Debbie Symons, Tracking (Antarctica), 2011, video still. Exhibited at Craft Victoria and the Urban Screen, Federation Square, Melbourne

The artworld and the paradox of sustainability

Robert Nelson proposes poetic solutions to overcoming our carbon plinth print

Debbie Symons, World Species Market
Debbie Symons, World Species Market, 2012, video still. Courtesy of the artist

In 2009 the artist Debbie Symons commandeered the large urban screen at Federation Square in Melbourne and turned it into a replica of the LED screen in the Melbourne stock market. The stock are the endangered species featured on the Red List of Threatened Species published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).[1] Over a harrowing seven minutes, the silent video contracts an eight-year planetary narrative of the demise of irreplaceable fauna and flora. Once you appreciate what the increasing numbers mean, the grand league table fills you with dread. We watch the figures grow, while one country outdoes the next toward the extermination of whole types of life. It's the flip side of the economy.

Instead of championing the pride of companies whose profits boost share prices, nations are represented by the shame index of their offence to biodiversity. To use the language of commercial vigour to express the depletion of the earth’s gene stock is chilling. In collapsing the death-data with the language of the free market, the work proposes that there’s a direct relation between the two: performance in the economy is inversely proportional to ecological conservation.

Symons is one of few artists who have been able to extract poetic meaning from sustainability. The arts are not geared to tackling environmental discourses. You could compare the field unflatteringly to industrial design or architecture, where savings in energy consumption can be achieved in conjunction with legislative provisions. If, for instance, we find ways to make our sprawling cities more compact, we can contribute hugely to sustainability.[2] Such tangible measures toward lessening climate change are hard to imagine proceeding from art. Despite marvellous interventions like Symons’ at Federation Square, there are structural reasons for the ineffectuality of art in handling sustainability discourse. A direct intervention in the economy or spatial organisation of the city is remote from the traditional studio project. We do magical things in the studio but the calibre of what we do as intervention toward sustainability is dubious. Even Symons’ work, which memorably describes an environmental crisis – and folds it back poetically upon one of its causes – can be suspected of ineffectuality. What does it do to reduce species loss?

Potentially, art has a role to play in effecting behavioural change. A key part of our environmental crisis is the relentless growth in the economy of goods and services, some of which have a notoriously heavy carbon footprint. Services of mobility are among the worst, especially jet air travel but also automotive transport. Could art help persuade people to desist? Symons has also contemplated this question, with a poetic twist to match. A beautiful work on paper, One equals one person (2008), literally charts the attendance of officials at an Earth conference since 1972, with each member registered by means of a stamp or mark. As Symons predicted, the international forums have proved weak in achieving multilateral targets; meanwhile, the most tangible outcome of the several conferences has been to valorise much air travel with a huge boost to carbon emissions.

Debbie Symons, One equals one person
Debbie Symons, One Equals One Person, 2008, drawing on paper (detail). Photo: Andrew Barcham/Screaming Pixel Photography

Artists and their audiences are averse to didacticism. But of all forms of didacticism, the kind least likely to find favour is the one that threatens your personal interest. You do not want an artist to tell you not to take your next trip to New York. It is experienced as insufferable sanctimony. Art is not meant to teach lessons and is pompous when it tries. Its intention and agency are poetic, and it seems empty without suspending ideas in open-ended resonance, refusing closure and retaining the allure of immanence. Art presents enigmas and paradoxes. Anything that sounds like a lecture, but especially with moralizing overtones, is axiomatically inartistic. Even overtly political artists tend to be sympathetic to this argument, as am I. If art has a sustainable ecological benefit, it is likelier to be through its powers of inducing wonder and contentment upon us than acting as agitprop.

It is sometimes said that taking environmental discourse to an art audience is like preaching to the choir. But are we already converts? The reality could be the reverse. Art audiences tend to represent an educated and prosperous section of the community. As such, they have greater access to consumption and tend to exercise their purchasing privileges in ways that do not seem very planet-friendly. Because of its object-based traditions, art itself has considerable environmental externalities, notably a heavy carbon footprint in services of travel for the audience. Art is on display at exclusive places and requires the spectator to be in attendance in person. So even an artwork made with recycled materials using human muscle can end up costing huge amounts of fuel if, for example, it is exhibited in a gallery that is remote from key centres but successfully attracts an audience. One might call this indirect environmental impact of galleries the carbon plinth print.

One cannot begrudge Tasmania for having one of the most exciting new museums in Australia; but if the audience comes predominantly from the mainland, the carbon footprint of Hobart’s cultural enterprise must be rated as astronomical. Sadly, the success of a museum as calibrated by interstate visitors – which every director and state government wants to boast – is also a measure of ecological devastation. As a critic for a large daily newspaper, I also augment the damage whenever I publicise regional exhibitions to a wide metropolitan audience; so I am complicit in magnifying the carbon plinth print. If you include the spectatorship of the audience, the art economy is oil-dependent, like most other activities which are not local.

Galleries differ in their address to a local constituency, but all share the imperial aspiration to transcend the locality in which they are built. If we acted by the principles of ecology, we would wind back the National Gallery of Australia to function as a regional gallery. Given that such a large proportion of the audience arrives by air, we – if we were ecologists – would strongly discourage the NGA from taking on blockbuster shows and we would redistribute most of the collection and budget to the state galleries which serve large local constituencies.

The growth of video in recent decades, thanks to technologies that are exploited even by children, might potentially have broken down the spatial anchorage of art, which is attached to ancestral ideas of the presence of artworks, the authentic experience in front of the unique object that has to be seen in the flesh. Some galleries, like Blindside and A3 in Melbourne have broken out of this spatial convention and have created interesting online screen initiatives which present works in video through Vimeo or YouTube, requiring zero transport to be viewed; but, as yet, this kind of venture has not greatly caught on and is minor relative to an entrenched canon of art-authenticity that is defined by spatial presence. It is notable how immediately video has been subsumed by stationary installation practices, which of course require your attendance in person. The art gallery as temple is strongly invested in its own presence qua real estate and has installed, so to speak, its prestige in the doctrine of artistic authenticity: the real presence of the object within.

For reasons of conoisseurship, the presence of an artwork in the gallery is valuable. But if we think deeply about sustainability, we would have to place the several virtues of presence on a scale that includes its disadvantages, which are equal in number and weight. Certainly, we are all brought up to think of the presence of an artwork as integral to the immediacy of an experience that is unmediated and therefore genuine. A part of that virtue is also mystical, inherited from a metaphysical history of presence, which antedates the theological annexation of divine presence in Christianity.

Like the Greek (παρουσία) the Latin from which our word presence derives (praesentia) centres on being (ουσία and ens respectively) with the addition of a preposition that pushes the image of being into greater immanence.[3] It is as if existence or being is in the act of arriving: the word contemplates “a before” or “in front” (prae) or a perspective in time that runs alongside the arrival (παρα) that is now manifest. The thing that is present is not so much there as nigh, coming into being as we observe. Perhaps because of this sense of immanence, the term presence was used to indicate the coming of Christ (παρουσία)[4], something which is about to occur, where otherwise the biblical term for presence is “being in front of” (ἐνώπιον)[5] or “in the face of” (κατὰ πρόσωπον)[6], words which have the eye at their root. From the image of divine advent, the spookier idea of presence (παρουσία) seamlessly transfers to the immanent presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which is a virtual existence in the bread and wine, with supernatural pretensions to real presence.

Christianity can thus be thanked for promoting a convoluted virtuality of presence: a form of being which induces itself upon your perception and company even when in reality it is more symbolic than tangible. The idea of presence never really escapes this mystical paradox: a spirit that would be an incarnate thing — there even when not there — which is about faith, ideally rehearsed with an intervention upon your body in a collective ritualised space.

The religious basis of art, including contemporary art, has been observed many times.[7] The very word gallery derives from a colonnaded porch in front of the church (galleria). In a novella of Matteo Bandello in the sixteenth century, the galleria symbolically connects the church and palace.[8] The gallery system, with its origins in the aristocratic palaces of Europe, carries with it the assumption of a marvellous presence. It is never happy housing something which is transferable and ubiquitous, like video. The gallery prefers the archaic conventions of icon and visitation. So when new media come along, the gallery naturally co-opts the transference that goes with the digital and locks it into the same spatial inflexibility that we know from the immovable masterpieces of antiquity. And digital artists, who are more interested in occupying space than sharing imaginative material efficiently on the internet, easily slip into an earlier paradigm — in a certain sense now anachronistic — which one might call destinational art. Artists are, of course, flattered that people make a pilgrimage to see their new work in the same spirit that one visits the palace at Versailles to see the original works.

In spite of the spatial transcendence promised by new media, repositioning art to lessen its environmental externalities seems a long way off. The idea of a carbon plinth print has not entered consciousness, largely because sustainability is not discussed in anything but sentimental terms. Artists are good at pointing to environmental degradation and blaming industry, alas for the same production that is caused by our behaviour as consumers; but who has ceased to drive a car after condemning the greedy oil companies or shameless motor manufacturers for their damaging exploitation of the earth’s resources?

There is nothing wrong with artists celebrating nature and denouncing the intervention of humans upon it. In itself, the critique is valuable and may help the wider community gather moral resolve toward ecological action. But against a global economy that structurally depends upon competition among rival companies to sell goods and services, those quaint exhortations to admire nature and deplore industry have little sway. The appreciation of nature is more likely to be subsumed into the tourist industry, where image-makers play into the hands of eco-marketing: to sell trips to outlandish locations where nature can be enjoyed in its pristine virginity. A massive carbon footprint is the hidden corollary of this.[9]

Everything about the display of art is ecologically costly. Even the intolerant temperature controls in galleries draw an exorbitant amount of electric current. You might contrast our fussy conservation regime with its venerable counterpart in Italy. In the Uffizi, the temperature is regulated by opening the window – admitting the Florentine air with its chaotic changes of moisture – in the same way that one did during the Renaissance from which the priceless treasures date. That method would be regarded as irresponsible in this country.

In our prosperous community, which could afford all kinds of savings, let us face it: sustainability is not taken seriously, neither by artists nor anyone else. Among artists, it almost seems in bad taste to talk about sustainability at all, because it is seen as compromising the ambitions of art and its institutions and the private pleasure of their participants. In the same way that we feel that a person’s upbringing would be impoverished or condemned to parochialism unless afforded the luxury of international air travel, so we instinctively overrule sustainability discourse whenever the word ‘art’ is uttered. We activate a powerful sense of entitlement whenever we are caused to confront the ecological embarrassments of participation in art. We invoke the inherent nobility of art as trumping any environmental damage that it indirectly causes; and we are content to believe that carbon offsets make up for any unsustainable expenditure of fossil fuel, even though we know well that the planet needs both the offset and the fuel saving for its ecological stability. Above all, because artists and art-audiences are educated and intelligent, they know how to avoid hypocrisy. So, sidestepping the silliness of heads of government who jet around to ineffectual conferences in the name of sustainability, artists stay away from sustainability or handle it in purely sentimental terms.

Eyeballing these realities, however sobering, does not necessarily lead to a pessimistic outlook. The same spatial anchorage that causes art to be ecologically costly when displayed to a national public can be ecologically beneficial when art is held in local, domestic or work-place collections. Art in any context where people live their lives has a powerful role in promoting contentment, which has a direct link to sustainability. When contemplating artworks – just like listening to music or reading – we discover an interest in the world which belongs to a conversational economy. The renewable delight and inquiry that are generated from the artwork save middle-class consumers from having to seek stimulation in energy-intensive recreational activities, like excursions to the snow by aeroplane. The peculiar challenge that the arts can help with is the question of how an individual and a community can achieve higher levels of contentment without the environmental stress that we find so hard to mitigate.

It occurred to me while studying the cultural and personal effects of furniture, that we can recognize a uniquely poetic condition which is both settling and stimulating: the domestic aesthetic object promotes wonder and curiosity because it engages our imagination in a rewarding contemplation of subject matter, histories, values, atmosphere, harmonies, the logic of construction and invention. It does not need to be especially surprising, and is welcome to be familiar, because it harbours a unique subjectivity to which we can return any number of times – a bit like music that has the same powers of restoration and stimulation after repeated hearings.

In examining the ability of furniture to reward contemplation, I hit upon the concept of poetic sustainability, which I have tried to define in my book Instruments of Contentment: Furniture and Poetic Sustainability.[10] Of course, furniture and the crafts generally are not the only expression of the essential wonder of things in the world that are called into conversation, that grow in the imagination with a history and symbolic associations. The category of aesthetic object pre-eminently includes art.

There are grounds for optimism in transferring an enthusiasm from the materiality of goods and services to the immateriality of the poetic. The poetic is inherently imaginative and sustainable – even if it works through objects of art, craft and design – in providing an infinite world of speculation and meditative inquiry. Sustainability requires that balance of intellectual excitement and domestic asylum. After decades of avant-garde scorn for art-as-object or art as commodity, and its bourgeois domestic collectors, it is time now to revaluate all the genres of art and exhibition according to their contribution to sustainability. The project will yield many paradoxes; but that is the one thing that art handles naturally and sustainably.

Fringe Furniture, Melbourne 2014
Mark Elamatha, Lukke series, Fold Pendant [3] Living Traces, installation view, featuring Kenton Rogers,  (KOG Design), KOG KSLA2 Array 2014; Luca Lana, LAking; Alexander Rains, LEX; Alice Shan, Tube Light Mini. Photography: Sarah Walker.


  1. ^ See my review ‘The bell tolls for species around the globe’, The Age, 10 June 2010.  
  2. ^ See my ebook The Space Wasters: The Architecture of Australian Misanthropy, Planning Institute of Australia, 2011:
  3. ^ Usually of persons, e.g. Aeschylus, Persians 169, but also said of things, e.g. Euripides, Hecuba 227, Plato, Gorgias
  4. ^ Matthew 24.3, 27, 37, 39.
  5. ^ Luke 1.19, 13.26, 14.10, 15.10, John 20.30, 1 Corinthians 1.29.
  6. ^ Acts 3.13, 1 Thessalonians 2.17, 2 Thessalonians 1.9, Hebrews 9.24.
  7. ^ See my book The Spirit of secular art: A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Values, Melbourne: Monash University ePress, 2007.
  8. ^ ‘una coperta galleria che congiunge il palazzo con la chiesa’, Novelle 1.45; equivalent to a loggia at 2.33
  9. ^ Observed by many, e.g. George Monbiot, Heat: How We Can Stop the Planet Burning, Allen Lane, 2006; see also my book Moral Sustainability and Cycling: An Ecology of Ambition for a Hyperactive Planet, Melbourne: Ellikon, 2010:
  10. ^ Instruments of Contentment: Furniture and Poetic Sustainability, Melbourne: Craft, 2014: 

Robert Nelson is Associate Director, Student Experience, at Monash University and art critic for The Age.