Focusing Art on the Environment

Article and photos by Yulia Rock

“I needed a rainbow for my birthday and I got one,” said Katja Loher, an environmental artist, as she entered her spacious loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She switched on a projector and a half-rainbow with a green mountain landscape appeared on a white wall across her kitchen. Loher loves to be surrounded by nature and, like many other environmental artists across the globe, she is trying to increase awareness of the environment.

Environmental art emphasizes human influences on Earth and is usually presented in a minimalistic style. It found its roots during the Fluxus movement in the late 1960’s, according to “The Art History Modern Art Insight.” Artists wanted to explore new materials and find a fresh meaning in their work without focusing on commercialism. They looked outside of gallery walls and began exploring different avenues, like nature.

Katja Loher, an environmental artist, chats with guests at her ‘Vuela Vuela’ exhibition at the C24 Gallery on West 24th Street.

According to “Ecological Art,” an ecological stewardship organization, environmental art comes in three types. One is the Interactive Observation, a collaboration between humans  and nature, which produces an ephemeral artwork.

Andy Goldsworthy, a British artist, photographer, sculptor and environmentalist, is a pioneer of Interactive Observation, famous for site-specific installations in which he uses natural materials such as branches, stones, leafs, snow and icicles. His art highlights nature’s uniqueness and emphasizes a contrast of human’s touch. His ephemeral sculpture of icicles shaped as a star in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, for example, showed the environment’s magical possibilities when humans collaborate with it instead of destroying it.

Agents of a Perceptual Change is the second environmental art style, characterized by an activist spirit and touching on issues such as health and social conflicts. This runs closely to the third style—The Implementers of Ecovention and its focus on fixing and improving a damaged environment.

Chris Jordan, a Seattle-based lawyer and environmentalist, combines both of these styles. Using photography and digital manipulation, Jordan is able to depict the scale of human’s harmful consumption. In his continuous series “Midway: Message from the Gyre” that he started in 2009, he is photographing decayed bodies of albatrosses filled with discarded pieces of plastic.

“Choked to death on our waste, the mythical albatross calls upon us to recognize that our greatest challenge lies not out there, but in here,” wrote Jordan in his art statement.

Katja Loher could also fall in those two environmental art categories. Her work has a sense of activism and she creates it for one purpose—awareness. Loher’s new site-specific video installations in Miami, “When will the sea swallow the land?,” focuses on global warming awareness.

Performance art at Katja Loher’s ‘Vuela Vuela’ exhibition.

“When will the sea swallow the land?” Loher’s circle video installations at SLS Brickell, a hotel in downtown Miami.During the presentation of this project, Loher along with her eight performers, who were dressed as bees and forest creatures, gave out 1,000 bee manifestos, stating: “There’s a dying dancing tribe. There’s a perfect mute cry, in the sky…They feed you and your child.…”

Loher hoped that people would read those manifestations and, perhaps, would care.

Born in Zurich, Loher studied at Geneva University of Art and Design. After graduating, in 2002, she applied to Art Basel, an international art-fair event, with paintings and photography but soon realized that video was her true calling.

Moving to New York in 2004, Loher immersed herself in video art. In 2009 she began exploring an environmental meaning in her work, focusing on bees because of their unique way of communicating with each other—a figure-eight-shaped waggle dance. Loher wanted to show that bees are just like humans in a tribe and, moreover, that bees are vital to our food chain.

She decided to dress her models in handmade bee costumes and filmed them from a bird’s eye view—”I attached a video camera to the ceiling.” She is using a green-screen, a technique that allowed her to cut out the background and replace it with videos of nature. In her videos, she makes performers look as tiny as bees. During her immersive exhibitions, the same performers dressed as bees interact with guests, enabling her viewers to experience two perspectives of her manifestation—that bees are as big as people and people are as small as bees. 

A performance artist, dressed as a bee, buzzes around one of Katja Loher’s exhibitions.

“We are now in the Anthropocene—the epoch where humans are the single biggest impact on planet earth,” said Raj Udeshi, a founder of Emerging Collective, a non-governmental organization that supports artists who focus on activism. “Katja Loher is making us keenly aware of that and is gently asking us to limit that impact.”