ARU Sustainability Prize showcases collision of art and climate change
The Sustainability Art Prize started in 2012, so how would the exhibition – traditionally held at Anglia Ruskin University – translate into a virtual experience in fraught 2020?
The competition invites contemporary artists “to open thought-provoking and stimulating discussions on current world affairs and personal concerns that have a direct impact on the communities of our planet”.
Organiser Marina Velez, an associate artist and researcher at ARU, said: “My vision is to provide students with opportunities to engage and explore themes of sustainability in their art practices. The selection process of the works submitted every year is rigorous, the works have to show evidence of research, have to have high aesthetic qualities and have to respond to a theme of sustainability that is well contextualised.
“Every year I invite two private sponsors to SAP, they are completely free to select the winner they think best represents their ethos.
“This year, owing to the pandemic, the second sponsor fell through. I felt I needed to step up as the students were expecting this prize. This is why I created the Marina Velez Animal Compassion Prize, to recognise the works that focus on this particular aspect of sustainability, which is related to both my artistic research and my personal life. I am hoping to keep sponsoring this prize in future.”
With 52 finalists up for a win, emotions were running high on Zoom for the last week’s event.
First prize went to Stepanka Facerova for ‘Hopelessly hopeful’, which featured the last recording of the bird, the Kauai Oo, in an upside-down nest. The Kauai is one of the Hawaiian islands which used to be a home for a small honeyeater bird called Kauai Oo, now extinct. The recording was made by three ornithologists who went to the island in 1986 and unexpectedly spotted the last Kauai Oo there.
“I just really appreciate being part of this inspirational event,” said Stepanka, who is in an art collective with fellow contestant Sarah Strachan. “There were so many great works and so many different takes on sustainability that being part of it has really broadened my horizons.”
The second prize was shared by Emily Bowers’ ‘Ocean Ghosts’.
“Ghost fishing is a term used to describe what happens when fishing gear – lines, nets – is left in the ocean through being lost or dumped,” says Emily. “It continues to travel in the water and ‘fish’ on it’s own, entangling and killing marine life. I learnt about it in Cornwall last summer and wanted to create a response to raise awareness.”
Emily Tilbrook, who shared second place, submitted ‘Balance’, featuring “the manmade and natural worlds in balance together, using found recycled plastics and natural sourced yarns” – though she admitted Bigfoot had also been an inspiration.
Emily says: “Through research into a photography series I came across the ideas of costume being a traditional way to ward off evil - having people transform into these beings to help fight off spirits or disease. It became increasingly relevant to the times we were currently in, and these mythical-like creatures became something of material folk law, and could be seen as warding off our contemporary evils. While constructing this project though critical conversations with peers it came to my attention that these costumes had become creatures in themselves. I had also been researching mythical creatures such as Bigfoot, which then fed into my making process and also influenced how I took the photographs and videos.”
Third prize went to Julie Troy’s ‘Order and Discord’, which illustrates “our relationship to consumerism, using packaging to generate awareness about the environment and question the part we play”.
Highly commended were Mara Soares and Zofia Nowakowska for ‘Eco Toxicity’; Oscar Stanley’s ‘Deforestation in the UK’ and Sarah Strachan’s ‘The library of the future’, which is set in a bath.
Elen Jones won the Stem + Glory prize for ‘The Swallowtail’ and ‘The Large Copper’.
“Stem + Glory has been sponsoring prizes for now four years,” said SAP’s Marina.
Elen says the idea for the large copper butterfly sequence started because “I was fortunate enough this year to be involved with the ‘Butterflies through time’ project run by Matt Hayes at Cambridge University Zoology Museum”.
‘The Swallowtail’ is maybe a little bit Escher?
“I hadn’t really made this comparison, but I can see why you would,” replies Elen. “I feel it is not as easy for me to single out specific inspirations for this work. This piece has brought back many ideas and techniques I have worked with before - pattern, stitch and mark making being the main ones. I have studied the work of Vincent Van Gogh in some detail, mainly for the purpose of my pedagogical practice as there is so much that can be learnt from his work. When I initially started this work, I did look at Van Gogh’s drawings and especially the variety of marks in his drawings. An exploration of cross-hatching evolved from this study and I feel this has somewhat influenced my work on the Swallowtail, especially the drawn piece.”
The Marina Velez Animal Compassion prize was shared by Sachiko Purser for ‘Endangered Species’ and Tabitha Wall for ‘What story will you tell your children?’.
The quality of other entrants also deserves a mention, including Isobel Johnson’s Botanic Garden work. Isobel says of the process: “I started out by doing some observational sketches in the botanical gardens and then made the individual paper cut collage elements before bringing them all together in Photoshop.”
Gemma Wishart’s ‘Please Recycle Me’ is almost prescient. The incendiary politics of populists is portrayed with clear-sighted horror by Gemma, a first year BA Fine Art student at the Cambridge School of Art at ARU.
“What is most important to me is that the image causes people to think: each image was selected very deliberately, especially the Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympics.
“I think leaders like Trump and Johnson have appealed to the less honourable side of humanity. The leaders won’t ruin us, we will ruin ourselves as these leaders are elected by the people, so before we look in disgust at what Trump and Johnson are doing and saying we must first look at ourselves and our own attitudes.”
Max Song’s ‘Fog’ - pictured top - which features a dog in an anti-viral mask staring into a garden of weird white flowers, is both poignant and alarming.
Max says: “The colour white has a few meanings in this piece of work. First, it reflects on the white masks in the first image and the plastic bag in the second and third images. The colour white here represents non-recyclable waste in general. Secondly, this colour has different meanings in a different culture. In China white is the colour of the funeral, it means farewell and mourning. In western culture, white represents honesty, purity, the beginning and neutrality. So the colour white in this project is both mourning the loss of humanity through every fight with nature among civilisation, and hoping for a new start of the human-earth relationship.”
Katalin Petschner Peto is, along with Elen Jones, a young mum working hard to get her ideas across.
“Sustainability means meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” she says.
Katalin’s ‘Breaking the Habits’ is ethereal and somehow iconic - the seat of power in a vulnerable condition.
She says: “The world we live in is fragile and already broken without our awareness, like it was made of glass. As a representation of this world, I glued together small pieces of broken safety glass. I did so because I think that, however the way we operate cannot be maintained any longer, we cannot throw away what we already possess.”
The full list of artists in the final of SAP 2020 is available here.