Superficiality of the Spectacle: Materiality to Express the Balance Between Humanity and the Natural World

Joseph Beuys’s work 7000 Oaks (1982–7) introduced a new form of art called social sculpture, which combined politics and social concerns through performance art. In the article ‘Wangari Maathai: Africa’s Gift to the World’, Rasheed Araeen (2009) argues that social sculpture is not constrained by the ideas that art belongs in a museum or that the museum remains such work’s primary context for focus and contemplation. Artists use creativity to generate ideas, so art does not have to be limited to a certain form or to its traditional location in museums. In the same vein, Shelley Sacks states that rather than being a consumer of social sculpture, one should become a social sculpture researcher in a ‘museum without walls’. This endeavour entails having experiences and reflecting on those experiences to make sense of them, both individually and collectively.

A tree has roots in the soil yet reaches to the sky. It tells us that in order to aspire we need to be grounded, and no matter how high we go it is from our roots that we draw sustenance. It is a reminder to all of us who had success that we cannot forget where we came from. It signifies that no matter how powerful we become … our power and strength and our ability to reach our goals depend on the people, those whose work remains unseen, who are the soil out of which we grow, the shoulders on which we stand. (Maathai 2007, 293)

Joseph Beuys, 7000 Oaks, 1982, social sculpture. Reproduced from website: Tate.

Beuys’ unique way of using fugitive materials (like wax and felt) in works such as Fat Chair (1964) reflects his life story. For instance, when he was a radio operator for the Hitler Youth, his plane was shot down in the mountains during a mission. According to Beuys, Tartar tribesmen saved him by wrapping him in insulating layers of felt and fat to save him from freezing to death; And after this experience, he started to use fat and felt as materials to healing the Post-Nazi Germany (Tisdal 1979). This story inspired me to use more inventive medias when creating art. I began experimenting with materials that broke the traditional framework, such as coffee. I incorporated peculiar materials into my artistic creations, using the uniqueness of the materials to make viewers curious and to highlight environmental issues. My first such completed work, Hybrid Concept (2020), includes the elements that I want to express, including bushfires, notions of equilibrium, and coffee all concentrated in one piece of work. This burning wooden frame demonstrates the power of bushfires and conveys the condolences to the creatures lost in the forest fire. The moss attached to the wood represents rebirth and the cycle of life. In Taiwanese Buddhism, we call this concept Saṃsāra, the process of life through birth, death, and rebirth. In the piece, the foundation upon which the frame balances is the used coffee from my place of employment. This aspect adds a visual measurement to quantify my customers coffee consumption over a single week. In turn, this illustrates the impact the production of coffee has on the environment, and coffee is also produced from roasting (burning) coffee beans, which is echoed by the bushfires. This work had an unexpected benefit. I covered a bag of coffee one night, and by the next morning, the coffee grounds were covered in orange and white mould. In life, fungi eventually consume and return all beings to the earth including humans, animals, and plants (Sackett 2016). Therefore, through the power of nature, this work reinforced the concept of rebirth.

Dung-Chuan Wen, Hybrid Concept, coffee ground, mosses and wooden frame, 2020, Curtin University.

When I attended a celebration of the centenary of Joseph Beuys’s birth, the art historians and artists Julian Goddard, Alex Spremberg and Marco Marcon explained that the aforementioned story of the Beuys rescue is not entirely true. Instead, Beuys created an impressive story that caught people’s attention, which arouses questions and greater awareness in me. What is it to be an artist? The artist themselves can be a key narrative component of the artwork, and how so many creative elements are brought together toward the constant expansion and progression of the very form of contemporary artwork. On this subject, Guy Debord (1994, 2) states the following: The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people  mediated by images.

Through Debord’s words, I deduced that artists can use visual cues in many different art forms to indicate social relations between people or people and other natural elements in the world. Thus, the present study focuses on the balance between humans and nature.

The Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson influenced my early artistic practice, especially through works such as The Weather Project (2003), Waterfall (2016) and Ice Watch (2014) (Willoughby 2019). His works provide viewers with direct experiences. However, in her article ‘Appropriating the Weather: Olafur Eliasson and climate change’, Louise Hornby (2017) mentions that the carbon footprint of Ice Watch goes unreported. That is, Ice Watch created about 30 tons of carbon, ironic because this piece is intended to highlight environmental issues. This revelation showed me that I must remain cautious about my carbon footprint during the art creation process. For instance, to reduce waste, the artworks Astrid (2007) by the American artist Xavier Cortada and Shedboatshed (2005) by the English artist Simon Starling provide me with a new perspective on materials, methods and concepts. Astrid includes water-bound pigments from Antarctica’s melting ice with local sediments to evoke the issue of ice melting (Braddock and Ater 2014). I am inspired to use Cortada’s method of using carefully selected materials to effect a climate change analogue in the viewer of the artwork.

From the concept of Ice Watch (2014) by Olafur Eliasson, I was inspired to make an ice sculpture to display my own interpretation of the melting icebergs and the warming of coral due to the greenhouse effect. The purpose of this ice sculpture is to allow viewers to directly watch ice melt to alert them to the issue of melting icebergs. Additionally, I placed coral made through 3D printing on the other side of the ice. The coral is printed in red and white, which represents the problem of coral bleaching. However, the lecturer and examiner Simon Blond told me that adding too much information to a work may obscure the piece’s message. Therefore, I reimagined my project for this course, deciding to instead focus on my personal environment, meaning environmental issues related to bushfires and coffee.

Starling applies the concept of reusing materials to transform other objects, making overconsumption a serious topic (Starling 2005). Additionally, this method of reusing materials saves unnecessary waste during the construction process. In this vein, Barbara Bolt makes the following statement:

In the conception, the materials are not just passive objects to be used instrumentally by the artist, but rather, the materials and processes of production have their own intelligence that comes into play in interaction with the artist’s creative intelligence. (Bolt 2010, 29)

Simon Starling, Shedboatshed, 2005, timbers, Reproduced from Simon Starling’s website.

From Bolt’s perspective, the creation of art can focus on the balance between humans and nature. According to my understanding of Buddhism, everything in the universe is equal, an idea in harmony with Bolt’s view. Thus, I have explored ways to reduce material waste, reuse materials and find alternative materials that can be produced for further examination. Crucially, this process should not require new consumer materials. To which digital art presents an intriguing solution. Incorporating digital technology as a medium, I was inspired by Irish artist John Gerrard’s Western Flag (2017) and Turkish-American artist Refik Anadol’s Ethereal / Architecture (2014). These works provide me with insight on how to use digital media such as 3D modelling, real-time animation and projection. Additionally, I explore virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality under the umbrella term ‘extended reality’. Furthermore, I am interested in Echolocation (2021) by Mat Collishaw and In the Eyes of the Animal (2016) by Marshmallow Laser Feast. Thus, in my own work I hope to effectively simulate bushfire scenes through virtual reality. Furthermore, I agree with the following statement by Ersin Han Ersin from the London-based digital art company Marshmallow Laser Feast: With the help of virtual reality or mixed reality, we can once again integrate with nature through different perspectives (Han Ersin 2017).

Furthermore, extended reality allows me to use minimal, low-impact materials while retaining the ability to express myself on a topic I wish to discuss. However, an argument has developed regarding the carbon footprint of digital art, especially since the 2017 growth of NFTs (Non Fungible Tokens). Howson (2021) points out that most NFT creators use Ethereum, which is a blockchain system similar to Bitcoin. Additionally, Bitcoin is a network that works on the blockchain protocol. Moreover, blockchain technology is defined as any single chain of discrete pieces of information that are organised chronologically. Ethereum consumes 31 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity per year, roughly equivalent to the entire country of Nigeria. So digital work is not without great negative environmental impact or as green as it was once lauded. Although digital art creation does produce physical objects, the energy consumption caused by the creation of digital art commercial NFT is significant. Until there is a way for NFT to use energy in a more environmentally friendly manner, I will try to avoid it as much as possible. By researching the aforementioned artists’ materials, methods and concepts, I have learned to create art that considers both the balance between humans and nature and that between traditional art and digital art.

John Gerrard, Western Flag, 2017, real-time stimulation, Texas, USA. Reproduced from John Gerrard’s website.

As previously discussed, life is a cycle of birth, death and rebirth, and its ideal is balance. so humaninds should respect everything that exists in the world. I learned this idea from my devout Buddhist grandmother. She taught me that as humans, we must be humble and grateful and coexist with nature. However, such behaviour rarely occurs.

Victor Steffensen (2020, 85) makes the following statement: As we all know, there are so many views of the world that are mainly based on human interest and not the land. Since the Industrial Revolution, human actions have made a significant negative impact on the planet. As Slavoj Žižek (2010, 342-345) explains, humans have created climate change, which has become a ‘natural condition’ in the Anthropocene era. However, global warming is a reminder that, despite the universality of human theoretical and practical activities, humankind is just another species living on the earth. Additionally,  our survival depends on a set of natural characteristics that we take for granted. Reflecting this aspect in my art practice, I explore the relationships between materials to create harmony between primary tactile materials (wood, mosses, steel, ice, plaster) and newer digital media (video projection, 3D printing, projection mapping, virtual reality and extended reality).

This process can be considered an interpretation of the Buddhist concept of balance (human and natural; tradition and modern; birth and death). Thus, I interpret this notion as meaning that everything equally exists, which is similar to object-oriented ontology (OOO). Because of this aspect of my work, the meaning of the materials I use is crucial. Graham Harman (2002) says that:

What is real in the cosmos are forms wrapped inside forms, not durable specks of material that reduce everything else to derivative status. If this is ‘materialism’, then it is the first materialism in history to deny the existence of matter (Harman 2002, 293).

In my work, I argue that neither materials nor their meanings need to fit into a certain form or category. Timothy Morton (2011, 165) says that real and unreal, natural and artificial, living and nonliving, human and non-human entities are all considered objects. Additionally, I agree with Lemke (2017, 143), who mentions that the ideal philosophical option, as advocated by OOO, is to avoid ‘the will to knowledge’ and instead pay attention to how things are by enjoying their uniqueness and potential. Learning this Western perspective of materiality and OOO  has had a significant impact on my art practice. That is, this process has introduced me to making art with nontraditional materials and merging my work with my background in Taiwanese Buddhism. Therefore, I research the essence of materials in my art practice to create a balanced way of making art, impacting the environment as little as possible.

List of Figures

Joseph Beuys, 7000 Oaks, 1982, social sculpture. Reproduced from website: Tate.

Dung-Chuan Wen, Hybrid Concept, coffee ground, mosses and wooden frame, 2020, Curtin University.

Simon Starling, Shedboatshed, 2005, timbers, Reproduced from Simon Starling’s website.

John Gerrard, Western Flag, 2017, real-time stimulation, Texas, USA. Reproduced from John Gerrard’s website.

Reference List

Araeen, Rasheed. 2009. “Wangari Maathai: Africa’s Gift to the World.” Third text 23 (5): 675-678.

Tisdall, Caroline. 1979. Joseph Beuys / By Caroline Tisdall. 1st ed. London: Thames and Hudson.

Sackett, S., 2016. Fungi and Mould, the Great Decomposers. [online] Permaculture Research Institute. Available at: <> [Accessed 12 October 2021].

Debord, Guy. 1994a. The Society of the Spectacle / GuyDebord. 1st paperback . ed. New York: New York : Zone Books.

Hornby, Louise. 2017. “Appropriating The Weather”. Environmental Humanities 9 (1):

60-83. doi:10.1215/22011919-3829136.

Braddock, A. and Ater, R., 2014. Art in the Anthropocene. American Art, 28(3), pp.2-8.

Starling, Simon. 2020. “Turner Prize 2005 – Exhibition At Tate Britain | Tate”. Tate.

Bolt, Babara. 2010. Practice As Research : Approaches To Creative Arts Enquiry. London: I.B. Tauris & Co.

Han Ersin, Ersin. 2018. Marshmallow Laser Feast On Making The Invisible Visible. Video.

Howson, Peter. 2021. “Nfts: Why Digital Art Has Such A Massive Carbon Footprint”. The Conversation.

Steffensen, Victor. 2020. Fire Country. 1st ed. Melbourne: Hardie Grant Travel.

Zizek, Slavoj. 2010. Living in the End Times, Verso Books.

Harman, Graham. 2002. Tool-Being. Chicago: Open Court.

Morton, Timothy. “Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology.” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 19, no. 2 (2011): 163-190.

Lemke, Thomas. 2017. “Materialism Without Matter: The Recurrence Of Subjectivism In Object-Oriented Ontology”. Distinktion: Journal Of Social Theory 18 (2): 133-152. doi:10.1080/1600910x.2017.1373686.

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