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The Ecological Art Movement

Imagine you walk into an art gallery and a certain picture or sculpture mesmerizes you with its beauty, style and uniqueness. You cannot help but admire that piece of art. Even more, the artwork leaves you with a lasting impression, the message the artist intended to convey. Artists across the centuries were inspired to create masterpieces which not only enchant you, but challenge your way of thinking and your perception of the object or subject portrayed.

However, due to fear of public ridicule, historically only a few artists dared to question the popular opinion of their time by generating art that visualized their critical views on subjects or situations.

In the early 20th century, Marcel Duchamp, the founder of the Ecological Art Movement, stood up for his beliefs and set out to change the face of art, by deviating from traditional perception of what an art work must be. By using reclaimed and natural resources to produce art, he became one of the first and most inspirational figures of the Ecological Art Movement. One of his most famous works, Bicycle Wheel, was made entirely of reclaimed materials and consisted of a bicycle wheel attached by a fork to the top of a kitchen stool . Duchamp’s rationale for deviating from producing traditional art and refusing to use industrial paint was entirely due to his own political perceptions. However, his use of old everyday objects was the source of inspiration for others five decades later.

Ecological and politically inspired artists like Marcel Duchamp would probably not have received the recognition they deserve if it were not for environmental scientists who in the 1960s began a revolution of their own.

With the rapid invention of sophisticated measuring devices, environmentalists started to release clear and precise data about the state of the environment.  Their findings revealed that industrial fumes contributed to emission of carbon dioxide and thus the greenhouse effect. Others concentrated on crunching the data about human consumption and how much waste was being deposited in landfills and oceans. Four decades of trying to influence people’s thinking about taking some responsibility for the waste they produce is finally beginning to pay off.

The world began to slowly embrace that being environmentally friendly is not such a bad idea after all. A new trend and lifestyle emerged; ‘green living’. Suddenly, brands began to release 'green' products, industries promised to reduce the amount of harmful gases and politicians promoted alternative waste and recycling options.

One approach to raise awareness of environmental issues is confronting people with concrete statistics. For instance, an average person in a developed country contributes 1,600 pounds of waste per year and if all 7 billion people produce the same amount of waste this equals 1.2 x1013 pounds of waste per year. For some people, statistical data alone is not convincing enough, but seeing an annual pile of one person’s waste in an art gallery might just work wonders.

An artist has the ability to convert plain numbers on paper into an expressive and tangible object that provokes, stimulates, and motivates the observer. This is where art and environmental science might have found perfect harmony by cooperating with each other to promote 'green living'. Recently, a new evolving trend of the Ecological Art Movement termed 'Upcycling' evolved. This art form is defined by converting rubbish into an object of equal or greater value. For years, Duchamp and his followers went around neighbourhoods collecting garbage, creating unique visuals of their beliefs and thinking about issues concerning the world. Artists today have picked up the trend, renamed it Upcycling, and helped wake up the world to the state of our planet.

Imagine an artist influenced by the green living movement creates an upcycled artwork from plastic bottles and old cloths, intending to mirror ongoing environmental issues. You walk into a gallery and your gaze might just fall on this bizarre structure. Just like traditional art, this piece may inspire you. It may also remind you of those boring statistics on the greenhouse effect. Moreover, it may show you a different perspective on the situation and might dare you to take action to help and save the environment.

While environmentalists mainly present mathematical data, artists visualise it. However, both the Ecological Art Movement and environmental science send out one simple message: think green!

Olga Dimova is a PhD student at the School of Molecular and Clinical Medicine

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