Environmental Art: Human Cognition of Nature Through Museums

By Catherine Cromer

A key tool in interpreting media and digital culture is forming a narrative or language of how to read the how human symbolic systems have been passed down through language and remediated in different formats as we attempt to make sense of them. One of the ideas found globally in every culture is an attempt to cognize—through speech, painting, writing, photography, film and many other mediums– the social function of “being one with nature” or exhibiting a sense of despair at the loss of connection with the natural world. For the purposes of this paper, I define “being one with nature” in the art world as a social function of utilizing materials of the earth or depicting nature through a creative means that is symbolic of the relationship between humans and the environment. Nature as art and nature in art has been a symbolic practice for over 75,000 years; the burgeoning of the mythology of mankind and the earth. Furthermore, the semiotics of earth and the environment in visual culture and media theory provides a cultural encyclopedia that varies in form, social significance and structure. The institution of the museum is one that mediates the interaction of complex ideas such as these by categorizing and organizing them in a familiar and socially significant venue that can communicate the complex intertextual nature of many artworks.

Based on the recognition of the museum as a form of cultural transmission, I aim to discover how the human desire to capture nature is mediated through art exhibits across the U. S. I believe that although the creators of artworks bring forth their own interpretations based on cultural norms, history and geographic location, they are inevitably remediated and defined by the U.S. museum structure through westernized social constructs and ideologies of race, religion and ethnicity. To research the validity of this claim, I will analyze three museum exhibits displaying artwork focused on humanity’s relationship with earth and the environment. These case studies will focus on the representation of “environmental art” from three different geographic locations mediated through three American cultural institutions.

The case studies include:

Because of the limitations of time and length, this paper limits its scope to these case studies because of their diverse geographic and cultural origins and their position as a mediator of nature and the human symbolic faculty. These are compelling examples of how the westernized art institutions in the U.S. frame understanding of earth and nature based on westernized cultural encyclopedias. Firstly, by defining the human-environmental relationship such as “being one with nature” and inevitably the a loss of connection with the natural world, this essay will contextualize the environmental art movement in its discursive practices and the cultural networks of each case study through Roland Barthes’ “Mythologies.” Then, through the application of Andre Malraux’s Museé Imaginaire, I will explore the way curatorial framework of the museums impose a western cultural encyclopedia of meaning to contentious and interpretative issues surrounding nature in order to communication to a popular audience. Case studies from Africa, Asia and the U.S. will help to demonstrate the imposition of western narratives of earth and the environment to “primitive” art forms and the semiotics of cultural differences. Finally, analyzing the mediation of the artworks through cultural lenses of climate, nature and the earth through the relations between the senders, receivers and intermediaries of the message will aid in understanding the function of the museum in the cognitive interpretations of environmental metaphors. To do this, Yuri Lotoman’s “Incompleteness Theorem” and theory of cultural semiotics will be used to reveal the sign systems that make up the memory of communities.

Earth as a linguistic metaphor has been a symbolic function of mankind since the paleolithic era, one that has been remediated from depictions of mother earth as seen below to modern reproductions which are concerned with the degradation of nature and loss of the earth.

Chausidis, p.8

The creation of pictorial representations in Africa and Asia thousands of years ago are the fundamental source in the human cognitive process in making sense of the environment outside of the mind and into a metaphor that we can process into language. Unlike people today, the creators of the artifacts above “did not possess objective, i.e. scientifically based, representations of the shape of the earth.

“Every culture formed personal representations regarding this question based on the characteristics of the local environment and the specific treatment of the culture towards it.” (Chausidis, p.6)

Thus, each culture began their understanding of nature by generating a cultural encyclopedia that has been reused and expanded upon to become a part of a global narrative that has common thematic elements yet differs by the mythology and semiotics of each culture.

Mythology and Nature

Barthes uses defines myth as a system of communication and mode of signification; a myth is not a concrete object or idea, but a message which is determined by its social usage and semantics. The study of semiology tells us that these myths are a form of speech and that the meaning we garner from them are “already made of a material which worked on so as to make it suitable for communication: it is because all the materials of myth (whether pictorial or written) presuppose a signifying consciousness, that one can reason about them while discounting their substance.” (Barthes, p.115. Mythologies) The implementation of nature in art is based on a myth of the earth and mother nature is based on a sacred idyll that has inconsistent meaning through localized, nationalized and global contexts.

Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo b. 1978, Burkina Faso. Earth Matters

The “Earth Matters” exhibit at the National Museum of African Art focuses on art dating back to the 1800’s that look at the human relationship with environment, land and nature ” through the lens of Africa, focusing on the very creative and visual ways in which individuals and communities negotiate complex relationships with the land beneath their feet and the earth at large.” As a continent full of rich natural resources yet economically and politically unstable,  the issues “that shape our times” and “lie at the heart” of the exhibition are structured around Africa as a less developed nation are more connected and understanding nature than developed counterparts. Drawing from origin myths of mankind and its birth from “mother nature,” (Chausidis, p.7) the exhibit     presents the different forms of art as a way to make sense of the environment that from its origin, the place where humans and nature evolved together and still holds some sort of mythical power of  creation and reverence. Furthermore, the categorical organization of the exhibit –Material Earth, Power of Earth, Imagining the Underground, Strategies of the Surface, Art as Environmental Action and Earth Works–facilitates the metaphor of Africa not just for the artists or the citizens, but to recall previous semantic meaning to signify the art works.

The picture to the above is one example of the way in which a art work gains meaning through the narrative of how the earth and human relationship that is not based on the myth, but on the cultural encyclopedia and semiotics of the institution. The burning of a computer by the young man in Africa shows discontent between modernization and nature, but it is mediated through simply more than the photo and photographer, it is processed through viewers symbolic function.

In “Going Green-New Environmental Art From Taiwan,” we see another construction of earth and environment from a non-western nation that uses the symbolic functions of the myth to call attention to the danger and degradation of the land. The exhibit summary itself sets up a cultural and institutional structure that activates the art as a social function not just for the environment, but for the social and political institutions as well as seen in the exhibit description”

The exhibition offers to the USA audiences an international perspective on environmental art and reflects the unique viewpoint and approach to nature of Taiwan’s contemporary artists who are just beginning to focus on the environment as an important issue for their country and the world. Taiwan is a very urban and highly developed technological country with many contemporary artists specializing in video art and new media. It is only recently that artists in Taiwan have begun to focus on the environment, and re-introduce to contemporary art the use of natural materials and a focus on the natural world that has always been of major importance in traditional Chinese art and culture.

Su-chen Hung’s ‘Tree with Arteries’ (2009)                                                                                                         Trees have arteries; they can feel the pain when we human beings are killing them.-Hung


Umberto Eco states that metaphors are the tools that help us truly understand encyclopedic properties (270) and in the case of metaphors of nature and environment, the myths we conceive through the symbolic faculty of our culture shapes how we see our own relationship to nature in light of others, particularly those from different non-westernized continents. 

The metaphor of tress having arteries displayed out in a literal fashion in the Hung’s art piece and spiritual metaphors and depictions, such as another piece by artist Cho-chung Lee called Everything is Buddha’ places the cultural semiotics of nature from one nature into that of our own view of Asian philosophy.  

Finally, the American exhibit “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) is presented within a cultural encyclopedia already familiar to western ideologies, including the pop culture reference to the identically titled song by the band REM. The concept of western industrialization versus the environment is not a new phenomenon, but it has become a naturalized framework. The conquering and destruction of land that coincides with economic prosperity has become a given as the U.S. in particular is far more detached from the myths of nature surrounding those of African and Asian cultures.The piece from the Rampao Gallery above is far more reminiscent of displaying classical art, an example of the differentiating myths on cultural connections to the Earth that are less provocative and more modern/industrial focused.

It’s the End of the World as We Know it (and I Feel Fine)

The myth of earth and connotations of a culture’s connection has been remediated constantly over time to the point where the concept has become blackboxed and taken for granted. The depoliticizating effect of myths, as Barthes describes, “purifies the assumptions, makes them innocent,  gives them a natural and eternal justification, and a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact.” (p.143) Therefore, our understanding of environmental art, although described by curators as a new perspective into art, still holds onto the semantics we have developed through our contexts of art, location, ethnicity and race in the U.S. as well as through the overarching effect of the museum as a legitimized and elite institution.

Museé Imaginaire & Cultural Semiotics 

The three examples above are curated by different institutions yet when combined within the same symbolic framework  can still be understood with the same “conceptual-organizational system ” maintained by the museums as institutions. Malraux’s concept of the Museé Imaginaire as a postmodern process museums and art history  is one way to place this collection of environmental art and humans in perspective.  As Malraux states:

 the collecting of works from diverse cultures and histories, and presenting them as a coexisting totality or unity, with the consequence that a contemporary work inserted into the collection modifies the concept of the whole.

Earth Matters brings forth art objects from the 1800s and from several locations throughout Africa to present a curatorial framework that is representing African views on the environment as a whole. Overall, the concept of the project attempts to bring together a collection about Africa, Earth and Art and that signifies history of humankind’s relationship with the nature, yet receivers of the message are already predisposed to understand a cultural encyclopedia based on western definitions of how people in Africa and Asia view and are connected to nature.

This remediation of artwork to fit into our own symbolic functioning system is an automatic process that happens within culture; rarely is it a mindful practice. According to Yuri Lotman, in order for culture to function it is vital for societies to create unified constructive principles and that our cultural expressions work as a “nonhereditary memory of the community,a memory expressing itself in a system of constraints and prescriptions.” (p.214)  As we look at the pieces of the work in each exhibit, we see not what the artist sees, but the history of our own cultural and context in which our mind has come to categorize concepts and ideas into language.  Asking what the word “earth” means is to delve into the mediums of communication, history and language, one that is not similar among individuals, much less cultures. 

Thus, if we look at Lotman’s “Incompleteness Theorem” we see that people are continuously “searching  for new ways to make their cultural experience whole through the development of new works, new interpretations, commentaries.” (Lotman) The metaphors, meaning and symbolism behind nature and earth are in a state of constant remediation and evolution in all cultures, not only our own. However, it is key to remember that the institutions providing the exploration in Africa, Asia and U.S. views of the environment have a history of social, political and economic contexts as do the viewers, the cultural encyclopedia is what enables use to make sense of our cognitive processes. A person viewing exhibitions such as ‘Earth Matters’ and ‘Going Green,’ will be susceptible to their exposure to “being one with nature” as a social function as experienced by their own culture, yet, at the same time will always be looking for new ways to understand the semantic context of the content to fulfill a desire of cultural mastery.


Works Cited

André Malraux, “La Musée Imaginaire (The Imaginary Museum)”.

Chausidis, Nikos, “Mythical Representations of ‘Mother Earth’ in Pictorial Media” Archaeology of Mother Earth Sites and Sancturies Throughout the Ages. 2012. 

Debray, Regis Transmitting Culture, trans. Eric Rauth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Excerpts in pdf: From Chaps. 1-2; from Chap. 7, “Ways of Doing.”

Earth Matters: Land as a Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa. Exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/earthmatters/index.html

Eco, Umberto. “Metaphor, Dictionary, and Encyclopedia.” New Literary History: 15:2 (1984): 255-71.

Going Green: New Environmental Art From Taiwan. Travelling Art Exhibition. http://www.aaa.org.hk/Collection/Details/43093

It’s the End of the World as We Know it (and I Feel Fine). Exhibition at the Rampao College, New Jersey. http://www.ramapo.edu/news/pressreleases/2013/01-10-2013.html

Kate Wong, “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (June 2005): 86-95.

Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text

Roland Barthes, Mythologies, “Myth Today” (excerpt from Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, 1984, pp. 107-45).

Yuri Lotman, “On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture