TERRA: list of materials

24 Nov

coal dust

fibreglass

glass

gypsum (aka Plaster of Paris)

metal

perfume (alcohol & water)

plastic (perspex)

resin (epoxy)

wood (beech, elm, oak)

To take an almost economic perspective on the Terra exhibition, I thought it’d be good to break it down to its constituent parts and start from there. Or maybe to just take the environmental lean of the show and follow that through a bit more to look at how materials are used in the arts. The art world is blatantly not an energy or carbon efficient one; things are called upon often for a once-off use, usually in pressured situations where the ability to use materials to their optimum long-term potential and to dispose of the by-products is hampered or jettisoned entirely. It’s not just that arts events such as exhibitions and art fairs generate a large amount of waste – from a Royal Parks report, the wastage from the 2005 Frieze Art Fair came to 21.91 tonnes. I wonder if that includes the skips of plasterboard, planks of wood and mdf, the temporary walls, little shelves, and plinths that are made for the event then cast aside. But on top of that is the attitude that supports that wastage, that everything must be at hand in order to be used, that a gallery could never run an environmentally friendly or sustainable business because that would also have to extend to dictating what materials the artists worked with.

The artists in TERRA clearly pick their materials carefully, though it’s hard to avoid plastics – in a thousand years’ time, the perspex and projector parts will still be sitting around, and the manufacture of acrylic plastics has its own toxic byproducts. In the wider realm of artistic production, my favorite is the never-ending widespread use of MDF. Yes, Medium Density Fibreboard is cheap. But it also is made with formaldehyde resins that are released from the wood, and have been listed for over twenty years as a ‘probable human carcinogen’. Another is books. The feel is great, and something like the TERRA booklet is a well designed object in itself, but again paper production carries with it a chemical price. A choice exchange I witnessed earlier this year followed a presentation by walking artist Hamish Fulton. He set up a economics around his work, that was about reducing the weight and impact of art making, the walking then being the lightest. He acknowledged, “Really, I’m a tourist and an artist. I have a giant ecological footprint.” Lawrence Weiner, sitting in the audience, raised a hand and took issue with Fulton’s documentation of the ‘light’ walks, in his countless publications. “The minute you make a book, it’s the worst thing you can do. I don’t see why the walk, the research, saves it from any other art.”

“It doesn’t Lawrence…it’s a matter of degree.”

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