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To Life!: Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet

by Linda Weintraub
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2012
384 pp. illus. b/w.  Trade, $75.00; paper, $34.95
ISBN: 9780520273610; ISBN: 978-0-520-27362-7.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


This is a challenging book for three reasons. Firstly, it brings us face-to-face with the current global ecological and environmental issues confronting us. Secondly, it forces us to question just what it is that makes an object or process art. And thirdly it attempts to (re)define the role of artistic practice. The notion of the traditional artist using oil paint to produce a static, beautiful two dimensional painting is challenged throughout the book — artists now use data, plants, earth, microbes — almost anything in their artistic endeavours!

As the back cover says; “This book documents the burgeoning eco-art movement from A to Z, presenting a panorama of artistic responses to environmental concerns, from Ant Farm's anti-consumer antics in the 1970s to Marina Zurkow's 2007 animation that anticipates the [alleged] havoc wreaked upon the planet by climate change.” There is certainly something for everyone within the large range of artistic projects discussed throughout the book.

One of the purposes of this book is to provide an educational forum.  The book may be used as a core text in studio art practices, contemporary art history, or environmental studies. Page (ix) gives online auxiliaries for instructors and students, for example, Teaching Guides at the publisher’s website (www.ucpress.edu).

Perhaps the main usefulness of this book is as a definitive guide to the complete field of eco art. One section discusses twentieth-century eco art pioneers, some of the better known artists or artistic groups are, Beuys, Hundertwasser, Kaprow and Ant Farm. This is followed by a further 34, twenty-first-century eco art explorers, again such luminaries as Maya Lin, Eduardo Kac, Red Earth and The Beehive Design Collective are represented. The emphasis is mainly on the projects of these 49 artists rather than the artists themselves. To Life! is copiously illustrated with black & white drawings, diagrams, and photos. There is an Addendum in the form of a Personal Survey, a section on Suggestions for Further Research and a good Index.

It is not necessary to read the book from front to back in the normal way.  It may be consulted as a sort of static hypertext document. The guideposts for this approach are mapped out in the Schematics, Indexes and Glossaries at the beginning of the book. This is actually quite ingenious as the cross-referencing takes you to the best available example from the combination of inputs. These pages are followed by a number of explanatory essays that discuss what eco art is and is not. Also eco art themes, aesthetics, and materials are discussed. The essays are not especially scientific or complex and are suitable for all levels of readership. I can envision some wonderful projects for even young school children that teachers could devise to help convey the importance of environmental sustainability and give kids a real sense of the earth. One minor criticism is the verbosity of some of the essays. I find using 10 words when two would suffice highly irritating.

The book describes eco art very well and locates it accurately within art history, but lacks a deep theoretical critical approach – this is not a criticism per se but more an observation to alert the prospective reader. To Life! is unashamedly biased in favour of eco art giving the impression that traditional art, particularly painting and sculpture, is passé. I take the pluralist position that all forms of art are relevant in our multi-cultural global society, and to dismiss one form or another borders on a kind of fundamentalist arrogance. Comments such as the following ignore or are ignorant of the statistics that show the attendance at art galleries is increasing, both for those of the old masters, and especially those of contemporary traditional style artwork such as portraiture.  As she writes:  “The art world is a very prissy little thing over in the corner, while the major cultural forces are being determined by techno science” (p. 211). The major forces affecting culture are the sales agendas of national and multinational corporations using social media such as Reality Television, the Internet and Facebook!

I believe this book will become an essential reference work for all those working as, or thinking of becoming, eco artists. It will prove itself invaluable to teachers at most levels of education from schools to universities.

Last Updated 1 December 2012

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