Inventing nature

In the environmental art movement of the late 1960s, artists left the safety of the galleries, of the cities, and went out into natural environments, particularly the deserts of America, to create gigantic and perhaps bombastic works of art, carving the landscapes into shapes of their own designs.

Michael Heizer, 'Double Negative'

As this field of art has developed, in the past 10 years artists have returned to working with this element of nature, or natural phenomena, not through the manipulation of environments but rather through the creation of them, inventing nature through technologies.  The most famous of these is of course Olafur Eliasson and ‘The Weather Project’, installed in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in London in 2003.  It was made out of a semi-circular disc of hundreds of lamps which gave off a particular yellow light, and the hall was filled with mist.

Olafur Eliasson, 'The Weather Project'

Preceding this work was another mist-based project, called ‘Blur Building’, by Diller Scofidio and Renfro.  This project was built for the Swiss Expo in 2002.  The concept for the project was based on how our sense of vision ‘dominates our behavior in public space and establishes the basis of social relations’ (Diller, E. and Scofidio, R., Blur: The Making of Nothing. New York: Harry N Abrams, 2002, p. 209).  The mist that the visitors would enter into would drastically reduce their ability to use their sense of vision to establish a social relationship to a stranger based on appearance, and so inspire social interactions based on other mechanisms of perception.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro, 'Blur Building'

More recently, some artists have begun to deal with natural phenomena on a smaller, and in my opinion, much more intimate scale.  Working inside, they have developed new technologies to create particular natural phenomena, or something that approaches the natural.  One example is the cloud installation by Berndnaut Smilde.

Berndnaudt Smilde, 'Nimbus'

This ephemeral work was made by making a cloud out of a particular smoke inside a gallery space, and photographing it.  The work is presented as a photograph, but in my mind, would be far more interesting as an installation that one could experience first hand.  An example of this alternate form is a recent work by Heechan Park, titled ‘An Architectural Time Machine’.  In the work, a machine creates smoke rings that have particular scents, and these scents can be altered.  The smoke rings drift across the room, but whereas the mechanism by which the cloud in ‘Nimbus’ was made is not visible in the photographs, Park’s project makes this mechanism an essential part of the experience of the work.

Heechan Park, 'An Architectural Time Machine'

The artifice of these smoke rings is not hidden, and is rather made obvious to viewers, perhaps intending to avoid any sense of simulacrum of nature, and instead offer an experience of nature as mediated through technology.  Where Turrell and Arakawa & Gins created environments that would allow one to experience how one perceives, these artists have created works that offer an experience of how we relate to as well as how we perceive nature, and how this relation can be brought into question through the mediation of a technology.