The symbiotic relationship between art and nature

By Alice Morby

6 minute read

The natural world is a source of endless inspiration for the creative mind, and as such, centuries-worth of artists have fixated on nature as a subject within their work.

While the impressionists would place themselves ‘en plein air’ in order to fully capture its nuances and transience, the surrealists used landscapes as a way of representing the subconscious mind. 

In his 2018 essay, historian John-Paul Stonard said that “art is constantly driven by the attempt to bridge the apartness of humans and the world” – arguing that the use of nature within art only highlights the distance between the two.

Increasingly, however, artists are using their work to actively draw the viewer closer to nature, fuelled not only by its beauty, but the pressing environmental issues we face. Rather than simply creating visual replicas of the natural world, artists are kick starting conversations on our environmental impact via bold statements and activist art. 

“I don’t think you can talk about art history without referring to nature,” says Nayrouz Tatanaki, Lymited’s Head of Art. “But at the moment, it feels like it’s the first time that artists are actually concerned about the negative effect we’re having on it.”

An artistic interrogation of nature

Alex Hartley Desktop – 1
Top: ’Cytoplasm State 3’, 2019, by Iris Garagnoux. Above: ’Miller’, 2016, by Alex Hartley

An artistic interrogation of nature

Take, for example, the Italian studio Formafantastma. Founded by Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin in 2009, Formafantasma has spent the past decade merging creative practices to produce works that aim to “facilitate a deeper understanding of both our natural and built environments”. 

In early 2020, they opened a solo show at London’s Serpentine Gallery named Cambio, which, despite being prematurely closed due to the pandemic, took a different approach to design exhibitions, opting to present extensive research and process rather than a room of finished products. 

The focus was on timber. Due to its abundance within the industry and its seemingly sustainable properties, the duo wanted to open an investigation into the governance of the timber industry, while discussing the environmental impact of the extraction, production and distribution of wood to make products. Highlights included a “forensic analysis” of the legality and ethics behind wooden products sold in the UK each year, and a visual essay of the timber industry in the form of two films. 

Cambio is an attempt to expand our understanding of what design can be, going beyond the finished object in order to include its disciplinary boundaries,” Formafantasma said, at the time of the show’s opening. 

Notably, the show also marked a new chapter in exhibitions presented by the Serpentine, which will now look to the practitioners taking a more radical approach by straddling the intersection of art, design and research disciplines. 

Going beyond our preconceptions of art and its many influences is something Tatanaki is keen to bring to Lymited, too. One of the artists she has worked with for the site’s curated collection is Alex Hartley, who for 20 years drove around Los Angeles photographing Modernist homes – forming a series called The Houses.

Upon hearing the project’s title, one may assume a structure-heavy visual paying homage to the manmade. But for Hartley, it’s often the wild and overgrown gardens surrounding the architectural marvels that form the narrative. With his work, he aims to address the complex attitudes towards, and relationships between, built environments and untouched landscapes.

“The idea that nature is literally eating up something that when it was designed, was almost invincible is fascinating,” adds Tatanaki, who has also added Keith Tyson‘s conceptual take on nature, Iris Garagnoux‘s abstract paintings of living matter, and Dominique Lacloche’s photographic exploration of plants to the Lymited roster. 

The environmental impact of art

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’Nature Painting’, 2006, by Keith Tyson

The environmental impact of art

While artists might take inspiration from the natural world, it’s no secret that the wider art world has work to do in terms of reducing its own carbon footprint. 

At Olafur Eliasson’s 2019 Tate Modern show, a handwritten note inside the final room displayed the message “artworks have carbon footprints, too”, presenting a weirdly ironic, yet poignant point to ponder. And despite Eliasson largely trailblazing conversations about climate change through his art practice, it’s a concept that seems to be increasingly resonating with his peers. 

In 2020, a group of London-based gallerists and professionals working in the commercial arts sector founded The Gallery Climate Coalition (GCC), which is leading the industry-specific response to the growing climate crisis. 

Through extensive research, the group has mapped out key areas of action which are most relevant to the industry: Shipping; Travel; Energy; Gallery Spaces; Packaging; Offsetting; Recycling and Digital. Through the GCC website, helpful tips are provided in relation to each of these areas – as a way of encouraging members to follow suit and do their bit when it comes to climate activism. 

To some, it might be a small step, but it’s definitely one in the right direction. Hopefully, with organisations like GCC and artists driving real conversations about tangible change, we’ll see action from the industry’s key players, and nature will continue to be a source of inspiration for generations to come.

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