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Could contemporary art be less wasteful?




27 January 2020

With its energy-guzzling, industrial-sized studios, jet-setting collectors, and the quantity of material it uses, is today’s art damaging the planet? Or is its environmental impact a mere drop in the (ever-swelling) ocean?

Kate McMillan

In 2015, most of the 48,000 artists living in Britain earned less than the minimum wage. Romanticise this, and you could argue that such circumstances would enable them to remain unencumbered by the contradictions and hypocrisies of modern life. A meagre income requires a simple existence with minimal consumption and might include wearing second-hand clothes, growing your own food, living a focused, intellectual life. In this context, artists might imagine themselves as holding up a mirror to the world with all its flaws, and to the corruption that consumes our planet.

In reality, however, many artists are also factory workers, creating luxury products for high-net-worth individuals – desperate to produce and sell more, and elevate themselves, their living conditions and their legacy. They may well have scavenged the bus fare to make it to a swanky dinner hosted by a wealthy collector in the hope of expanding their network and securing that elusive sale, commission or invitation to exhibit. In this sector of financial extremes, artists will often encounter situations in which they feel unable to discuss their political views or their lived experience. Increasingly they are silenced, and consequently become complicit in a system that is contributing to the destruction of our planet.

The rationale for contributing to a world drowning in ‘stuff’ is becoming more difficult to defend. For a period in 2018 I was unable to justify making anything at all for more than six months, which was the impetus for my current exhibition, ‘The Lost Girl’, showing at Arcade, Bush House. It seemed to me at the time that the materials used – and wasted – in production and freight didn’t seem an appropriate creative response to the climate crisis. Many of my artist peers have expressed similar feelings of despair.

There is also the expectation that one should be jet-setting around the world, doing residencies, attending exhibitions and biennales. In a recent article in Frieze, ‘Can the Art World Kick Its addiction to Flying?’, Kyle Chayka notes that a return flight from New York to London generates almost 1,000kg of carbon dioxide – significant given that for every tonne of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, three square metres of Arctic sea ice melts. Should artists be resisting this? Should they be demanding more accountability from their gallerists, collectors and curators? 

The problem lies not only in the air miles racked up by people and art, but in the connections between the fossil-fuel companies, global banks and multinationals whose directors use the backdrop of art as social and business capital. In October 2019, as I stood outside Frieze London protesting about the environmental impact of art fairs, a passing museum director remarked that art fairs weren’t about the art, as he escorted a rich benefactor around the fair, presumably hoping to gain his patronage. The answers to these environmental problems lie not only in reducing air travel and the carbon footprint of fairs and shows, but in rethinking the art ecosystem.

Perhaps, too, artists need to wean themselves off the lure of more commissions and bigger studios. Does the world need more art, or just more creative thinking? Broader discussions around universal basic incomes would enable most artists to worry less about production and selling, and more about the generation of ideas and creativity. The potential of the artist as a troubler of apathy and complicity is compromised when artists feel they must bite their tongue in front of benefactors, or sell their work to collectors without asking where the money is coming from.

Technology might save us. One London gallery is experimenting with VR so that its collectors can see what an artwork might look like inside their home without having to travel. But these are small dents in a world addicted to production and growth.

Kate Raworth’s theory of ‘doughnut economics’ argues that we are living outside the parameters of what our planet can manage.  What might the art world look like if it relied less on the production of stuff? Less on our ability to fly around seeing that stuff; less on ‘dirty’ money to create exponential growth; less on speculation around art prices? Responding to climate change will involve loss, and we have to come to terms with what those sacrifices will entail; but as artists we must also harness our creativity to find solutions and use our voices to resist, even if it is uncomfortable.

Niru Ratnam

Art is waste! Art is a waste of love, waste of energy, waste of attention…’ Thomas Hirschhorn’s reply to an interview question on on the subject of art and waste goes on significantly longer, listing the ways art might be a waste of many things, natural resources in particular. And on one level the production of contemporary art can clearly be seen as wasteful. There are obvious parts of the processes of making it that have a negative environmental impact; from the electrical requirements of large, brightly lit studios through to the toxic byproducts of using certain oil and acrylic paints. Then there is the environmental impact of specific works or their conditions for exhibition, particularly large-scale installation pieces.

There are cases that make mainstream news, such as Christo’s never-completed work ‘Over The River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado’. The project, which was in gestation for 20 years (a waste of a different sort), had the distinction of being the subject of the first environmental impact statement for an artwork produced by the Bureau of Land Management in the USA, and received extensive coverage over what its impact on the environment might be. Sometimes works that are the subject of criticism are less obvious choices. Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch ended up being questioned in some quarters for the carbon footprint that resulted from transporting 30 icebergs from Greenland to London. In response to those criticisms, Eliasson’s collaborator Minik Rosing argued that they ignored the wider picture. If Greenland is losing 10,000 icebergs every second, was there really a problem in transporting 30 of them to make people think about the environment and their behaviour?

But what about art that does not involve large, energy-sapping installations, such as a medium-sized abstract painting, for example? What, if anything, should be done about the waste inherent in the creation of such a piece and the environmental impact of transporting and exhibiting it? Can the environmental impact of what brought a work into existence affect the artistic value that the work might have? There are standard answers here. One is a retreat into some sort of formalism, insisting that the work must be thought about purely for what’s happening on the canvas (although this is an unlikely position to take unless you still live in the 1960s and read nothing but Clement Greenberg). A second position (such as that of Rosing) could argue that while there is some waste generated by the production of contemporary art, this is worth it in relation to the change in thinking about the environment that it might provoke. For works that are less directly about the environment than, say, Eliasson’s, it might be argued that contemporary art can enable people to think differently about society, politics and life in general and indirectly have a positive impact on how they go about living their lives in relation to questions around waste and the environment. Art is good for the soul, so you have to excuse the studio lights. A third view is that the production of contemporary art produces waste, but this is trivial compared to industrial activities such as the construction industry, and even relatively less harmful than other creative industries such as fashion, with its landfills of clothes and high use of water.

Perhaps, though, the most useful way of looking at this is to factor in the way the mindset of viewers is changing in response to the large and varied conversations and debates about climate change (not just artistic ones), and how artists will respond to that. As more people start to think about the climate crisis, it is likely that there will be less appetite to see, or indeed buy, works that flagrantly disregard their environmental footprint. Matthew Barney’s excessive use of petroleum jelly might not go so unremarked upon from an environmental standpoint as it did when his work emerged in the 1990s. Large installations with blinking lightbulbs have probably seen the end of their moment. Julian Opie might never grace our city streets again (there’s got to be some good to come out of this). The question of whether art could be less wasteful is something of a red herring – most human activity produces an excess of waste, and contemporary art is far from the biggest sinner here. A more productive exercise might be to make sure there is an ongoing conversation about responsibilities, both those of ourselves as viewers and those of the artists we want to look at and think about.

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Celebs, fashion, 24k chicken wings kick of Miami's Art Basel – Lethbridge News Now



Maddox Gallery is also showing at Art Miami, selling Banksy’s Charlie Brown for $4 million dollars on Tuesday. A spokeswoman for the gallery said this is the first year they’ve had a profound collection of Banksy canvases including many original works.

Basel’s annual prestigious December art fair draws collectors, socialites and celebrities from around the world. But fashion has also played a prominent role in recent years with Christian Dior hosting its first ever U.S. show in 2019 as a sort of unofficial kick-off to Miami’s art week.

Louis Vuitton did the same on Tuesday night, with its first ever U.S. fashion show. But the sudden death of its 41-year-old legendary designer Virgil Abloh turned the show into a somber yet whimsical celebration of life attended by Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West and her daughter North, Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, model Bella Hadid, Joe Jonas, Maluma and Pharrell. Kid Cudi and Erykah Badu performed at an after-party. Ivanka Trump and hubby Jared Kushner were also in the crowd.

And Chanel collaborated with artist Es Devlin for a monumental sculptural installation to celebrate its iconic fragrance. The fashion house is taking over Jungle Plaza to create a multi-sensory experience using hundreds of plants and trees. The installation is open to the public, but several big name celebs are expected to attend Friday’s VIP dinner with a top-secret performance.

Gucci is hosting a party Thursday night to celebrate Mickalene Thomas’ Monograph.

Alicia Keys, Lizzo and Cardi B are also among those performing around town this week. The rapper is launching a new line of Vodka infused whipped cream on Saturday. After-party performances at various clubs this weekend include Migos, Meek Mill, Diplo and Marshmello.

While Miami’s art week is a draw for serious collectors, it is also full of the absurd, including diamond and gold chicken wings. Yep, Miami’s DJ Khaled dropped “bling wings” topped with 24-karat gold dust and edible diamonds to promote his restaurant Another Wing.

There’s also an 18 carat gold bagel avocado toast on sale for $2.9 million at Galerie Rother at Art Miami.

Celebrity sightings included Marta Stewart in a gold coat and walking cane at Komodo restaurant and the Denver Nuggets and Venus Williams popped bottles all night at Pharrell and David Grutman’s restaurant Swan.

Hailey Bieber, Olivia Rodrigo, Brooklyn Beckham, Nicola Peltz were spotted loading up on cocktails and caviar at Papi Steak and singer Camila Cabello was spotted in the trendy art district of Wynwood on Monday for an unveiling at Wynwood Walls to celebrate 14 new artists with murals and sculptures.

Kelli Kennedy, The Associated Press

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Guelph high school students create art from umbrellas –



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Guelph high school students create art from umbrellas

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Sask. art gallery reviewing 2,000 pieces following return of stolen Indian statue –



A Saskatchewan art gallery is investigating 2,000 pieces in its collection following the return of a stolen statue to India.

CBC News was recently granted access to the basement vault of Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery, where namesake Norman MacKenzie’s journals and records are stored. They detail MacKenzie’s theft of the Indian statue, but also raise questions about other pieces he acquired from China, Syria and elsewhere.

Galleries and museums across North America and Europe are facing demands to return pieces looted from other countries. Some say it’s also time to debate whether names like MacKenzie should remain on those buildings.

“Institutions — whether they’re local, provincial, national — all created a colonial narrative. The narrative was one of defeat. It’s a colonial story,” said Gerald McMaster, a Canada research chair at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) and director at the Wapatah Centre for Indigenous Visual Knowledge.

“I think the reckoning is coming.”

Hundreds attended a ceremony last month to see the return of the Annapurna statue. It was installed at Kashi Vishwanath temple in the city of Varanasi. (Press Trust of India)

The MacKenzie gallery’s CEO John Hampton recently escorted CBC News to a basement door marked “Vault,” keying in a series of security codes before entering. After donning blue latex gloves, Hampton opened a drawer containing MacKenzie’s original dictated ledgers from his 1913 world trips.

MacKenzie had moved to Regina from Ontario years earlier and established a thriving law practice. His growing art collection was almost totally destroyed during the 1912 Regina Cyclone, the deadliest tornado in Canadian history, which killed 28 people.

MacKenzie and his wife then embarked on the first of two world tours to replace and enhance his decimated collection.

The story of the statue

Hampton opened the large, black leather-bound book and flipped through page after page of photos and descriptions of each piece. It included the story of the Indian statue.

MacKenzie had apparently dictated the story at some point after returning: He and his guide were rowing down the Ganges River in the holy city of Varanasi, then called Benares, when they came upon a Hindu temple.

He saw three stone statues at the edge of a pool filled with red liquid. MacKenzie assumed it was sacrificial blood, but gallery officials say it was most likely coloured with “sindoor,” a red powder used in ceremonies.

Gail Chin, seen here at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, has reviewed the Chinese collection at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. In a 2010 paper, she wrote MacKenzie ‘wished for others to stand in awe of his taste, wealth and social position.’ (Submitted by Gail Chin)

MacKenzie talked to a man there who agreed to steal one of the statues. Later that night, the man brought all three to MacKenzie’s hotel room.

MacKenzie said he’d only buy one, because he knew it was “a most serious offence” and he could have “gotten into trouble” with the British colonial government if he tried to smuggle out all three. MacKenzie told the man to return to the scene and put back the other two statues.

But he took the third statue — depicting goddess Annapurna — back home to Saskatchewan, where it remained for the past 108 years.

In the ledger entry, as with others, MacKenzie appears proud to have spirited out the rare religious artifact.

“This is the idol that I saw the people worshipping … and is a good sample of the type of idol which is used by the poorer classes,” MacKenzie said.

Two years ago, visiting Winnipeg artist Divya Mehra raised questions about the statue, initially because it was mislabeled. Gallery officials investigated, concluded it belonged to the people of Varanasi and voluntarily returned it.

Upon its return last month, the Annapurna statue was draped in colourful robes and flowers and taken on a multi-city tour. Hindu faithful lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the procession to Varanasi.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who represents Varanasi in parliament, lauded its return. He also thanked gallery officials and the University of Regina, which was bequeathed MacKenzie’s collection after his death in 1936.

‘Mixed emotions’

It was important for Annapurna to return home, said Hampton.

“There’s definitely mixed emotions that we’re all feeling here now; proud that we could take these steps, but also regret and shame, thinking that for over 100 years, she’s been gone from that territory and stewarded at the MacKenzie for so long without the same sense of care that she receives in that home community,” he said.

Ledgers from Norman MacKenzie’s world tours are housed inside the Regina gallery named after him. They were used to conclude he stole a statue from India, and there are now questions about other acquisitions. (Matt Howard/CBC)

There are now questions over other works in the MacKenzie collection.

MacKenzie’s tours took him across Asia; he amassed a particularly large collection from China. At the time, many desperate, starving Chinese people were selling anything they had to survive.

According to MacKenzie’s own notes — which are also chronicled in a 2010 journal article by University of Regina professor emeritus Gail Chin — he talked to a Japanese diplomat about his desire to possess a “valuable Chinese idol.”

The man directed MacKenzie to two temples in the city of Soochow, now called Suzhou, where MacKenzie would find a monk “so hungry that he would trade food for an icon.”

That’s exactly what MacKenzie did. He placed the icon in his hand luggage and brought it back to Canada. That bronze, seated Buddha is still sitting in the MacKenzie Art Gallery’s basement.

Chin has researched MacKenzie’s Chinese collection, including the Buddha statue. In the 2010 article, she said MacKenzie’s goal of bringing the world’s art to the Canadian Prairies was noble on one level. But looking closer, she wrote, MacKenzie “wished for others to stand in awe of his taste, wealth and social position.”

In an interview with CBC News this week, Chin was asked how she feels about Norman MacKenzie today. She paused for several seconds before answering.

“Well, I suspect that Norman MacKenzie would probably ask me to shine his shoes,” said Chin, a third-generation Chinese Canadian.

“That was the social order back then, and I accept that. Society has changed, evolved. At least I hope so. Because along with Indigenous people, we all hope and pray for reconciliation.”

MacKenzie Art Gallery CEO John Hampton says Norman MacKenzie worked hard to make art accessible to all, but he needs to be held accountable for how some of his collection was acquired. (Matt Howard/CBC)

There are also questions about MacKenzie’s acquisitions of sacred religious items from other countries.

In 1930, MacKenzie bought a sculpture used in a funeral service in the Syrian region of Palmyra from controversial dealer Edgar Banks.

According to the journal Syria Archeology, Art and History, Banks looted dozens of sites across the Middle East and had been fired by the University of Chicago and other institutions for his unscrupulous practices in the years before that sale to MacKenzie.

Reconciliation as a central goal

The MacKenzie collection also contains scores of North American Indigenous art. Much of that was purchased directly from First Nations artists, but it will all be part of the 2,000-piece review now underway, Hampton said, who grew up in Regina and is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation in the southern U.S.

Not all First Nations or international art was stolen or obtained unethically, said McMaster, a citizen of the Siksika Nation in Alberta, who grew up on the Red Pheasant Cree Nation near North Battleford, Sask.

But much of it was, he said, and the truth must come out.

The “colonial mentality” that allowed MacKenzie to steal art is the same mentality that allowed powerful white men to create the residential school system, McMaster said.

The MacKenzie Art Gallery was bequeathed the collection after Norman MacKenzie’s death in 1936. (Matt Howard/CBC)

McMaster said three things need to happen at the MacKenzie and other galleries after the truth is exposed.

First, the talents and rights of these artists and cultures must be acknowledged.

Second, items must be returned to their rightful owners and communities, wherever possible.

Third, it’s time to debate whether to keep names like MacKenzie on galleries and museums.

Floyd Favel, the curator of the Chief Poundmaker Museum, a new gallery and museum on the Poundmaker Cree Nation near North Battleford, Sask., agreed. His main goal is to repatriate any items stolen from his First Nation.

“One of the root causes of major institutions being in possession of stolen art or artifacts is due to racism; those institutions feeling that those people or that artist or that group is not worthy of that very beautiful work of art, whereas we are, because we’re colonialists and we have a big museum,” said Favel.

It’s unclear how long the MacKenzie investigation will take. The gallery hopes to hire someone dedicated to that work and is searching for funding sources, Hampton said.

While some of MacKenzie’s actions were deplorable, Hampton said, any discussion should balance these “very glaring blind spots” with the positive aspects. For example, MacKenzie was a firm believer that art should be seen by all, even hosting exhibitions for the general public in his own home.

As for the gallery itself — which opened two decades after MacKenzie’s death — it was the first in Canada to host a show by Indigenous artists. Many of its curators and senior staff in recent years are Indigenous and from other diverse backgrounds. And reconciliation through art is now one of the gallery’s central goals, said Hampton.

“I think that there’s still a lot to admire about Norman MacKenzie and how he went about building his collection and thinking about the community here,” Hampton said. “There’s a lot to be celebrated, and then there’s these elements that he needs to be held accountable.”

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