Plastic Free July: Art and Climate Change

Plastic Free July is a global movement that encourages people to refuse single-use plastic to make a stand against plastic pollution. In recent times, the climate crisis has become a prioritised concern in everyday life, due to the efforts of people such as Greta Thunberg and international movements like Extinction Rebellion. Over the years, contemporary art has contributed a powerful voice towards the climate change movement and plays a unique role that complements the science well. Climate can be an emotional topic to discuss and the straightforward facts of science aren’t always enough to convince people. Art allows not only for people to engage more directly with the emotional elements of climate change, but can also help to connect with the scientific facts that aren’t always accessible (Amsen, 2019).

From our collection, we are going to present a selection of artworks, currently on display at GoMA, that relate to environment and climate, by Andy Goldsworthy, Illana Halperin and Joel Sternfeld. All three artists explore the theme of the natural world yet in different ways: Goldsworthy uses natural materials, Halperin records natural processes, and Sternfeld photographs the impact of human pollution. Although their practices differ, each artist powerfully brings climate into our thinking and their artworks serve as a reminder that we cannot ignore the global emergency any longer.

Andy Goldsworthy

Currently on display in Taste! in Gallery 2

Andy Goldsworthy (1956-) is a British sculptor, photographer and environmentalist who is known for his site-specific installations involving natural materials and the passage of time. He creates his installations out of rocks, ice, leaves, or branches, aware that the landscape will change, and then carefully documents the ephemeral collaborations with nature through photography. “It’s not about art,” he explains. “It’s just about life and the need to understand that a lot of things in life do not last” (Goldsworthy, artnet). He is highly considered a leading artist in environmental art, an art form that explores an intimate relationship with the landscape. By subtly rearranging small elements, making patterns and new forms from leaves, rocks, and snow, the artist playfully constructs a sense of a beautiful symbiotic relationship between nature and human society (Simms, 2015). The artist provides an idyllic parallel on what life could be like if we take care of our environment, rather than prioritising ourselves and our needs. Due to our impact on the planet, this relationship that Goldsworthy envisions has become one-sided and toxic and, if we don’t act now, will be beyond repair.

The relationship between nature and human society needs to be a collaboration, and this “collaboration with nature” is what Goldsworthy views his practice to be, as he uncovers the essence of his materials and determines what they are capable of (Blumberg, 2016). “The intention of my work has always been to understand my relationship with the land”, the artist reflects. “Art has an amazing ability to open your eyes to what’s around you. Maybe that’s what art is” (Barkham, 2018).

Whatever art is defined as, it is apparent through the work of Goldsworthy and others that it plays an important role in encouraging society to face up to the challenge of climate change before it becomes too late.

Illana Halperin

Currently on display in Domestic Bliss in Gallery 4

Illana Halperin (1973-) is an American artist, living in Glasgow, who uses a variety of media to explore connections between geological time and human time. Commenting on her work, the artist states: “my work explores the relationship between geological phenomena and daily life. Drawing parallels between very personal events, for example when I was born or when my father died, with the birth of a volcano, allows for a space to think about our place within the geological time continuum from a more intimate perspective” (National Museums Scotland, February 2013). Similar to Goldsworthy, Halperin encapsulates a connection with the natural world, and our place within it, encouraging us to appreciate all its beauty.

Halperin’s sound work in our collection, Vatnajökull, the Farthest North (2002) is a recording that captures the natural phenomenon of ice crystals melting in water and was made on the banks of an Icelandic lagoon at the foot of the glacier Vatnajökull. Capturing the idea of loss, change and impermanence, the work reflects the cyclical movement of the natural world. It highlights the beauty of natural process, and hints at the loss that could occur if this process was disrupted due to climate change.

The artist collaborates with specialists worldwide, including mineralogists, geologists, volcanologists and archaeologists, and creates her work by placing herself directly in geologically significant and active locations. Her work is a shining example of how science and art can intertwine together to capture the beauty of the environment.

Joel Sternfeld

Currently on display in Domestic Bliss in Gallery 4

Joel Sternfeld (1944-) is an American photographer, noted for his large-format documentary pictures of the US and for helping establish photography as a respected artistic medium. His piece in our collection, 518 101st Street, Love Canal neighborhood, Niagara Falls, New York, is a coloured photograph of a quaint house that reveals a darker history when you read the accompanying text:

From the 1920s through the 1950s, the city of Niagara Falls, the United States Army, and the Hooker Chemical Corporation dumped over two hundred different toxic chemicals into Love Canal. Many of them contained dioxin, one of the most lethal chemicals known. In 1953, Hooker Chemical covered the then-dry Love Canal with a thin layer of dirt, and sold it to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for one dollar. The terms of the sale stipulated that if anyone incurred physical harm or death because of the buried waste, Hooker could not be held liable. A school was constructed on the site of the waste dump and private homes were built nearby.

In the late 1970s, an unusually high number of birth defects, miscarriages, cancers, and other illnesses were reported in the Love Canal neighborhood by the Niagara Falls Gazette. Lois Gibbs, whose two children developed rare blood disorders, led a successful grassroots campaign to have the state of New York purchase the homes of five hundred families, enabling them to relocate.

This photograph is part of the series, On this Site: Landscape in Memoriam, which was produced between 1993 and 1996. It was composed of 52 large-format, colour photographs that were both exhibited and published as a book. The series is the product of a three year trip that Sternfeld did around the United States photographing places where highly violent and tragic events happened. When reflecting on the series, Sternfeld said: “Experience has taught me again and again that you can never know what lies beneath a surface or behind a façade. Our sense of place, our understanding of photographs of the landscape is inevitably limited and fraught with misreading” (Sternfeld, 2012). Through his practice, Sternfeld conveys the evergoing tragedy that is caused by the human impact on the planet.

Although they differ in their technique and processes, each artist explores our relationship with the natural world, whether that be one of beauty or one of tragedy. Their artworks have inspired us here at GoMA to create strategies aimed at not only contributing towards the fight against climate change, but also promoting awareness of its severity.

Our climate mission

In January, our Learning and Access team launched GoMA Goes Green, a new initiative as part of Saturday Art Club to support the global fight against climate change. This is just one of several Glasgow Museums climate change initiatives, and is aimed at families visiting GoMA.  

We introduced some essential changes to our Saturday sessions: we became committed to produce less waste and we used recycled materials in our workshops, whilst promoting learning about climate change in our activities. We also introduced our Green Passport system in an aid to reduce travel emissions. Each local family was given a passport (made out of recycled paper) where they could collect stamps on each visit: 2 stamps if they walked or cycled, 1 stamp if they got public transport or used an electric vehicle. Every 6 stamps collected was awarded with a green prize. We’ll be bringing the Green Passports back as soon as we’re open so don’t forget to bring yours along or ask for one if you’re missing out!

Even during lockdown, whilst we have had to rely on digital means, we are still as committed to doing our bit towards climate change. Our blog activities have predominantly focused on recycling the rubbish in our homes to create artworks, and we intend on continuing this commitment once we’re back open.

We believe as an institution that contemporary art has the power to change and inspire, a notion that is crucial in the fight against climate change. We aim to use our collection to shape conversations about the environment that are both challenging and provocative, and hopefully succeed in opening our minds about creating a sustainable future for us all.

Useful websites about the climate emergency:


Eva Amsen, ‘Climate Change Art helps people connect with a challenging topic’, Forbes (September, 2019)

Andy Goldsworthy, artnet.

Patrick Barkham, ‘Branching out: why artist Andy Goldsworthy is leaving his comfort zone, The Guardian (August, 2018)

Naoimi Blumberg, ‘Andy Goldsworthy: British sculptor, artist and photographer, Britannica (February, 2016)

Andrew Simms, ‘Why climate action needs the arts’, The Guardian (June, 2015)

2013 Archive: Illana Halperin: The Library’, National Museums Scotland (February, 2013)

Joel Sternfeld, On this Site (2012)

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