How the art world is going green

Those within the art world who advocate for environmentally friendly practices are finding a sector willing to do its part.

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After years of talking the talk, the art world appears to now be walking the walk when it comes to improving its green credentials. While artists such as Olafur Eliasson and Sebastião Salgado have long addressed society’s need to face the climate crisis, the arts sector is finally examining its own contribution to it.

One of the highlights of this year’s Venice Biennale is Lithuania’s Golden Lion-winning pavilion presentation, Sun & Sea (Marina). The artists Rugile Barzdziukaite, Vaiva Grainyte and Lina Lapelyte have brought the beach, complete with sand and sunbathers, to the Arsenale’s military zone in the form of a poignant installation-performance in which singers masquerading as sun worshippers croon warnings of an ecological catastrophe. “People went in thinking they’d only spend five minutes and instead they stayed and came out in tears,” says the pavilion’s curator Lucia Pietroiusti. “What is it that is so stuck in the back of our throats now that even a small gesture can release?”

Pietroiusti, who is due to speak at an Art Basel talk on the carbon footprint of contemporary art, says her limited budget determined the project’s carbon emissions. “Everything we brought from Lithuania came in one truck,” she says. As the curator of general ecology at London’s Serpentine Gallery, Pietroiusti is keen to embed ecology into all her projects. To avoid being just another “parachuted national pavilion”, she invited locals to participate in the performance, brought in a Venetian cast to take up the baton from the original performers after the opening week, and drafted in the designer Benjamin Reichen from the collective Abäke to create the catalogue with assistance from inmates at the Santa Maria Maggiore correctional facility. 

When it comes to sourcing materials and tools, Pietroiusti was surprised that participants were not simply sharing items such as ladders or screwdrivers. “Wouldn’t it be great to be the facilitator of [a sharing network]? The problem is that the Biennale is a competition… you’re competing for boats, resources, etc,” she says. When we talk about reducing a pavilion’s carbon footprint, Pietroiusti says we should be asking “how pavilions can collaborate to collectively make meaningful reductions, changes and forms of sharing”.

The mountain of waste left over from the Biennale is another major issue. Jane da Mosto, the co-founder and director of the non-profit We Are Here Venice, says that although organisations such as Rebiennale collect and reuse materials, the lack of storage facilities in Venice means that “recycling is fairly limited to the immediate demand for materials as the exhibitions are dismantled and all the rest is thrown out. It’s crazy that, between them, the Biennale and the local administration can’t [do more] to address and limit wastage and promote reuse”. She says there are many empty spaces, including the Galeazze Est of the Arsenale, that could be used to store materials until they can be recycled or donated.

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