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