In an era where conspicuous visual signs of large scale soil and groundwater pollution have largely been eliminated by a more self conscious industry and soil and groundwater remediation efforts, artists have taken on a new role in the environmental movement by revealing the unseen effects of industrialization and soil and groundwater contamination. They seek to inform the public by presenting what can only be seen at a distance through aerial photography or by transferring the unseen into a visual depiction through abstract art.
In the United States, legislation enacted during the environmental movement following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, such as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, greatly reduced the visibility of pollution. While wastewater still contains harmful chemicals, oils and dyes that leave a distinctive visual mark on the environment have largely been eliminated from effluents.
Events like Cuyahoga river fire of 1969 which sparked outrage and concern for the environment are unthinkable today and the effects of pollution less apparent. While wildlife biologist, botanist and foresters remained concern over disappearing species and ecological shifts these comparatively subtle changes caused by unseen contaminants are not as effective at raising public awareness.
BP undoubtedly was conscious of the power of a striking photograph when it chose to deploy more than 1.1 gallons of dispersants in response to Deep Water Horizon spill. These dispersants quickly pushed the oil beneath the water’s surface limiting the number of striking aerial photographs of the sheen could be taken or the number of oiled ducklings likely to be found on the front page.
J. Henry Fair, whose exhibit “Abstraction of Destruction” runs through February 11 at the Gerald Peters Gallery in Manhattan, wants to make sure the devastating effects of human consumption don’t go unnoticed. His photographs, which include aerial shots from the deepwater horizon incident as well as wastewater effluent from paper mills and herbicides and fertilizers running off of factory farms, are strikingly and disturbing; "My idea is to make images that are beautiful and frightening at the same time," he told the New York Times. Rather than pinning the responsibility for pollution on cooperate boogiemen he seeks to point out the role of every consumer in contributing to the effluence; “I don't want industries to be on the defensive.” he said, “I want us all to change our behavior".
Chinese expatriate and artist, Zhang Hongtu, has taken a different approach to presenting the environmental devastation he has witnessed in China. Rivers that used to be clear and used for fishing and swimming just 50 years ago are now dyed various colors and polluted to the point of being toxic, other rivers have dried up completely. His Mountain Waters Series presented in 2009 (and profiled here in Foreign Policy Magazine; http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/08/04/chinas_warhol_gets_dirty) are paintings which mimic the traditional style of the 12th century painter Ma Yaun which depict idyllic oceans, mountains and rivers. Hongtu imitates Ma Yaun’s lines but rather than presenting pristine blue skies and oceans shows waters dyed purple from wastewater effluents and skies turned cloudy-grey with smog. He is clear about his arts purpose; "I try to raise questions with my art -- I do not often know the answers."
Sometimes the contrast of pollution art’s beauty and the reality of the subject is hard to reconcile "There is something beautiful in the color," Zhung Hontu said describing his dyed rivers, "but there is also something wrong with the beauty".
The role this beautiful and wrong art plays in the public debate is important now that pollution in the U.S. largely exist in forms invisible to the naked eye or in places tucked away from the affluent and influential and more dirty industries are outsourced overseas. The scenes inspire a sense of awe at the power of our industrialized society to so severely distort the landscape; they continue the conversation that began at the dawn of the industrial age when William Blake first published The Tiger.
Links to more Pollution Art:
J. Henry Fair
Harpers “Visions of Excess” http://harpers.org/archive/2007/08/0081633