The Artists Leading The Environmental Crisis Conversation

By Alexa Scott-Dalgleish

Ever heard of ‘artivism’?

Rapidly gaining traction since the likes of Banksy and Ai Weiwei burst onto the mainstream, this portmanteau word combines ‘art’ and ‘activism’ to describe the promotion of an agenda through creative expression.

It’s traditionally been employed for political ends but in recent years, pioneering artists have begun applying it to environmental issues to create provocative and meaningful pieces that demand attention. We’re taking a look at some of those leading the charge.

Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz

Cuban-born artists, Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz, are the founders of Guerra de la Paz, a Miami-based initiative that creates evocative installations from discarded textiles. The purpose-driven pair raise awareness of the excessive consumption and waste that govern our consumerist society, with “Atomic” and “Ascension” standing as two powerful commentaries on the fashion industry and its possible future.

The former shows an ominous, flame-filled mushroom cloud that can be interpreted as the chaos and destruction that will ensue if fast fashion and overconsumption are allowed to reign free, whilst Ascension, in contrast, portrays a cleaner, brighter future in which sustainability and restraint will lift us out of the murky depths.

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Courtney Mattison

Courtney Mattison is a Los Angeles-based artist tackling the issue of marine disruption and destruction. This is no more evident than in the ocean’s coral reefs, which provide a unique opportunity to see climate change happening in real-time via coral bleaching – the result of rising sea temperatures and acidity levels.

Courtney’s large-scale creations make use of hundreds of individual porcelain and clay pieces that come together to form a wonderfully detailed portrait of an underwater world. Whilst colour plays an important role, even more conspicuous is the encroaching white ring that encircles many of her works, reminding us of the threat climate change poses to the vibrancy but more importantly, survival, of these submerged ecosystems. 

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Christophe Siel

Contemporary Danish artist, Christophe Siel, is perhaps not as well-known as some of the others on this list but his work packs a punch when it comes to highlighting the effects of humanity on the planet. His scenes convey a sense of ethereal mysticism interwoven with hard-hitting truths, with his Life In Plastic series standing as a particularly harrowing portrayal of one of the most pressing issues facing the environment today.

His latest series, Back To Basics Season I & Season II, explores the consequences of living in the Anthropocene age – the most recent period in Earth’s history when human activity has started to have a significant impact on the planet – and holds a mirror up to the discordant world we are at risk of creating. The result is as beautiful as it is unsettling. 

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David Ambarzumjan

Up and coming artist, David Ambarzumjan, uses oils to create his surrealist compositions, which juxtapose what was, what is, and what may be in their exploration of humanity’s impact on the earth.

Titled “Brushstrokes in Time”, the series contrasts the same location in two different eras – past and present, or present and a post-apocalyptic future – highlighting both the devastating impact of humanity and the resilience of nature. At just 22 years old, he has amassed over 500k followers on Instagram with some even opting to tattoo his art on their skin.

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Sean “Hula” Yoro

Hawaiian Sean “Hula” Yoro is a self-taught artist known for his semi-submerged water murals. Merging fine art, street art and highly unconventional surfaces (such as icebergs or abandoned buildings, which he accesses on his paddleboard), he highlights the dangers of climate change and rapid environmental deterioration to those who chance to pass by.

The masterpieces are often only visible for a handful of weeks before his ‘canvas’ melts or the eco-pigments dissolve, with Hula saying “I hope [this] ignites a sense of urgency, as they represent the millions of people in need of our help who are already being affected from the rising sea levels of climate change.”

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Naziha Mestaoui

Naziha Mestaoui was a Belgian artist and architect renowned for her interactive light installations. An avid environmentalist, she used her expertise in videomapping and digital art to create vast-scale works that educated on themes of biodiversity and ecology, exhibiting at the likes of New York’s MOMA and Shanghai’s MOCA.

Perhaps her most notable work was One Beat, One Tree at COP21 in December 2015, which cast a digital forest onto iconic monuments in Paris in a bid to blend the virtual and reality, technology and nature. Viewers could interact with the exhibition by connecting to a heartbeat sensor that would allow them to plant and ‘grow’ a virtual tree to the rhythm of their own heartbeat, with each virtual tree planted equating to a real tree planted in reforestation programs. Naziha Mestaoui passed away in April 2020 at the age of just 44.

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Cai Guo-Qiang 

Cai Guo-Qiang is a living icon within the contemporary art world, renowned for his often controversial artworks that call attention to social and environmental problems in China and further afield. His signature includes the use of gunpowder to create explosive ‘drawings’ as well as faux taxidermy, which spotlight the persistent aggression and violence of humanity and our place within the natural world. 

‘Inopportune: Stage Two’ is an excellent example of this, which shows three tigers riddled with arrows and has been interpreted as both humanity’s assault on nature and a wider metaphor for warfare and human aggression. Another pivotal work is ‘The Ninth Wave’, which features a wooden fishing boat draped with 99 dying animals in a grisly version of Noah’s Ark. The work was inspired by a Russian painting of the same name which depicts sailors clinging to the mast of a shipwreck, powerless to their surroundings. The premise was to highlight China’s pollution crisis and the helplessness of those subjected to it, following the 2013 discovery that a river supplying water to Shanghai and other towns had been contaminated upstream by over 16,000 pig carcasses.

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Alexis Rockman

Alexis Rockman is a contemporary American painter whose fantastical works portray future landscapes as they might exist if humanity continues to operate as it does currently.

Dealing with issues such as climate change, genetic engineering, excess and environmental degradation, his provocative oil paintings never feature humans but instead highlight their ravaging effect, leaving dystopian scenes of decay, mutation and disconnection.

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Alexa Scott-Dalgleish

Alexa is the Content Manager at Talia Collective. Previously, she worked for a top travel PR firm with a focus on sustainability in London, before moving to Madrid to learn Spanish and cut her teeth as a freelance travel copywriter and PR consultant.