Art for an environmental cause

Some of the most arresting pictures of 20th-century photography focus on nature, often picturing it as an immense and captivating life force and occasionally framing it in counterbalance to the industrial, man-made environment. Edward Weston revealed nature in all its disarming vastness and alienating beauty; Paul Strand, another great landscape photographer, imbued images of rocks, fungi and tree roots with metaphoric implications; and Ansel Adams sought out the lyrical side of the American landscape. But along with technological and industrial progress, nature’s mysterious, inexplicable spirit that had captured the imagination of artists became increasingly threatened, a fact which some ecology-oriented photography of the 1970s drew attention to. Thirty years later, the discourse of nature in conflict with technology has entered the subject-theme of photography with unprecedented urgency, touching as it does on an issue of global importance. Just how crucial environmental issues have become is the underlying notion behind Image Beyond the Naked Eye, an exhibit which WWF in Germany organized by putting together nature-related images taken by renowned international photographers. The exhibit is currently on view at the DESTE Foundation, which for the occasion has also organized Toxic, a parallel exhibit on the same theme with works by young Greek artists. Images ranging from the documentary to the purely aesthetic have been gathered in a concerted attempt to sensitize the public to the greenhouse effect, global warming and the gradual destruction of the natural environment. Tied to environmental causes, the exhibit is nonetheless not engulfed by the radicalism of political activism (unlike some ventures undertaken by Greenpeace) and invites speculation rather than confrontation. Still, one cannot ignore the facts that prompted WWF to organize such an exhibit in the first place. The Kyoto treaty and the refusal of the United States and Australian governments to sign gives a sense of the political dimension. Other facts indicate the scope of the environmental disasters: The 1990s, for example, have been the warmest decade of the past millennium; half of the ice in the Alps has melted, expanses of coral reefs have been totally destroyed because of the oceans’ rising temperature, and heat waves have hit cities like Chicago, Athens and New Delhi, leaving many human casualties behind. Global warming is largely due to the emission of carbon dioxide, which, according to WWF statistics, is responsible for 80 percent of the planet’s pollution and has risen by 30 percent in terms of accumulation in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. What these numbers suggest is that in the eternal strife between nature and the man-made environment, the latter seems to be winning the battle, but to its own detriment. Our relationship with nature may also be changing. If art is a reflection of reality, then one can perhaps notice a change since the early 1990s. Back then, the DESTE Foundation had organized Artificial Nature, an exhibit on contemporary art organized by American curator Jeffrey Deitch that questioned the boundaries of the natural and the artificial. As in the present exhibit, the ways humans alter nature was one of the issues explored, but the concern was more with how humans have constructed an alternative, virtual reality than with the disasters they have inflicted upon nature. Nor are these disasters the main focus of the exhibit Images Beyond the Naked Eye, at least not openly. The pictures do not offer documentation of a destroyed nature, but rather a vision of the natural environment, its variety and our perception of it. It is by bringing to our attention these different aspects of nature and the natural environment that the exhibit sensitizes us to en- vironmental issues. That said, Athens By Neighborhood deserves a place in the luggage or on the bookshelf of anyone interested in Athens. Where else could you find the following insight? Football in Greece is held above politics; team loyalty comes before God and country.

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