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Land, Art: Pieces That Take Too Much Energy to Work!

Dan Flavin’s Untitled (1996) at Hamburger Bahnhof. Courtesy of Nationalgalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Photography by David von Becker. Written by Àngels Miralda.

In the fourth installment of Land, Art; a column devoted to the aggressive advance of climate change and the relationship of climate and art, editor Àngels Miralda investigates how society’s changing stance towards energy is affecting the legacy of American Minimalism. Last year saw the Hamburger Bahnhof turn off the lights on a historic Dan Flavin due to the German state’s requests to save energy. What does this mean for the legacies of groundbreaking artists such as Jenny Holzer, James Turell, Carlos Cruz-Diez, or other artists whose works depend on energy?

In October of last year, the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin announced that it was switching off the lights of a historic Dan Flavin piece that had adorned the building’s facade since it opened its doors in 19961. The co-directors Till Fellrath and Sam Bardouil jointly announced the decision in a landmark action that sought to inspire museums to rethink sustainable planning. Dan Flavin passed away just months after the museum's opening, and his intention was for his light installation to adorn the building day and night - however the American minimalist artist probably never imagined the context in which his work would find itself nearly 30 years later.

The lights are green neon lights mounted vertically on the wall between the patterned windows.

Berlin, Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin, December 2014. Historischer Seitenflügel mit Lichtinstallation von Dan Flavin. Photograph by BlindBild, Fabian Fröhlich

In the fall of 2022, Germany faced the consequences of a structurally Russian-dependent oil and gas economy. Amidst the ongoing war in Ukraine, energy was weaponized as retaliation for sanctions placed on Russia. Before the museum’s decision, Minister for the environment Bettina Jarasch announced that the architectural lighting of the city’s monuments would be turned off to conserve the energy they did have.2

The artworld finds itself in a changing world, one in which our material conditions and relationship to matter and energy are constantly redefined. New formats for sustainability will play out in the way that energy-consuming artworks such as the Dan Flavin or other monuments and works are displayed, maintained, and commissioned. Museums with permanent works must begin drafting policy on what energy usage can be allowed and review whether these works should be changed to a rotating or temporary basis.

The late 2000s and 2010s were not only defined by the meteoric rise of budget airlines, but also by the amount of artworks using toxic materials such as resin in sprawling sculptural assemblages the selfie-mania of ballooning social media trends and the celebrity culture described by Kristian Vistrup Madsen as the “Cruel Decade.”3 It was common to see artists using toxic materials to fix sculptural assemblage without a thought about its environmental weight as jetsetting curators toured the world and visited an exponentially growing number of international biennales that essentially showed the same artworks in different locations. As a paradigm shift occurs in society, artists are becoming more ecologically conscious. Resins are out, replaced by a return to found or poor materials. This can be seen in artworks such as The Pervasive Element (2011) by Elena Bajo4, where the simple material of cardboard can be used to create a sensitive and complex sculpture. The sculptures of Nina Canell, such as Brief Syllable (Truncated) (2017)5, also show artists’ fascination with reclaimed material to expose societal analysis.

Museums and governments need to draft environmental policies that define acceptable energy expenditures for new commissions and acquisitions, as well as yearly energy plans that set specific limits for how much energy can be used in a year. The use of “poor materials” is nothing new - as a tradition that extends to Arte Povera in the 1960s and Happenings in the 1950s, contemporary artists are simply reconsidering this material relationship from a new perspective. While our biennials and contemporary art institutions are no longer filled with neon and LED light installations, we are still producing energy-consuming work. Video as a medium has recently taken over large biennials and exhibitions worldwide. This is a great way to use digital art to reduce transportation fees and pollution as they are easily transferred over the web and installed with basic local materials and projectors. However, projectors also have energy running costs, and multi-paneled installations that require more machinery and specific conditions to play videos always have a higher associated energy expenditure.

The history of art is ultimately tied to our material conditions, and American minimalism would not have existed if it weren’t for the United States’ relation to neon and the urban takeovers of flashing lights in the 20th century. Some of the most iconic works by artists like James Turell6, Jenny Holzer7, or Carlos Cruz-Diez8 use LEDs and color to create spatial poetry and enhance architecture. This legacy can still be celebrated and shared in temporary exhibitions conscious of their footprint on the planet.

Curiously enough, however, lights are far from the most energy-consuming device used by museums. Light installations have taken the public blow, possibly because lights are visible. However, the greatest energy consumers in the museum are not light installations but the heating systems that condition temperatures for visitors during opening hours. The Hamburger Bahnhof may be saving a bit of electricity and money by switching off Dan Flavin’s light piece, but a more urgent step for museums that have this amount of space to heat during a Northern European winter is to consider providing portable heaters for invigilation staff and encouraging visitors not to use the coat room.

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