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Panorama Circolare, Valstagna, Arte Sella, Trentino, Estate 2018

The Art of Nature

A reflection on the climate change theme through art exhibitions that have the environment at their core.

by Anna Volpicelli
27 July 2020
8 min read
byAnna Volpicelli
27 July 2020
8 min read

When German artist Nils-Udo began to create works of art in nature in 1972, the problem of climate change was still far away. "At that time, we didn't have these problems. I grew up in Bavaria and nature had always been part of my art —first as a painter and then with works I made amid parks or natural environments," says the artist. More than 30 years have passed since then, and needless to say, Udo's relationship with nature has changed. "I believe it is possible to find a connection with works in nature and what is happening in the world. I have traveled among 40 countries, and I realize that the world is in much more danger than in the past."

Nils-Udo is one of the pioneers of the European the Art in Nature movement. Born in early 70s as a celebration of the beauty of nature, the initiative now attracts artists from all walks of life, eager to embrace its effectiveness at also addressing ecological issues. Among some of the organizations leading the charge Arte Sella, Arte in Bosco and Cape Farewell.

Enhancing the beauty and the respect of the environment

In addition to its aesthetic beauty, those who uphold art in nature say it inspires a reflection on climate problems. In Italy and Europe, a series of art organizations want to inspire a more respectful connection and relationship with nature. For more than 30 years, Arte Sella, a cultural association in Val di Sella, Trentino, has represented the place where art, music, dance and other expressions of human creativity come together. The goal: To give life to a unique dialogue between human fragility and the natural world.

Founded in October 1989 by Emanuele Montibeller, who currently serves as artistic director, Arte Sella's project revolves around the concept that nature must be defended as a treasure chest of human memory, and the objective is to abandon the works to natural decay. Working with an eclectic mix of international artists, including the aforementioned Nils-Udo, as well as Giuliano Mauri (known for the iconic Vegetal Cathedral), Arne Quinze, John Grade and Michelangelo Pistoletto, the Trentino association designed a route between its mountains called ArteNatura.

"The principle that revolves around Arte Sella is to produce art in a way that is compatible with the respect for nature," explains Montibeller. Their work also supports the development of territory without altering its original structural aspect by sensitizing the population to environmental issues, he adds. Artists are encouraged to not make radical changes to the territory but rather to recover and create pieces by using natural materials, such as leaves, tree branches, stones and earth.

The creative process and the final work is continually changing, clearly subject to weather conditions and the passing of the seasons. Today Arte Sella is an international reality, in continuous evolution, and it is part of ELAN (European Land Art Network), Dancing Museums and Grandi Giardini Italiani. Montibeller explains that one of their newest projects, spearheaded by Udo, focuses on the topic of plant migration. "As we care for climate issues, we would like to highlight how the ecological damages we are experiencing could have led plants to shift their environments."


Arte Sella

The art of natural elements

With a passion for art and nature, four florist and gardener friends decided to give life to Arte in Bosco, an initiative born three years ago in Ticino, Switzerland. Each year, Arte in Bosco invites artists from across the world to create masterpieces in the middle of the woods. The open-air gallery designs an exhibition path that arises from the encounter between art and nature, explains one of Arte Bosco's founders, Daniele Broggini. "This journey evolves with the seasons and the passage of time in a profound symbiosis with the environment."

The works are made exclusively with natural materials, and the idea is that they can remain for five to seven years with new arrivals continuously enriching the path. "Art in the woods accompanies the public on a discovery of nature, inviting them to contemplation," says Broggini. "In addition to the aesthetic element, the initiative aims to inspire a profound reflection on the impact that man has on nature."

Climate activism of conceptual artists

Reflecting on the world's ecological dangers, many contemporary and conceptual artists have become climate activists, using their work as a platform to raise awareness for a more sustainable future. In 2011 British artist and filmmaker David Buckland launched Cape Farewell, an International UK-based nonprofit that brings together creatives, scientists and activists to produce and stimulate a cultural narrative that will engage and inspire a sustainable future society. In 2015, the nonprofit organized an artistic response to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris by launching ArtCOP21, a global festival organized by COAL (The Coalition for Art and Sustainable Development). The festival, which took place at the same time as the United Nations Climate Change Summit, gave audiences a unique opportunity to engage in the climate conversation through installation exhibits, concerts and movie screenings.

One of the goals of ArtCOP21 was to investigate whether activist art can have a stimulating psychological effect on its spectators, inspire public engagement and communicate environmental issues to spark a climate change movement. The festival highlighted Cape Farewell's commitment to show how art can address the problems of climate change through a creative vision. As an artist-led organization, Cape Farewell is supported by series of partners in the art and energy industries. One of the main activities is to invite artists to join an array of expeditions, such as in Arctic or in sustainable island communities and in remote places in the world, in order to facilitate creative group projects that produce original artwork focused on ecological problems. 

In July 2021, for instance, 12 international and Oceanian artists and scientists will gather for 16 days to sail throughout the northern Marshalls Islands aboard a research support vessel. Their mission will be to explore the legacy of the 20th-century American nuclear testing program and how climate change is affecting the Marshallese and their 3000-year-old culture today. What the team is going to experience on Marshalls will become the subject of an artwork series.

An invite to reflect on climate emergency

David Buckland is not the only European contemporary artist who became an environmental activist. In honor of Earth Day 2020, a Danish-Icelandic conceptual artist, Olafur Eliasson, launched Earth Perspectives. This interactive artwork initiative invites people to reflect on the co-existence of the multiple views of humans, plants, animals and other natural elements. The commission of the work is in response to the UK-based Serpentine Gallery's 50th anniversary Back to Earth program, which invites leading artists, musicians and architects to propose projects that also serve as a call to action to the climate emergency. Known for often addressing environmental issues in his work, Eliasson was appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for climate action by the United Nations Development Programme in 2019.

In his new role, he is committed to continuing his advocacy for urgent climate actions. From art in nature installations to more conceptual artwork pieces, notable artists and cultural organizations are now engaging directly in the fight against climate emergency. Using their innate creativity, they aim to inspire change in people's perception and behavior, showing them the damage of daily actions and some possible solutions.

The author: Anna Volpicelli

Editor and journalist Il Sole 24 Ore, The San Francisco Chronicle, SOMA MAGAZINE, D la Repubblica delle Donne, L'Espresso (print & web), Marieclaire.it, A, Leiweb.it, Yoga Journal Italy, Vogue Sposa & Vogue Bambini.