Why is environmentalism so unimportant? Thomas Hirschhorn at the Venice Biennale.

A couple of days of slogging hard through the Venice Biennale this year left one message – the environment doesn’t matter and neither do those concerned with ‘preserving’ it.

I spent my days enjoying some wonderful art, being astonished by art that was bland or crass – or both – and looking for art that engaged in the issues related to our environment. There was none that I could find. In this major art event where contemporary artists engage with the issues of the day, art engaged with environmental issues simply did not exist. Why?

Maybe we should just face the facts – we are being supremely unsuccessful in getting people engaged in environmental issues beyond the level where they politely acknowledge that there seems to be an issue and then swiftly move on to what, for them, are more pressing issues. All research confirms that environmental issues are low down on the list of people’s concerns and shrinking in relevance.

The most impressive installation in the Biennale was, by far, Thomas Hirschhorn’s Crystal of Resistance for the Swiss pavilion. The artist has created a web site about the installation.  If you are so inclined (and, in my desperation, I was), you can interpret part of Hirschhorn’s installation as containing an environmental message.

For the pavilion, the artist created a massive and almost overwhelming installation. Masses of discarded objects – TV sets, mobile telephones, plastic chairs, and so forth were covered in masking tape and assembled, seemingly haphazardly, throughout the pavilion. Other spaces contained other paraphernalia of modern life – magazines, car tyres, mannequins, discarded drinks cans and so forth.  There were even  taxidermied animals seemingly surrounded by the detritus of modern living.

Finally, there were arrays of photographs of what we may call ‘modern life’. Among these some of the most shocking images of war, oppression and human devastation.

The installation was tightly packed and visually overwhelming. One had to carefully walk through for fear of knocking something over. The experience felt similar to being in an overstocked and totally disorganized junk shop with no clues or guidance as to how one should proceed, what to look at in what order and what to make of it all.

This is the cleverness of the installation. Hirschhorn’s idea is that we are, today, surrounded by visual, auditory and material stimuli that are almost overwhelming. What do we actually ‘see’ when we go about our daily business? Maybe all we see is that which confirms our own world view. We ignore or act as mere spectators for most of what goes on around us – including the pictures of horror that the artist strung up in his installation and which most people looked at, no doubt found disturbing to various degrees but then just moved on to the next visual stimulus and got on with their lives.

For me, desperate to find some semblance of environmental engagement in the whole of the Biennale experience, Hirshhorn’s installation made powerful statements about our consumption, our unsustainable way of life, even the threat to other forms of life. But I saw all that because I wanted to. I was looking for it and therefore I saw it. The artist did not show it to me.

Of the millions who visited the installation, how many saw and took away an environmental message? How many even noticed or lingered next to the taxidermied marmot or eagle? If the research about environmental concerns is right, then it will be very, very few. There are many things that one can see and read into Hirschhorn’s installation and the reality is that very few people are attuned to seeing an environmental message. And even for those who did, they no doubt reflected briefly and then moved on to the nearest, chic Venetian restaurant where they ordered the deliciously grilled fish of the day – most likely a highly endangered species.


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