What is sustainable art?

Could art power your house? Elizabeth Monoian and Robert Ferry think so. Time Out meets the Land Art Generator Initiative

What is sustainable art?

Robert Ferry and Elizabeth Monoian hand over a stack of designs to us. In one image, a girl in a headscarf stands outside a great grey rectangle, amid the scrubby semi-desert of Mushrif Park. In the next, she’s wandering through the space within, illuminated by columns of light that shimmer on the walls.

‘It is a work of inhabitable sculpture,’ says Ferry, explaining that the piece would be something of a public monument to Al Haytham, the Arab scientist who built the first camera obscura (the means of channelling light to project an image) in the 10th century. Monoian interjects, pointing to a room filled with beams of white light: ‘If you were to put your hands through one of these beams, it would burn you. Our intention is to create land art pieces that generate energy.’

The two American artists hope to build a concrete structure in Mirdif’s Mushrif Park. Split into two sections, one side would be roofed with solar cells that allow light to pass through them. As the sun’s rays are concentrated downwards, generating around 20 per cent of the energy needed for Mushrif Park, they hit the floor of the chamber and are projected through holes in the wall, producing a complex network of light on the walls of the main room.

Monoian and Ferry set up the Land Art Generator Initiative (Lagi) last November. ‘When we started working this out, we knew it was going to be public art rather than land art’ says Monoian, whose animated talk hints at her background as a performance and video artist. ‘Land art is an artwork that is of the land, say using soil and trees. We’re looking more at ‘environmental installation art’.’ The two artists believe that the UAE is ripe for a series of public artworks that generate electricity and reflect on matters of sustainable energy.

The Al Haytham proposal emerged from a two-week stint with curator Beth Carruthers, known for her work on integrating environmental dialogue into art, working up to an exhibition earlier this month in Wafi as part of Dubai Summer Surprises. Monoian and Ferry feel several existing outdoor scupltures could easily become green energy creators. A coil of black stone on Utah’s Great Salt Lake, proposed by artist Roberth Smithson, they think has the potential to produce green energy. Or Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, where 400 polished steel poles rise up to the sky and channel a symphony of lightning. ‘This could easily be used to harness energy,’ Monoian says.

We were originally supposed to meet with the artists in Mall of the Emirates, but the looming presence of Ski Dubai, and the markedly eco-friendly streak in the initiative would have made that absurd. We ask if there is really the collective consciousness here to realise such environmentally orientated dreams.

Ferry pulls out two pie charts, one showing where the UAE is heading in its energy use and where it could be. It’s a rather stark picture of reliance on gas and oil right now. Their vision, with Masdar City (Abu Dhabi’s carbon neutral, green energy booming city-within-a-city project) as an encouraging spearhead, is that Lagi-designed art could account for 2.51 billion kilowatts of energy.

But where is the art here? ‘Art has the capability to enable and inspire. If you have a work of art that creates clean energy and is beautiful at the same time…’ Ferry trails off and points to a necklace of wave-energy harnessers proposed in the bay of Khor Fakkan. ‘It’s a new aesthetic,’ Monoian cuts in. ‘I don’t think there’s a language just yet for what we’re trying to develop here.’

Ferry sums it up: ‘It’s such a critical time right now, there’s so much at stake, it’s time for artists to put down the brushes. Artists need to get out into the community, put on overalls, get dirty and enact change’. We dare to ask if the Palm Jumeirah, a chunk of sculpted albeit dredged sand, constitutes land art: ‘When you see an ad in the newspaper, its sole purpose for being is to make money. The reason Palm Jumeirah is shaped like a palm is to brand itself. It has to be conceptual to strike a chord, but it’s completely focused on selling itself.’ So, in contrast, these two artists want to dot unsellable art that makes electricity around the UAE? No arguing with that.
For info, visit landartgenerator.org

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