Revealing the Truth: The Desert as the New Frontier of Environmentalist Art
1 IntroductionSince ancient times, art has been a tool for conveying messages to society. Whether the artist’s intentions are ideological, political, theological, or of other nature, art can contribute not only to raise awareness, but also to affect people’s opinions on the matter (although not as a predominant mechanism). When it comes to rather overt topics such as desert ecology (comparing to other environmental issues such as air pollution), the artist is even more significant, because the artwork is among the very few channels, which can arise any kind of public awareness.

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Sustainability is a hard concept to grasp. Modern sustainable communities are scarce, and their lifestyle is too different from urban communities to provide any kind of role model for the major bulk of the population. Artworks can help to close this gap, not merely through documenting such lives, but more importantly by indicating how sustainable living might look and feel like. Thus, similarly to writers and cinematographers, artists can provide view on the future, and use aesthetic elements to convey ideas and influence the public.
This paper focuses on the work of Richard Lerman, a celebrated sound artist and art scholar, who emphasizes issues of sustainability in his themes as well as in his unique materials. Moreover, Lerman’s work is evaluated here in the context of the current exhibition at the ASU Art Museum, (“Nowhere to Hide: Three Artists in the Desert”; October 2009 – February 2010). Throughout the following two sections, this paper will first analyze the artist’s contribution, and later develops it into the boarder context of the exhibition and its importance to the construct of environmentalism.
2 Richard Lerman as a Unique Environmentalist and Artist
Richard Lerman’s work is considered by many as rather unconventional, even in the framework of the sound art milieu. Contrary to the usual meaning of environmentalist art, which tend to focus in recent years mainly on ecology and preservation, Lerman is also interested in prospects and changes of the urban audio environment. In addition, a major bulk of his work takes place in the wilds, mostly in the Arizona desert, where he uses “inexpensive (under $1) microphones out of piezoelectric discs” to record sounds of e.g. rain, grass and ants, which create “immediate, shocking, intensified and brilliant” (Rothenberg and Ulvaeus 243) pieces of sound art. By respecting both the natural and the artificial world, and by creating art in highly sustainable means, Lerman opens new spaces in the triangle of man, nature and art.
In his 2009 work Hoover: Water | Power (water, audio and video recordings, plant matter, electronics public domain imagery and other mixed media), which is currently presented in the exhibition mentioned above, Lerman provides a multidimensional outlook on the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. The dam, which was opened in 1936 and is one of the best known examples for Roosevelt’s New Deal, serves humans in more than a few ways: Employment during the Great Depression, hydroelectric resource for more than 25 million residents and a ‘water Bank’ for several states (from the exhibition). The installation combines both visual and auditory element, all joined together to form a meaningful experience (and hence a powerful mechanism of raising awareness) of the importance and the diversity of implications of the dam and the true meaning of the contemporary drought in the region.
3 The Exhibition and the Environmental Construct
From an environmentalist point of view, the exhibition tries to address several problems in the construct of art and environmentalist activism:
First, the immense public discussion on environmental issues has indeed reached the critical mass needed to initiate change at the policy-making level. However, at the personal level, the conventional media may create a sense of saturation, hence turning environmental messages to white noise. Similarly to photographers such as Julie Anand (whose works are also presented in the exhibition) and Peter Jordan, Lerman deals with facts and figures, whose magnitudes are so great, that they may fail to gain attention due to the phenomena ‘rule of big numbers.’
Second, deserts are not traditionally seen a major domains of environmental activism. In fact, deserts are often perceived as unattractive pieces of landscape, which are also wide enough to serve as a dumpster, both symbolically and liberally. Nowhere to Hide suggests an antithesis for this misconception, arguing that since the desert is an important source of life (e.g. water) and modernity (e.g. electricity), droughts that are partially man-induced and other man-made impairment to this fragile environment may have severe direct and adverse implications to large US populations.
4 Conclusion
Roosevelt’s vision of the desert and its inhabitants as a significant layer of the land with unique contribution to sustainable seems is usually concealed in the artistic discussion of the environment. The exhibition’s title and exhibits may suggest several meanings. ‘Nowhere to hide’ may be associated with the sinister image of the desert; however, the exhibition excels by suggesting more meaning to this phrase, such as the notion the desert is not a place to hide our trash, or that we cannot hide from the implications of a damaged desert in Arizona.
Notwithstanding the thematic significance of the exhibition and the role of Lerman’s unique approach, the exhibition’s extent of influence may be somewhat questionable. That is, in the light of the public’s current saturation from environmental messages, the works seem to focus more on the cognitive sphere and seldom penetrate emotional barriers. In this context, Lerman and his two co-presenters arguably tend to position themselves as documenters rather than original critiques. This notion, which mainly stems from the artists’ focus on state of their objects rather than on the latter’s implications (e.g. by focusing on the falling water quantities instead of the resulting shortages in water supply), may be considered as a the most apparent flaw of the exhibition. However, this drawback is rather minor compared to the overall positive effect of the exhibition, which helps to uncover a major component of Arizona’s ecology and provides stimuli other artist (as well as art fans) to continue developing the construct.—————————————————————————–
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