Catalogue / 2004 Kantri and Urbaani

On Environmental Art

Environmental art is a public statement on the aesthetic and ethic issues of the 


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. Environmental thinking and conceptions of art are bound to the experiences and 

environments of childhood.

In this connection, I choose three perspectives to review basic issues related to 

environmental art. They are: 1) local cultural history and the national landscape; 2) 

the complexity of contemporary society and globalization; and 3) factors related 

to environmental change. These perspectives could well be given briefly in three 

terms. They entail the past, the present and the future. 

1) 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 our experience of the environment, 

and most of that past has already become legend. Nonetheless, our basic experience of 

the environment is still 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 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 in our environment. The grounds for 

such change are primarily economic, or more precisely, related to economic policies.  

In 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. 

The 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 


2) The complexity of contemporary society and globalization

But 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. 

3) Factors 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-centred 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 

of 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 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. But every 

time that we speak of environmental art, we also speak of communality.

11.1.2004 Markku Hakuri 


Professor of Environmental Art, University of Art and 

Design Helsinki