Women artists have been creating political environmental artworks since the beginning of environmental movements in the 1960s. From site-specific earthworks and land artworks to performances and interventions, women artists have been incredibly innovative in fighting against climate change. Drawing equally on womanhood and on the need to rethink our relationship with our planet, their practices created new movements and theories such as maintenance art and ecofeminism. Here are 7 women artists fighting climate change.
1. Climate Change and Agnes Denes (b. 1931)
Agnes Denes is a pioneering land artist known for her large-scale interventions in the urban scape. Her most famous work is Wheatfield––A Confrontation, a piece that has had an enormous impact on our understanding of the need to fight climate change. Denes planted a two-acre big field of wheat on the Battery Park landfill in Manhattan, New York. The piece was located only a few blocks away from Wall Street and the World Trade Center. Denes went on to harvest 1000 pounds of golden wheat from the field after four months of working here in 1982.
The land she used was famously worth $4.5 billion, so the work made headlines all around the world. The piece draws our attention to the paradoxes of modern life, globalization, hunger, and inequality. It followed a system that Denes created in her early works in the late 1960s which she named Eco-Logic. Each piece had a logic and metaphysical continuity of its own, rooted in humanity and nature. During the 1980s, the artist sent the harvested wheat seeds around the world, continuing her project. The work has again raised public awareness ever since it was featured on billboards in 2022 in a video work called Another Confrontation.
2. Ana Mendieta (1948-1985)
Ana Mendieta is considered an icon of environmental, feminist, and performance art. She became a Cuban refugee at the age of 12. The artist shaped the idea of earthworks and ecofeminism through her Silueta series. These pieces, created from 1973 until 1980, used the outlining silhouette of the artist’s body placed in various natural environments. Sometimes Mendieta’s body was covered in flowers, while at other times the negative space left from the artist’s body was the only thing to be seen.
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Creating performances and documenting them through photography and video, Mendieta took power over what she would show to the public by exhibiting only a photograph or a film of the work. Using natural materials and performing naked, Mendieta skilfully erased the distinction between culture and nature. She is considered a pioneer of ecofeminism, land art, and environmentalism.
3. Aviva Rahmani (b. 1945)
Aviva Rahmani is an environmental artist that emerged from the late 1960s feminist movement. As a young artist, she formed a theatre group called American Ritual Theatre, where groundbreaking performances on the topic of rape were made. She has worked with feminist artists such as the legendary Judy Chicago. Rahmani moved to public art projects concerned with the environment in the late 1980s. She often collaborates with scientists, urban planners, and communities, creating ecological interventions known as ecoventions.
One of Rahmani’s critically acclaimed ecoventions is the ongoing project called Blued Trees Symphony. The piece is known for restoring environments and fostering community action. It consists of a music score painted in blue on trees, tree-notes as the artist calls them, that form a sonic installation across North America. The notes are strategically placed on sites of planned gas pipeline construction. Together, they form a copyright-protected work that legally challenges planned pipeline construction. Since the beginning of the project in 2015, Blued Trees Symphony has successfully protected environments across the USA by invoking the so-called Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA).
Rahmani is also known for Ghost Nets, a year-long restoration of a dump site in Maine. Avavni restored an old dump site into a system of wetlands that have since received funding from the USDA. The artist also wrote several books including a political memoir Divining Chaos: The Autobiography of an Idea that explains her trigger point theory. Her idea is to combine traditional aesthetic tools with science in order to analyze small degraded coastal areas and cause a large-scale landscape healing process by evoking the desire to act in the community. For Rahmani, this is directly linked to her experiences as a woman, seeing the action as a version of good housekeeping.
4. Betsy Damon (b. 1940)
Betsy Damon is a pioneer of environmental art that concerns water. Just like the rest of the artists on this list, her work is rooted in feminist artistic practice. Her early political activities were centered around lesbian art, while her early performances focused on gender-based violence. These include works such as 7000 Old Year Woman (1977-1978) and Rape Memory (1978-1979).
Damon became famous for creating a large-scale intervention in a dry riverbed in Castle Valley, Utah. The Memory of Clean Water is a 250-foot cast of the river bed made out of handmade paper. The work involved a community of artists, locals, and volunteers. It made Damon investigate polluted water and dried rivers. In 1991, the artist founded the initiative called Keepers of the Waters through which she organized performance art festivals to raise awareness of different water-related issues.
The Keepers of the Waters Foundation has been active ever since. The non-profit sees global water quality as possible only if all communities have access to sustainable water sources. This is why all their work is directly tied to local communities. Some legendary actions include the first Cleaning the River performance in 1995 in Sichuan, China, and the second one in Lhasa, Tibet. The works brought together Chinese artists in a huge spectacle involving performances, installations, and rituals.
5. Bonnie Ora Sherk (1945-2021)
Bonnie Ora Sherk began working with environmental art in the early days of the US environmental movement. Her piece Public Lunch featured the caged artist eating her lunch next to caged tigers and lions, who were also having their lunch, at the San Francisco Zoo. Other early performances include the Sitting Still series. The first of these featured the artist sitting still in a dirty water pond that emerged around the Army Street/101 Freeway Interchange Construction Zone in San Francisco. As the construction had caused something of a traffic jam, the slowly passing cars watched Sherk sitting in a floating armchair. Her goal was to draw attention to the damage that the freeway construction brought to the habitat.
Sherk’s most famous work is called Crossroads Community (The Farm). It was created at the same site as Sitting Still I after the 101 Freeway Interchange opened in 1974. An old Borden’s Dairy located at the site was razed and several derelict buildings became available for rent. Sherk created a community of artists across 7 acres next to the freeway overpasses, transforming what she saw as separate concrete dead spaces into an interconnected, living, ecological wonderland. The structures formed learning environments where the artist raised domestic animals in what she called The Raw Egg Animal Theater. She also grew vegetables here. Children would come to learn how to grow their own food and they even organized an official preschool program.
Shrek created a living art community out of the dead zones next to crossroads, humanizing and connecting otherwise fragmented parcels of neglected land. The Farm became a place for the community. Based on this experience, Sherk also created a larger project called A Living Library.
6. Maya Lin (b. 1959)
Maya Lin is famous for being the 21-year-old undergraduate student who won the Vietnam Veterans Memorial competition in 1980. She has since worked as a designer, artist, and environmental activist using earthworks, land interventions, and memorials as her tools. Some of her most impressive works are large-scale installations of wave fields and forests. Her Ghost Forest consisted of 49 dead Atlantic white cedar trees placed in the Madison Square Park Conservancy in New York for half of 2021. Creating a ghost-like, uncanny environment filled with a void, the work speaks of the harm climate change does to different species.
Lin’s choice of Atlantic white cedar trees comes as no surprise. The endangered species came from the Pine Barrens in New Jersey which had been damaged by rising salt levels during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. In the installation, the barren trees stand in contrast to the lush growth of the conservancy, showcasing that these woods are not as resilient as we might think. The work explores the natural phenomena of ghost forests that, due to climate-change-driven processes such as rising sea levels and saltwater infiltration, have destroyed so many forests worldwide.
Lin continues to create works of environmental art to this day through the ongoing multi-sited installation piece called What Is Missing. These works include in-person and online experiences that commemorate the environment we live in and the ongoing loss of biodiversity.
7. Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s (b. 1939) Take on Climate Change
Mierle Laderman Ukeles is perhaps the most unusual of the artists featured in this list. Her work focuses on sanitation, waste management, and the people who deal with this in our increasingly polluting industrial society. Ukeles created a new concept called Maintenance Art. In her 1969 manifesto, the artist highlighted how much maintenance we all do. She wrote about cleaning, washing, sanitizing, and caring.
She divided the idea into three parts:
- personal maintenance connected to women and motherhood;
- general maintenance concerning sanitation, pollution, and cleaning;
- Earth Maintenance, related to caring for our planet.
Ukeles ended up becoming artist-in-residence of the New York Department of Sanitation. Holding the position from 1977 until this day, she creates work ballets, performances, video documentation, and exhibitions about society’s disregard for the people working with waste. Her idea was to bring awareness and thereby enact social and environmental change.
Ukeles’ two most famous pieces created at the Department of Sanitation are Touch Sanitation and Flow City. The first was a performance piece made by interacting with 8600 sanitation employees. Through Flow City, the artist tried to show the general public that their waste does not just magically disappear. To achieve this, she opened a public visitor center in a marine waste transfer station, creating an exhibition on sanitation.