Environmental Art: Proposal for a Future World

By Carol Becker – March 1, 2016

Art in America

Daan Roosegaarde—artist, designer and futurist—opened his 2015 talk at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, with a film of undulating waterways, vibrating grasses and a stormy, painterly Dutch Golden Age sky. He talked about growing up in Nieuwkoop, Netherlands, and how that memory is still powerfully at the center of his understanding of nature, beauty, himself and his work. But lest we romanticize the scenes before us, he quickly made a factual point. Since one-fourth of the Netherlands is below sea level and 60 percent is susceptible to flooding, what we were seeing was an aquatic engineering wonder, made possible by dikes, dams, wind-driven water pumps (i.e., windmills), canals and floodgates. Technology has controlled Holland’s rivers and kept the sea at bay, thus allowing agriculture and commerce to flourish.

For Waterlicht, presented at several European locations last year, Roosegaarde projects blue LED light into urban spaces at night to create a vaporous layer of “water”—a virtual sea at the level the ocean would be were it not restrained. Of course the work is also a cautionary allusion to the height—usually well over human heads—that the water could reach with climate change. (In each case, the level of the projection is determined by the local water board.) Nature, at least in the Netherlands, is a glorious but highly regulated construct.

Context, place, point of origin and their relationship to technology are all crucial to the “techno poetics” of design, as Roosegaarde calls his approach. Dune, an interactive installation, was the first Roosegaarde piece I encountered live. In a darkened room off the main hall of the World Economic Forum Conference Center, various dignitaries waved their arms over a fanciful garden of flexible plastic reeds with white LED tips. They were demonstrating what they had just learned from Roosegaarde: human interaction could trigger the reeds to light up the room.

This piece was perfectly suited to such a relatively confined setting, but most of Roosegaarde’s work is site-specific to large public spaces—rural and urban—including parks, countryside, walkways, plazas, airports, train stations and highways. At Amsterdam’s main railroad terminal, his Rainbow Station (2014-15), using liquid crystal lenses developed in collaboration with astronomers at the University of Leiden, separates light into a spectrum and beams it across the tracks, where it takes the shape of the roughly 150-foot-wide station roof. Throughout 2015, the “rainbow” appeared nightly at sundown, at an undisclosed moment, to mark both UNESCO’s International Year of Light and the 125th anniversary of the Amsterdam Central Station.

In conversation, Roosegaarde cites many influences for his work: Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, Leonardo da Vinci, Rem Koolhaas and Salomon van Ruysdael. Clearly an environmental artist, Roosegaarde is also profoundly interested in the Land art movement. He is particularly familiar with the earthwork Broken Circle and Spiral Hill, which Robert Smithson sited in a working sand quarry in Emmen, Netherlands, in 1971.

In the 1970s, Smithson, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer and others strove to create a new purity of form. Needing to escape what Smithson called the “cultural confinement” of galleries and museums, which these artists felt “neutralized” art-making, they sought something bigger, more dramatic and more immediate.1 But their work, which came to define site-specificity, was never really public art. It has always been remote and difficult to see, with the exception of such relocated pieces as Heizer’s 2012 Levitated Mass (a boulder positioned threateningly above a troughlike concrete walkway at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). In general, Land art—in works like James Turrell’s Roden Crater (1974-ongoing)—is not just placed in the landscape, it is of the landscape. Smithson, for one, did not want to create embellishment. He sought to “recycle” land that had been abandoned or negatively altered, and to transform it into art.

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