it our fore-fathers ensured their own place in the overall context of nature. The term ’wilderness’ is an apt description of our culture’s historical experience of space: a large area needed for free movement and sustenance.

The latest cycle in our Finnish history of settlement is a return towards the initial positions. The Finnish population is moving southward and into the coastal regions. The settled communities, towns and cities of South Finland are growing as the result of internal migration. Movement and migration shape our conceptions of space, and they may serve as the basis of spatial experience for future generations. At present we have to accept rapid and fundamental reorganization of our environment. The grounds for such change are primarily economic, or more precisely, related to economic policies. In a broader perspective, they steer the development of our environment and its visual appearance. The history of settlement has evolved into economic history, and internal migration has become an essential condition of livelihood. 

The Finnish landscape has been drawn, painted and photographed into our minds with highly romantic emphases. This has produced a whole collection of sites, environments, locations and significant spaces, upon which the conception of our national landscape is based. At present, there are 27 sites and locations on Finland’s official list of national landscapes. The underlying framework is one of landscape archetypes of our land of forests and lakes. The Finnish perception of the landscape inspires an idea with roots in the legendary Impivaara of our history – a place where freedom, independence, self-sufficiency and personal building skills are the cornerstones of the concept of the environment. At that time, the environment was a total experience in which aesthetic values were also prominent. 

he national-romantic perception of the landscape with its stress on permanence is a thing of the past. Our present local culture and its experiences of space underline change and mobility. But the means of environmental art can be used to establish perspectives commenting on both ways of viewing the environment and its various emphases. 

The complexity of contemporary society and globalization

We rarely speak of local culture any more. The basis of the new cultural system is not provided by the local community but by centralized, world-wide organizations that steer developments and culture in their own areas. In the background is a new religion, the cult of progress, belief in continuous growth. Man and the environment are being adapted to the requirements of this faith, and without noticing it we are adopting the world view of global culture dominated by multinational systems.

Our perception of the world is becoming standardized through the concentration of economic and political power and with the aid of electronic communications. Values and ideologies are becoming similar, and different social systems are being harmonized into compatibility. Globalization has become an everyday matter. To an increasing degree, individuals are turning into very small stones of a large pyramid.
The everyday reality of people is disappearing and is being replaced by virtual experiences and the illusions of a global experience industry. Also a lifestyle emphasizing the uniqueness of the fleeting moment, the search for experiences and changes in the environment create kaleidoscopic, adaptable sub-cultures that at least appear to carry on the heritage of local culture. The present is contradictory and confusing. It is a chaotic state of choices and decisions that can also engender uncertainty and a lack of illusions.

Our present environment lies in the interstice of local and global thinking, and we bear the values of both ways of thought. This conflicting interim state may also be a fruitful chaos, engendering new forms and thinking. Because of its broad scope, environmental art may take on the role of an important influence and participant in discourse in contemporary society. 


Actors related to environmental change

Architecture is the factor with greatest influence on the future perception of the built environment. It is the mother of all constructed environments. Architecture creates the aesthetic scenery of our environment. It can be a communal, rallying and thought-provoking force, or it may shape space in a brazen and self-centered manner with no regard for its environment. Architecture is naturally linked in broader perspective to the core values of society and its course 

of development. Dialogue between environmental art and architecture is extremely important, and collaboration with architectural training is necessary for teaching and instruction in environmental art. It is no random occurrence that many environmental artists also have an educational background in architecture.

Human mobility is a further influence on future perceptions of the environment. Increasing traffic and private motoring in particular expand the road network, splitting the environment into an ever-denser labyrinth. The aesthetic experience of the landscape consists of roadsides and traffic signs. Moving from one place to another involves orienteering between points in as short a time as possible. Engineering addresses movement and its aesthetic more from the perspective of the automobile than of man.

Cooperation between environmental art and research comes especially to the fore here. We need information on pressure for change, opportunities and uses related to traffic and various forms of mobility. In this way, we can expand the basic conception of environmental art. In this same connection, I would also point to the above-mentioned other major form of mobility in society: internal migration. This, too, is an area where the questions raised by research and environmental art benefit each other. Cooperation with social scientists, for example, provides the necessary broad perspective for studying environmental art, and it will also reinforce the opportunities for students to study the various issues of our environment with the means of art.

Environmental change on a major scale is also evident in the wake of the logging industry both globally and locally. The experiences of the past mentioned at the beginning of this paper have nothing in common with the contemporary conception of the forest. Boundless wilderness and the sanctity of the forest are myths. Forestry splits our heritage into clear-felled areas, and the soft treatment of forest into thickets and a few remaining conservation areas. But it is in the forest that the past meets the future. Myths and tales turn into questions of the diversity of nature and the necessity to preserve it. With reference to the above, I would note that architectural culture, traffic and forestry are among the most important environmental factors that will impact our future. Unfortunately, there is very little room in that set of values for conservations and aesthetic values. And yet we cannot manage without architecture, engineering or the forest industry. The question to be posed is whether we can manage without environmental art.

In a world of increasing consumption, or more in general terms of ongoing growth, the moral and aesthetic value choices of people gain more emphasis. More and more strength is needed to be able to disagree with generally accepted values, and courage for diverging from jointly decided goals. The questions of from were and where to have become issues of rights to different value and environment-related choices. Environmental art challenges people to think of life as a complex construct where all choices have an aesthetic, ecologic and ethical aspect. It is difficult to find models for decisions related to these value choices. But it remains as our task to seek answers and narratives that will help in perceiving the world. Environmental art can also be a public reminder that there are many different ways of thinking about the world.

Perspectives on environmental art can, of course, be chosen differently. The extensiveness of environmental art makes it possible to create varied kinds of artistic ideas and solutions in the environment. After all every time that we speak of environmental art, we also speak of communality and choices that follow.