Trace (Exhibition Book)
Michael Shiell (2011)
Danielle Smelter
Trace: Exploring Alternative means for documenting Ephemeral Environmental Art
Michael Shiell (2011)
Sites of ExChange
Danielle Smelter (2010)
The Changing Sense of Social Space in Relation to a developing Ephemeral Art piece
Michael Shiell (2007)
What is Environmental Art
Michael Shiell (2004)
Bone Fire: Artistic Expression in the Arid Zone
Michael Shiell (2003)
Shelter and Survival
Michael Shiell (2002)
What is Environmental Art?
Article written for the inaugural Melbourne Environmental Art Festival
  Michael Shiell
As a genre Environmental art has never been defined by a standard series of codified principles. It is not a distinct artistic movement whose conditions are predetermined by a rigid manifesto. Rather, the development of environmental art grew out of the revolutionary social environments of the 1960’s. In its development it has also been touched by other social transformations such as the rise of feminist and ecological thinking.
Political discontent and social dissatisfaction of the late 1960’s created an environment that compelled revolution. In conjunction with this revolutionary sentiment there was also a reconsideration of certain established social standards. Through this reconsideration grew civil rights movements, the anti-war movement, women’s liberation and the ecology and environmental movements. Amidst this backdrop of societal unrest art went through a great change. The predominance of minimalism was appearing to slow, as its cool purity seemed to speak to fewer people. The central object-oriented concern that as devoid of the element of human touch seemed increasingly foreign to audiences. Eventually the established minimalist practices began to splinter. The following artistic directions took these shards as launching points from which to react and respond. From out of this conceptual cauldron developed not only Land Art but also Arte Povera, Conceptual Art and many other artistic practices.
Land Art and Earth Art as it is also known formed the intellectual pre-cursor to environmental art. During the period of the late 1960’s American artists such as Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim and Walter De Maria took the creation and exhibition of their works well beyond the bounds of their confined studio and gallery spaces. In so doing they not only were reconsidering the potential of artistic practice but also challenging the established dominance of the gallery based arts world. As opposed to landscape based art of earlier times their art was not a depiction or representation of land, it was an interaction with space. The contextual significance of the space played an important part in the creation of the works. These site-specific works were not confined to American shores alone.
Simultaneously to the development of Land Art in America, European based artists were also reacting against the same sorts of constrictions. Their development of an earth-conscious, interactive arts practice produced similar but distinctly different creative results. Where the American works were generally large-scale masculine impositions within the land, the European practice produced smaller, more intimate, ephemeral works. In contrast to the dense, permanent works of the American’s the ephemerality of the European pieces seemed to incorporate a heightened sensitivity towards natural impermanence and more earthly rhythms. Not only were the British artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton along with Hans Haacke from continental Europe creating these gentle fleeting works they were also redressing the balance of significance between the art object and the process of creation similar to conceptual art practice.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s there was a development of feminist theory and particularly eco-feminism that linked the domination of nature with the patriarchal domination of women. In exploring alternatives to patriarchal societal structure people’s interest in matriarchal pre-Christian cultures grew. The more masculine imposition and domination of nature seemed more outmoded as artists searched for a sensitive environmental collaboration with natural rhythms. Agnes Denes ‘Wheat field’ in Manhattan in 1982 utilized the very natural process of growth. As a year-long environmental piece, in the form of a field of wheat was installed in the urban commercial center of Manhattan. Alan Sonfist’s ‘Time Landscape’ of 1978 also possesses this sense of land reclamation as an environmental collaboration occurred within an urban surround. Also during this time Andy Goldsworthy began his ephemeral environmental art practice. This highly productive artist generally creates impermanent work whose photographic record tend to blur the boundaries of where the artwork exists and the record begin.
Recent environmental art practice holds a closer bond to this early European practice. It is still not limited by distinct boundaries and guidelines that define its practice. It seems to appear as a development within some artist’s practice as they search for a broader truth between people and place. Some artists such as David Nash, Patrick Dougherty, and Jerilea Zempel appear to approach their environmental practice from a sculptural basis. For other people such as Martin Hall and Nils-Udo the photographic record of the interaction seems to be the significant artistic component of the process. While artists like Chris Drury, Alfio Bonnano and Peter von Tiesenhausen  tend to step lightly between the balance of the sculptural and ephemeral concerns.
The development of environmental art is in parallel to its inspiration. It has not been confined and forced through rigid boundaries but rather follows the gentle ebb and flow of nature itself. Individual artists have found their own means of interaction and expression within the land. Although the expression is individual, the method of interaction with the environment harkens back to ruddy earthy cultures for which community was central. In this sense, environmental art offers a hopeful connection to a socially disjointed, individually centered population.