The Permanence of the Temporary: A Call for a Sustainable Art Movement

Lauren Bon, Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy, 2017. Glass neon, metal brackets, 72 x 174 in. (182.9 x 442 cm). Courtesy the artist and Metabolic Studio, Los Angeles. Photo by Luc Demers.

The neon message by Lauren Bon in the foyer of the Colby Museum of Art insists that “Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy.” The work was included in the fall 2019 exhibition Occupy Colby and remains on display now, raising questions about the degree to which “creation” and “destruction” really are in contrast. Is creation, even creation for creative means, really the antidote to destruction? Society “creates” enough as it is, leading to the overproduction of material goods and ensuing systemic issues such as climate change and environmental injustice. Artists, Bon says, have a responsibility to minimize that which leads to destruction. So the duty of the artist—to assuage societal destruction through art—lies more within creativity than material creation.

Occupy Colby showed us that “there is no away” with Justin Brice Guariglia’s road sign,  which intermittently flashed this message warning of excessive consumption. When it becomes unavoidable that we’ve created too much, and “away” gets closer and closer to home, how can we combat the excess of creation?

The exhibition critiqued environmental issues and climate change. It challenged viewers to consider the urgency of the environmental crisis and see the fragility in the interactions between humans and nature. One theme was overconsumption and the burden of waste. The show included many works made from already existing material: recycled plastic bags transformed into sculpture, and jumbles of sticks and old jars filled with honey incorporated into a hanging mobile. Another piece that drew attention to unconventional mediums was Meg Webster’s Mother Mound Salt, a four-ton pile of pure, glowing table salt. The choice of salt as a medium underlined the importance of considering earth materials as valuable, but created another paradoxical message. When Colby was left un-Occupied and the exhibit was no more, the mound remained, its once-new salt now unusable by the Museum in the same way.

Meg Webster, Mother Mound Salt, 2016. Salt. Approx. 42 x 114 in. diameter (106.6 x 289.5 cm). © Meg Webster. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo by Luc Demers.

The students in the Creative Environmental Storytelling Jan Plan course, led by author/professor Brooke Williams, were tasked with repurposing Mother Mound Salt by finding meaningful and practical uses for the used material. With the fate of nine thousand pounds of salt weighing on our minds, we enacted environmental problem-solving by attempting to develop a model for reusing salvageable materials through finding new purposes for them. Salt weighing in at two and a half cars’ worth in poundage is more than the average person would immediately have ideas for. Nonetheless, salt and many earth materials will exist for longer than we will, and we have a responsibility to let them thrive in longevity. Webster’s salt has an especially unique story, and it should receive an equally meaningful next phase.

The mound, a mysterious dome that emanates a natural glow, undeniably commands the viewer’s attention. It prompts visitors to place the salt into their own contexts of environmentalism through art, but because there are so many unique interpretations, it is difficult to quantify the impact of this—or any—piece of artwork. When art has political connotations or is designed to comment on a problem, activist mindsets can ripple out to viewers, but that web of inspiration is impossible to trace. We can, however, trace the harm a work may cause to the environment. We can calculate the emissions it took to ship the salt to Colby, or the contamination of the environment as a result of mining and processing it. We can report the impact of discarding four tons of salt into the municipal landfill or the Gulf of Maine.

Estimating a cost-benefit analysis on a work of art—whether its social impact outweighs its consumptive creation or vice versa—is not straightforward. But while not always quantifiable, artwork like this has positive value. Artists like Webster draw attention to the intricacies of earth systems by bringing elements of nature into an overly human-dominated space. She has us consider our interactions with the natural world by combining the innate wild of nature with the human desire to tame it. This is an impactful method to urge visitors to ponder environmental topics in ways they normally wouldn’t. Webster and the other Occupy Colby artists crafted a compelling message that undoubtedly added value to environmental discourse. More concretely, Colby courses in environmental studies, anthropology, biology, and English used the exhibition to advance academic conversations.

Temporary exhibitions open and close in museums, but the art displayed never truly goes away. The most affecting pieces persevere in our minds, influencing our perceptions of the ideas they critique. And in a literal sense, the work often lives on in its material form—not always ceasing to exist once it leaves the gallery. Today, however, artists are producing many innovative pieces that involve unconventional materials, made from almost everything imaginable. Works of art like these are not always movable or able to maintain their integrity in storage. What becomes of these pieces that have an expiration date? How often is the afterlife of art considered in the process of its creation?

In an exhibition that elevates environmental messages, the artists and institutions involved are ethically charged with taking environmental responsibility for the impact of the work. Between the climate-controlled conditions for art storage and the emissions that result from shipping work all over the globe, the art world has a significant carbon footprint. As the climate crisis deepens, we lose the luxury of dismissing our impact and must assume our duty to take responsibility and work creatively to consider sustainability at each step of the creative process.

Being gifted thousands of pounds of salt is enough to make anyone consider what we could be doing differently. The students in Creative Environmental Storytelling worked together researching salt types, uses, properties, and cultural importance, and spent our first weeks uncovering all possible solutions to a four-ton problem. We factored in constraints such as cost, geographic location, time, and environmental and social responsibility. We cast wide nets to find someone who would use salt and continue its story. We decided to stay local to minimize further impact and elevate the wellness of the community. After investigating the possibility of using the material for salt licks or donating it to other artists who use salt in their practice and finding both of those options undesirable, we settled on two solutions: collaborating with community kitchens and college dining services to repurpose the unused salt, and working with Quarry Road Trails to use the salt for snow maintenance.

Students from the Creative Environmental Storytelling Jan Plan meeting with Senior Preparator Stew Henderson to discuss the Webster sculpture.

The class also issued a call for the Museum to preemptively consider the environmental impact of their exhibitions. Adopting a policy of proactively incorporating sustainability would make the Colby Museum of Art a leader in the field and could encourage partner institutions to do the same. Our work with Mother Mound Salt was a unique project, but it provides a model of creative problem-solving that can be adjusted to address environmental degradation across the art world.

In this instance of reimagining our societal impact, it becomes clear there are myriad elements of human life that need to be reconsidered with sustainability in mind. Art is one realm in which we can forge this path, but we need more social institutions to take this stand. The world is full of creative minds, but in this capacity to create, we must ensure our creation does not cause destruction. When we accept that there is no away, we are forced to notice what is here to stay. We have the opportunity to ensure that what remains is not destructive, but inspires more creative societal reimagination.