5 Contemporary Artists Concerned with Environmental Impact
Article by Caroline Haller
Understanding our impact on the environment is the first step to enacting change! Art can help bridge the educational gap to help the public understand their role in protecting the environment. It can also help the artists themselves come to terms with their own environmental impact. Today, I put together a list of 5 artists who are concerned with their own impact, or the impact of others, on the environment. Some of these artists and their artwork exist at the intersection of environment and politics, and the artists use their artwork to engage in environmental activism. This list includes artists who participate in public installations, video and photography that concerns itself with art and the environment. These 5 artists are: Olafur Eliasson, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Richard Mosse, Jean Shin, and Hugh Hayden. Read on to find out more about these artists, their works and how they are engaging in environmental activism.
- Olafur Eliasson
Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen from 1989-1995. In 2019, he became the UNDP Goodwill Ambassador for climate change. As a collaborative artist, Eliasson works in different forms of media including film, painting, sculpture, photography, and installation. Eliasson’s work consists of environmentally conscious installations and mixed media pieces which utilize nature and technology equally to break this barrier between the person and the space they inhabit.
Eliasson’s art comments on environmental impact and allows the public to experience their own relationship to it. For instance, his 2018 Lost Contact features driftwood from Iceland with magnets that turn the wood from south to north. Another example is his 2008, The New York City Waterfalls, which brought a natural phenomenon of the waterfall to the city. (Figure 1)
Figure 1. The New York City Waterfalls, Olafur Eliasson, 2008, Manhattan NYC
Eliasson’s most recent installation is Shadows travelling on the sea of the day, which opened this past Monday in the northern desert of Doha, Qatar. There Eliasson installed circular rings of steel and fiberglass with mirrors on the bottom side so that when viewers look up, they actually look down. (Figures 2 and 3)
Figure 2. Shadows Travelling on the Sea of the Day, Olafur Eliasson, close-up view of the semicircular rings, reflection of the mirrors completes the circle, image © Iwan Baan
Figure 3. Shadows Travelling on the Sea of the Day, Olafur Eliasson, close-up view of the semicircular rings, image © Iwan Baan
- LaToya Ruby Frazier
Latoya Ruby Frazier was born in 1982 in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Frazier now lives and works in Chicago, Illinois. Frazier was awarded her Master of Fine Arts in Art Photography through Syracuse University, New York in 2007. Frazier’s work is found in public collections across the United States and internationally.
Frazier’s photography and video work combines themes of environmental activism, racial inequality and storytelling. Her early work grew out of her own upbringing in Braddock, PA where she and her mother lived with her Great-grandfather. Frazier was interested in the racial inequality she had seen through her great-grandfather, who had moved from the south to work in a steel mill. She wanted the photographs to act as a visual archive of the impact that the steel industry has had on the environment, on healthcare, and on her family and the surrounding community. Frazier saw that her great-grandfather’s body had suffered tremendously from the many years of hard work.
Frazier’s camera becomes a weapon or catalyst to capture this injustice. Her black-and-white documentary photographs expose the social and economic inequality brought about by the erasure of the people in industrial towns.
In 2016, she began a project entitled Flint is Family, where she chronicled the lives of three generations of women in Flint, Michigan. Flint is Family brought to light the long-term problems and effects of the water crisis in Flint. (Figures 4 and 5)
Figure 4. LaToya Ruby Frazier, Shea Cobb with her daughter, Zion, and her mother, Ms. Renee, outside the Social Network Banquet Hall, Flint is Family series, 2016, photograph
Figure 5. LaToya Ruby Frazier, Shea and Zion at the Badawest Restaurant in Flint, Flint is Family series, 2016, photograph
Opening today, Friday October 28th, at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. is a new exhibition “Kinship.” The show features eight contemporary artists, including Frazier, and examines interpersonal familial relationships.
- Richard Mosse
Irish photojournalist, Richard Mosse lives and works in both New York and Berlin. Mosse’s work sits somewhere between contemporary art and documentary photography. In 2020, he was awarded an honorary fellowship at the Royal Photographic Society. Mosse studied at Kings College London, earning a BA in English literature in 2001. In 2008, Mosse received his MFA in photography from Yale University. In 2017, Mosse was awarded the Prix Pictet Global Award in Photography and Sustainability for his Heat Maps Series.
Mosse has recently been acclaimed for his work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The infrared camera he uses makes seen the hidden conflict. The video known as The Enclave was shown at the Venice Biennale in 2013. This six-channel video installation made with 16mm infrared film acts as a biological trace of the human body. The heat signatures which register on the film dehumanize the individual as well as portray the body in an intimate and somewhat invasive way. This long-range thermal imaging camera is mostly used for border reinforcement and can detect thermal energy from up to 18 miles away. (Figure 6)
Figure 6. Richard Mosse. The Enclave (film still), 2012-13, 16mm infrared film transferred to HD video, 39 minutes 25 seconds, Produced in North and South Kivu, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. © Richard Mosse.
- Jean Shin
Installation artist Jean Shin works in Brooklyn, NY and the Hudson Valley. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, but her family moved early on to the US. In 1994, she completed her BFA in Painting from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. In 2020, she became the Leadership Fellow for the Asia Art Archive in America. In 2021, Shin was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the New York Academy of Art in New York City.
Shin’s installations are often site-specific and made out of large collections of objects. These massive installations thus question our relationship to the environment and our own communities. Shin engages the local communities in more ways than one. In particular, she calls on the communities to donate the object that she seeks. For instance, she created an installation out of used childhood trophies. Shin’s installations question human consumption and the effect of thrown away objects on the environment.
From July to September of 2020, Shin’s exhibition Floating Maize was installed at Winter Garden at Brookfield Place in New York. Shin’s installation featured “cornstalks” made of Mountain Dew bottles and decorated with leaves. These bottles are suspended from the ceiling which allows them to sway in the wind as a cornstalk might. (Figure 7)
Figure 7. Jean Shin, Installation view of Floating Maize at Winter Garden at Brookfield Place, NY, 2020.
Figure 8. Jean Shin, Installation view of Freshwater at Philadelphia Contemporary at Cherry Street Pier, 2022.
From now until November 6th, you can view her latest installation, Freshwater, at Philadelphia Contemporary at Cherry Street. The installation celebrates freshwater mussels and their impact on clean water in the Delaware River. (Figure 8)
- Hugh Hayden
Born in 1983, American Artist Hugh Hayden grew up in Dallas, TX. He began studying to be an architect, but now creates artistic sculptures and lives and works in New York. Hayden has completed both a BA in Architecture from Cornell University and an MFA in Visual Arts from Columbia University.
Hayden’s sculptures anthropomorphize everyday objects in an attempt to challenge how we see the world. Hayden salvages wood from his home state of Texas in an effort to question the material’s relationship to the world and his own identity. He carves sculptures out of wood or other materials such as bronze or feathers. The wood he uses acts as a multifaceted character in its own right. For his 2018 exhibition Border States at Lisson Gallery in New York, he utilized cedar, mesquite and Texas ebony wood. The wood itself is often discarded and seen as an invasive species because the trees typically thrive when other trees do not. However, historically they have been used to build fences and outdoor structures because they are resistant to bugs and weather. He turns these trees into everyday domestic objects that typically act as borders such as fences, cribs, doors, etc. Hayden self-identifies with the ebony wood due to its dark exterior and light interior. (Figure 9)
Hayden’s sculptures question the intersection of culture and the environment. Of his motivation to use wood in this way, Hayden says, “If I can transform how you see something like this, then perhaps that’s a way in for me as an artist to change the way you think about other larger more conceptual ideas.”
Figure 9. Hugh Hayden, install view for Border States at Lisson Gallery, 2018.
This year, Hayden’s work was featured in exhibition Fault Lines: Art and the Environment, which ran from April 2nd- July 17th, at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, NC. For the exhibition, Hayden’s Brier Patch, was installed in the Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park. (Figure 10)
Figure 10. Hugh Hayden, Brier Patch, 2022. Cedar and aluminum. © Hugh Hayden 2022. Photograph by Yasunori Matsui/Madison Square Park Conservancy. The exhibition was organized by Madison Square Park Conservancy, New York.
 Burgos, Matthew, “Shadows Travelling on the Sea of the Day By Olafur Eliasson” designbloom, October 26, 2022. https://www.designboom.com/art/olafur-eliasson-installation-qatar-creates-illusion-10-26-2022/