Earlier this year I was invited to contribute a work for a contemporary outdoor art exhibition in Toronto. It was a pretty sweet invitation because it offered an opportunity to create a temporary outdoor site specific work—a challenge I particularly adore. Better than that, it offered to pay me properly for my materials and my time. Better even than that, the curators of the event had sought me out and invited me specifically to participate. I did not have to apply or jockey or compete for this opportunity—I was chosen. Chosen! Amazing how nice that feels.
The only detail that gave me any whiff of concern was the fact that the event had branded itself with the adjective ‘Eco-Art’. My art practice uses almost exclusively reclaimed and repurposed wood, which I happily describe as an environmentally sustainable practice. However, the art that I construct from this wood doesn’t actually ever talk about the environment. Therefore, when my initial excitement to be in this art show subsided, I started nursing the worry ‘does my work belong here?’
But then I thought ‘Don’t worry about it. They chose me, they must be familiar with the work I make and have decided that it jibes with their vision.”
In the months that followed I joined other invited artists to tour the site, was given photos and text in order to understand the historical and natural profile of the venue. We were then told explicitly what we can’t do on site (dig into the earth with so much as a trowel, put art near where wedding photos are taken, situate art in any area that is undergoing an environmental remediation, for example). Each artists was encouraged to submit a proposal of what we intended to present, and how our plans adhered to the shows conditions.
None of this was in any way out of the ordinary. The technical demands were strict, but my experience is that those limits often assist the formulation of a work rather than hamper them. Much trickier was coming up with a work that ‘fit’.
In the end, I decided to remain loyal to my own practice. An honestly and sustainably made work of art that is not about the environment must be worthier than any environmental statement that I would contrive solely to suit the purpose of a show. Plus, they chose me. They must expect me to make a work that is inside my own artistic practice, right? How could it be any other way?
Not surprisingly, I get called out several times to justify my proposal against the mandate of the exhibition. Each time I stick to my guns, insisting that my art is not environmental, but my materials and methods try very hard to be. My idea is never rebuffed, but I certainly get the sense that I have pissed off the curators and organizers.
So what do I make of all this?
If the organizers of this event had said they wanted to commission me to create a didactic object to help with a summer’s worth of programming centred around the environment, I would have had no trouble abandoning my artistic goals to make a piece for them. But because they use the words ‘art exhbition’ however, I feel I have to remain staunchly inside my artistic mission.
Does a work that has nothing to say about the environment, but has nonetheless been made in an environmentally positive way, does it still say something about the environment? If I made a great environmental statement, but delivered it using new, unrecyclable materials, would that be better?
Should I have excused myself from the show, or should I have just laughed a hideous laugh and enjoyed the pay cheque?
What is the honest thing to do?