Nature, the Environment and their Uses in Art
“I name that man an artist who creates forms… I call that man a craftsman who reproduces forms.”
Malraux is talking about artists and craftsmen, but might as well be talking about artists and designers. The audacity of the lowly “reproducers” was penalised by the iconoclasts, and perhaps we harbour the same fundamental suspicions about designers, people paid to build and sell us dreams just as frequently as they build and sell us houses. Yet it strikes me that there are two ways of dodging the suspicions of the public- the use of the imagination, and the use of Nature. If the two can be happily married then this superior union ought to germinate a magic all its own.
“Moreover, a taste, not to say a passion, for building must be engrained in the child. Mechanical toys and mechanised entertainment kill his imagination and initiative; the feat of putting building blocks on top of each other hardly taxes the brain of a monkey”
So the designer presents himself as a kind of sub-originator, and defers his symbolism to the greater origin. There is an individual and a more cosmic interest at work at the same time. The artist grows like a tree, developing, spreading, the ideas rising from the mysterious soils and falling like leaves. But the broader picture, a fluxing creative rhythm bridged by moments in time, demands a grander theory of unification.
Nature is as synonymous with decay as it is with growth. The ephemera of modern life is as temporary, inevitable, immediate, as nature itself. Our cities have become sort of flaking, dying, layered forests, with their own dangers and rhythms of life and death. Everywhere we find reminders of our own impact on our surroundings- it is human nature, we can’t help trying to clothe our hairless bodies and modify everything around us to make our lives more comfortable. But for some this seems to be a source of almost biblical guilt, and people go to extraordinary lengths, for their own reasons, to cover their tracks and paint their human presence out of the landscape altogether.
Hundertwasser’s house in Vienna , and his designs for the “Eye Slit house” spring immediately to mind. Are we guilty enough to try to make our impact completely invisible? There can be no contention over the point that man has a negative impact on his environment and it may be that one solution is hiding man’s impact altogether, (to enfold ourselves in nature’s arms, camouflaging ourselves in Her) while another might be to try to disguise our impact by turning our constructions into impersonations of Her. Is this really any different to the fearful icon building of ancient times, and do the “uglier”, modernist, construction-stating buildings represent a sort of iconoclasm- a return to buildings being made for human functionality rather than as a fearful acknowledgement of nature’s power as a constructor?
Most of the architectural structures which are intended to resemble nature draw attention to the similarities between buildings and plants. Both are subject to a functional rhythm, both have access points, layers, a projectile dynamic- in other words, a sense of growth and promise. Yet plants are transcient, not concrete: they grow and bloom and fade and die, like people. They nourish and protect and reproduce and crumble away. The contrast with sturdy, permanent building materials used for, say, gothic cathedrals, Romanesque churches, the Eden Project, the Golden Gate Bridge, presents a sense of wonder and beauty in itself. Because plants are not like buildings. Buildings are sturdy and static and monumental. It is a fantastic thing to see a grand self-generating plant-beast made of concrete, it is alien and dreamlike and mesmerising – but it is all these things because it is impossible. It enchants us because its beauty comes from a faraway, magical land, not from a world we know about but from one we would like to know- one in our dreams. Designs based on nature not only solve our problems, sate our yearnings and answer our questions, they also create new problems, new yearnings, and new questions.
1) Ecology since the 17th Century: historical relationships with Nature
In the preface to “The Origins of form in Art”, Herbert Read references Henri Focillon, who suggested that life itself is a creator of forms, that there’s no real distinction between art and life:
“Life is form, and form is the modality of life. The relationships that bind forms together in nature cannot be pure chance, and what we call “Natural Life” is in effect a relationship between forms, so inexorable that without it this natural life could not exist. So it is with art…constitute an order for, and metaphor of, the entire universe.”
Nature is uncontrollable and unpredictable- it is an ancient metaphor for uncontrollable intervention and for everything we can’t accurately forecast. There is even an ancient Japanese treatise on archery which details the way in which the hardest part of the entire sport is waiting for the natural release of the string- a moment of serenity and detachment; total absence of striving. The flow of inspiration to the artist is analogous to this although it is unclear whether the creator’s inspiration rises from this or rises like it.
Theorists have long been aware of this ambiguity and have thematised it themselves.
Michael Fried interprets the woods, rocks and glens in Courbet’s paintings as faces or symbols or metaphors. Christopher Wood finds terrifying anthropomorphised trees looming over the subjects of Altdorfer’s exquisite scenes. The point is that those people who look at art, who are also interested in using it as an expression of themselves, consistently seek reflection in the pools provided by nature, natural imagery provides the perfect apparatus, somehow, for the admirer of human creativity to integrate the object into their own field of experience.
When Paul Klee wrote that “The creation of a work of art is compared to the growth of a tree- its roots in the earth, crown in the air.” he is presenting an image of flow, as if an artist stands near the tree to allow the sap to rush in. This flow, though, occurs without conscious effort and the artist, crucially, experiences a transformation.
“ The idea that art is not a mirrored reflection of a given reality, but also a transformation of one element (which has its roots underground, in the unconscious) into another (made conscious in time and space). The artist is merely a channel whose function it is to transmit the forces of nature into forms of art.”
Vivante’s assessment that “art, far from being non-conscious, is a conquest of consciousness” is revealing, but wisely countered by Read, “Admittedly, the artists themselves may not always know when they are merely exploiting the unconscious, rather than “letting loose the riot of tender shoots””
As nature and art are so closely related, almost counter intuitively, so words and nature and words and art, are sometimes indistinguishable. All are concerned with abstraction, with roots, with origins, “we establish…our sense of reality by creating, for each experience, a clear and appropriate symbol- vocal sounds which were eventually stabilized as words. Every words was once an original work of art.”
Whenever anything becomes too prevalent, too integrated into our consumer vocabulary, we scarcely notice it anymore and it loses its impact. In becoming part of our environment, ourselves, the cliché ceases to become something desirous to us.
Designed solutions respond to an expression of specific desire or need, and so become a meta expression of the same need. While design solutions sate specific hungers, art is an expression, and not even necessarily a resolution of, thematic desires. Poetry and the visual arts dance around the cliché while occasionally retaining originality (Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time is a delightfully literal example of this)- art finds a janus-faced simultaneity, a place for both the cliché of nature and the pure artistic drive of “artisticness”. Design, however, is trapped in the problem solving one-dimensional rationality of the prevailing zeitgeist. Perhaps nature is a way of side-stepping the cliché, but it can also present itself, maddeningly indistinguishably, as the alluring siren.
Maybe there is a link between the mechanised production of imagery and forms and the predominance of natural imagery in the products and lifestyles consumed by people nowadays. There could well be a relationship, yet unexplored, between the unnatural production of natural images and the homogeneity of the images themselves. If the origins are authentic and essential then we should expect products to be more persuasive, more reflective of their origins, more transparent. Mechanisation has allowed for imagery to “ride the zeitgeist” and generate a new kind of language of “natural” iconography- perhaps where once there was religious iconography.
In Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time we find Arcadia, the natural utopia, being equated to male/female synthesis, and then, on another level, the gender synthesis standing for a synthesis of heaven and earth in the familiar conceit of rhythm. In Peter Blake’s extraordinary work, The Arcadian Cipher pentagram shapes are located everywhere as a kind of unification symbol: Blake is anxious to synthesise traditionally opposing forces, and make sense of illogical harmonies through the imposition (or uncovering, in his terms) of this particular hypograph. His choice of symbol is less important than his- and other academic semiosticians’ – impulse towards holism. I have already suggested that artists are involved in a janus headed effort: always trying to channel pure nature and represent her in a familiar language- to experience and the represent the cliché at once. Blake’s assessment of the Dance describes the duplicity:
“For where the other two pentagrams represent the Jesus figure and Pan, this definitely connects them with a female element. Through it we are able to establish a male/female partnership both in heaven and on Earth and between heaven and Earth, and it is one which symbolises the poles upon which the Earth spins.
The painting depicts Hermes playing his lyre – music was his method of communication between two worlds- and a group of earthly figures dancing to his celestial tune. On the left hand side of the work is a column on which is mounted a carving…of two heads facing away from each other.”
Theory of this sort, while certainly in constant danger of toppling into quasi-science, superbly exemplifies the inextricability of Nature and Geometry. Theories of Arcadia are saturated with geometric semiotics; art writers constantly trace and re-trace paintings, covering them in layers and layers of “mathematical” justification. Whether any of these theories have any real use or even make any sense outside of their own self-imposed rules is not my point. I am interested in the relationship between the powers of nature and the powers of men, the irresistible urge to explain the mysteries of nature, her circadian rhythms, her life giving and life stealing properties, her silent chthonic swell and the threat and awe experienced by the bewildered humans that observe her.
As one of the most evocative and symbolically potent plants on the planet, the cactus has played many roles in South American tradition and folklore. As with any hostile climate, indigenous species that seem to offer solace will inevitably acquire mystical significance as the protection they offer is associated with promise. To the parched population of parched landscapes, cacti are life-giving, life-saving, surprising, mysterious, frightening- divine.
Cacti started off on American continents, and are still most associated with these places- but they have experienced a massive geographical distribution over the centuries, and cacti have been able to instigate habitats around the world. One rumour says that Christopher Columbus was the first person to have taken the first cactus to Europe, presenting this ‘peculiar’ plant to Queen Isabella of Spain, however this is of course apocryphal.
During their explorations on the American continents, the Spanish Conquistadors found, among many other things, these strange ‘vision inducing’ plants that were utilised ceremonially by the natives as a religious sacrament and was revered as virtual gods. The native South American name for their spineless dense-shaped cactus (Lophophora Williamsii) was ‘peyoti’. It is a plant native to Mexican and south west US with button like tubercles which may be eaten fresh or dried as a narcotic. Initially, Cacti (‘peyoti’) were employed for healing purposes, for attempting to divine the future and for generating hallucinogenic visions during scared rites. Although these hallucinations often appear to be compared to LSD trips, the peyote “acid” is 4000 times less potent, only briefly affecting the chemical balance and activity of the brain.
The Spanish chronicler, Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, claimed that natives used a certain plant to induce hallucinatory state and estimated that ‘peyote’ was widely used at least 1890 years before the arrival of Europeans. The earliest European record dates from around 1635 with the first column of Historia de las Indias Occidentales by Gonzalo Hernandez de Oviedo y Valdes appeared with illustrations of what we would now classify as Cereus and Opuntia.
In 1886 that the German pharmacologist, Louis Lewin, published the first systematic study of the cactus, to which his own name was subsequently given- Anhalonium lewinii. The cactus was already well known and loved by primitive religions and the Indians of Mexico and the American Southwest. One of the early Spanish visitors to the New World wrote, “they eat a root which they call peyote, and which they venerate as though it were a deity.”
It became clear why this plant was venerated as a god, when such eminent psychologists as Jaensch, Havelock Ellis and Weir Mitchell began their experiments with mescalin, the active principle of peyote. Mescalin research has continued, and now chemists have not only isolated the alkaloid; they have learned how to synthesize it, so that the supply no longer depends on the sparse and infrequent crop of desert cacti. Neurologists and physiologists have spent years investigating the mechanism of mescalin’s action upon the central nervous system, and at everyone from philosophers to writers- notably Aldous Huxley- have taken mescalin in the hope that this mystical cactus extract may shed some light on such ancient, unsolved riddles as the place of mind in nature and the relationship between brain and consciousness.
It is surely no coincidence that the peyote cactus, so ubiquitous, so loved and feared, is also identified as the solution to ancient problems of human displacement. We identify with the cactus perhaps. It projects intelligently, like an alien from the sand, while we wonder how we are supposed to best relate to our surroundings. When we look at the cactus we see ourselves done better. If anything on the planet holds the key to man’s reconciliation with his estranged mother nature, it is surely the cactus. It is too alien to be part of our problem, we reason, so it must be part of the solution.
2) Taoism and Nature
“Humans model themselves on earth,
Earth on heaven,
Heaven on the Way,
And the way on that which is naturally so.”
Lao Tse Daodejing (Tao te ching) #251
This simple but sententious dictum was delivered by an Chinese ancient sage, Lao Tse, the founder of Taoism. The saying suggests a means of building a harmonious relationship between beings and nature. Taoist ideas about conservation and ecology, with nature as the inspiration and conclusion to all things, reflect and resemble new philosophies of industrial design, to some extent. Alongside Buddhism and Confucianism, Taoism is one of the three great religions of China. It can be roughly translated into English as “path”, or “the way”- that is, the way of correspondence between man and nature, and the way that is a kind of path of nature – the course of natural world. The term Tao describes a power that envelops and flows through all things, both living and nonliving. As such, it serves to regulate natural processes and encourage a cosmic balance of all things in the Universe.
Tao suggests that the answers to life’s problems can be found through inner meditation and outer observation. Taoist ideas and images may have nurtured or inspired a love of nature in the Chinese, so that they have traditional felt a need to protect it, and have had many ways of cultivating an affinity with it. The Chinese have always seen nature as a companion, a place of security and support to which they could retreat from the cares of the world to rest or heal themselves. Nature, through Tao, is also sincerely life-affirming. Nature can be unfathomably brutal and Tao constantly reminds that the external world is explicitly on-ideal: in fact, according to Tao, the ideal world can only be found through a spiritual path. The only thing that might compromise one’s eternal happiness, in Tao as in Buddhism, was a state of mind, an attitude.
Both Tao and Nature are associated with a non-materialistic attitude to life, a spiritual approach to living which many perceive as a possible answer to the social issues of today: the problems of sustaining a unified and healthy social order. Taoists believe their religion holds the answers, as it advises its followers to emulate nature, with its simplicity and relaxed, non-intellectual approach to life. Tao seems to suggest that many of the environmental problems of today have arisen from a materialistic human attitude that has overwhelmed man’s spiritual relationship with his natural environment. Rather than coexisting with our living space, people have begun challenging it, and it has even become a respectable achievement to be seen to “conquer” nature.
An estimated 42 million acres of tropical rainforest are destroyed annually, an area the size of Washington State. Around 50,000 species of plants and animals are condemned to extinction every year, an average of about 140 species a day. There are more people than ever, and these people routinely pillage resources, destroy or change natural processes arbitrarily and are support the production of thousands of products that lead towards the ‘destructive path’ of the environment – contradicting the Taoist ‘path’. Increasingly materialist in their lifestyles, most people believe that only matter exists, leaving no room for spiritual beliefs. Our quest for pleasure corresponds to a demand placed on the Earth for immediate gain. The visible world takes precedence over any spiritual or psychological activities and ultimately a form of materialism becomes the only truth and belief. Nature’s force is unknowable in its essence but observable in its manifestations. With the crisis of energy and resources, the crisis of ecology and environment, the crisis of belief and mortality we experience force in the form of nature’s lamenting reactions.
“We believe in the formless and eternal Tao, and we recognize all personified deities as being mere human constructs. We reject hatred, intolerance, and unnecessary violence, and embrace harmony, love and learning, as we are taught by Nature. We place our trust and our lives in the Tao, which we may live in peace and balance with the Universe, both in this mortal life and beyond.”
– Creed of the Western Reform Taoist Congregation
The recent revival of instinctive desires preserve the health of our planet’s life without compromising human comfort is the task of ecological attitudes in art and design. Those ecological design solutions that take on board Taoist philosophies link nature, culture, and technology to resituate social human requirements in an environment where the balance of nature receives precedence. Artists and designers must of course work within the constraints imposed by their clients, including the practical and material demands made by every stage of production.
Classical Taoist philosophy, formulated in part by Laozi (the Old Master, 5th century B.C.), in part by the editor of the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and its Power), and in part by Zhuangzi (3rd century B.C.), represented a reinterpretation and development of an ancient nameless tradition of nature worship and divination. Laozi and Zhuangzi, living at a time of social disorder and great religious skepticism developed the notion of the Dao (Tao – way, or path) as the origin of all creation and the force – unknowable in its essence but observable in its manifestation that underlies the mechanisms of the natural world. These men saw in Dao, Nature, and in Nature, Dao. In both these Ways lay the secret to harmonious living. According to these early teachers, the order and harmony of nature was a model for human structures, so much more stable and enduring than either the power of the state or the civilized institutions constructed by human learning. The early Taoists taught the art of living and surviving by conforming with the natural way of things; they called their approach to action wuwei (wu-wei — lit. no-action), action modelled on nature. As one writer explains,
“Their sages were wise, but not in the way the Confucian teacher was wise, learned and a moral paragon. Zhuangzi’s sages were often artisans, butchers or woodcarvers. The lowly artisans understood the secret of art and the art of living. To be skillful and creative, they had to have inner spiritual concentration and put aside concern with externals, such as monetary rewards, fame, and praise. Art, like life, followed the creative path of nature, not the values of human society.”
Chinese history is dense with stories of people who have grown tired of the pretensions and desperation of social activism increasingly aware of the fragility of human achievements, and whose response has been to retire from the world and turn to nature. Such people have traditionally retreated to a countryside or mountain setting to commune with natural beauty, often composing poetry about nature , or painting interpretations of the scenes surrounding them, as they attempted to capture the creative forces at the heart of Nature’s vitality. Such people might share their excursions with friends or family, drinking a bite of wine, enjoying the autumn leaves or the evening skies.
The literature of Chinese utopians often had a Taoist slant: Tao Qian’s famous “Peach Blossom Spring” told of a fisherman who happened across an idyllic Chinese community who had fled a war-torn land centuries earlier, and lived in perfect simplicity and harmony ever since, blissfully oblivious to the turmoil of history beyond their idyll. While the inhabitants urged him to stay, the fisherman departed and shared his discovery with a local official. However hard he tried, he never found a path back to the grove. The fisherman never found a route back because he had failed to understand that he had discovered an abstracted, ideal, world – and one which was to be found not via an external path, but a spiritual one. The utopia was a state of mind, a unique attitude.
Laozi and Zhuangzi had reinterpreted nature worship and belief in esoteric “magical” arts as something both more abstract and more tangible, but the ancient methods and beliefs crept back into the tradition as ways of using knowledge of the Dao to enhance and prolong life. Despite its pragmatism, for some Taoism would always go hand in hand with magical belief. Some Taoists poured their energies into a search for “isles of the immortals,” or for herbs that could unlock the secrets of immortal life. Many Taoists were interested in health and carried out many studies of herbal medicine and pharmacology, in fact entailing significant advancements in these arts. Taoists even worked out the principles of macrobiotic cooking and other supposedly new and healthy diets. Sensitive to natural processes, they recorded gymnastic mechanisms and studied the effects of massage on keeping the body strong and youthful.
Taoists were, then, both magicians and of proto-scientists: they represented the sector of Chinese culture that most closely studied and communed with nature. Some Taoists held that nature was filled with spirits however, theosophically, such spirits were simply many manifestations of the one Dao, something impossible to represent as a single image or in one discreet form.
“The Tao of Heaven operates mysteriously and secretly ; it has no fixed shape; it follows no definite rules; it is so great that you can never come to the end of it, it is so deep that you can never fathom it.”
The Huai Nau Tzu
The central theme of Taoism is a relationship, and as such contradicts the general western attitude to nature. Nature should not be considered as something passive, awaiting man’s masterful control, but as an equal or even superior partner be mastered in a relationship. The aim of the Taiost is to rediscover and eventually merge with the ordered origin of the universe and the only way to do so is the Tao – the path shown to us by nature.
Early Taoist philosophers set out from their civilised worlds to take expeditions into the natural world, where they hoped to learn from primitive people living in remote mountain villages. Initially they aimed to introduce the benefits of human civilization to the mysteriously rhythmed order of nature. According to the Tao, nature is
“infinitely wise, infinitely complex, and infinitely irrational. One must take a yielding stance and abandon all intellectual preconceptions. The goal is wu wei, doing nothing contrary to nature. Nature does not need to be perfected or improved. It is we who need to change; we need to come into accord.”
Contrary to one possible interpretation of Yin/Yang, Taoists rejected all dichotomies, including the fundamental existence/non existence one, since it is their belief that both stem from the same source, “Athe deep and the profound.” Rather, Taoism’s goal is to use consciousness of duality and wisdom about it to reach the stage before any dualities existed. There is only one path to this source, then – the observation of nature. As one writer explains,
“The Tao is a divine chaos, not a random accident. It is fertile, undifferentiated, and teeming with unrealized creation. It is the mother of everything in nature; it is a great darkness that operates spontaneously to give birth and life to all things.”
3) Ecological thinking in contemporary art and design
Are we really moving towards a common lexicon of human creation and natural creation? Alan Power cites Steiner’s “startling prediction”,
“ Buildings will begin to speak. They will speak a language of which people have as yet not even an inkling,”
Yet I wonder how startling this really is. Buildings are indeed more “scientific”, more complex with less obvious evidence of human intervention. Many buildings nowadays appear to have been designed and built by aliens, no longer made to be lived in but impenetrable to our rational human minds. Again, they resemble complex organisms in their initially baffling structure, their illogical shapes and apparent preference of shape and form to practicality. But they are still made by humans, albeit humans employing a dozen layers of technology to translate abstract geometry into audaciously confusing formulae. They are still constructed by and for humans to use, and to that extent are utterly comprehensible, at least to the humans that use them. Where there is room for gratuitous aesthetic treatment in a design, designers, consciously or not, grasp the zeitgeist, construct from fashionable and available materials, and exploit their artistic freedom as far as their unconscious notions of the “aesthetic” will allow them to. These notions, I am attempting to argue, are controlled by biologically ingrained forms of the organic. It doesn’t matter if a building is technically accomplished to exhibit skeletal forms, as with the giant domes of the Eden Complex in Cornwall, the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and the Mildred Cooper chapel in Arkansas or swollen like the pregnant belly of the Guggenheim, NY . Nature can be found in all design, both rational and irrational, and the more we try to escape it, to avoid mimicking it, the more we are forced to study its base rules, its gravity and its ebb and flow, the tensile strength of its spider-webs, the effects of its uncontrollable eruptions and tidal waves and tornados.
Nature is absolutely full of potential metaphors for ways in which we can improve our lives. Today, apple peels are being used by scientists at the University of Clemson as a metaphor for edible packages’ disolvable pouches like boil in the bags that add protein to a macaroni and cheese dinner, or packages that act as a booster for laundry detergent. There’s certainly a human instinct to perceive products inspired in obvious ways by nature, as being somehow “good” for us, or “good” in a moral sense. Of course, human instincts are not to be trusted blindly, and it doesn’t follow that because a kind of packaging is inspired by an apple core it is environmentally friendly, inspirational, beautiful, or better for us or the world. But I suppose it has a slightly higher chance of being one or more of these things, our instincts are not too wide of the mark and do control the things we want to buy and sell.
A study entitled “Trees in Small City Business Districts:
Comparing Responses of Residents & Potential Visitors” begins,
“This study tested whether public response to trees in the downtown business districts of smaller cities is comparable. Research methods included interviews and mail-out surveys. Survey respondents prefer having large trees in retail streetscapes. Trees are also associated with reported increases in patronage behavior (such as travel distance and visit frequency), and willingness to pay more for products. Few differences in response were detected between small city residents and potential visitors who reside in large cities.”
What is it about natural organisms that make us want to part with our money? Marketing strategies state such things as fact, using careful example to “prove” what we “intuitively” want to believe is true – that “good product and package designers have known for centuries- that the best inspiration for new products comes from nature. The camera mimics the human eye. Helicopters, like hummingbirds, can hover and fly backwards. Velcro brand fasteners were inspired by prickily burrs attached to a Scottish inventor’s boot.”
They get away with this because nature is, and has always been, such an alien force to us humans, as we have seen. Like an alien from another planets, we hope it will be benevolent and, through its own irrepressible character, its mysterious and enviable immortality, hold the secrets to our own improved lifestyles and lifespans. Of course our relationship with nature has changed slightly as we have changed, as a race, but our view of Her remains essentially the same as ever. We still need to imitate and control what we see outside us, in the hope that we can sypher off a little of the magic and mystery for ourselves. In the developed world these harmless, yet irrepressible rhythms are increasingly invisible. It is possible to spend months in a city dwelling, never seeing a dead animal, a nesting bird, a tree in blossom. Nature has become more promising, more mysterious, more magical, and more frightening through its real invisibility, but nature is not wilfully elusive or coy, this is an invisibility we that have imposed.
Inevitably, the packages and products that are environmentally superior that are kind to nature also resemble it: they might be inherently efficient, easily recycable, and often they use recycled materials made from renewable resources. One organisation creating such products, back in their 1990s heyday, was “Zerosm”, and they identified several techniques fo