Contemporary art, archives and environmental change in the age of the Anthropocene

Bergit Arends

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

2402 Downloads (Pure)


This thesis considers formulations of environmental change by contemporary visual artists, working primarily in Europe and North America in the period 1970s to the present. These works are situated in the context of both global environmental and artistic discourses of the 1970s and the 1990s and in relation to the present time, which is influenced by the concept of the Anthropocene. Making reference to a broad field of related artistic, curatorial and exhibition practices, the thesis examines in particular three art projects and the complexities of their conceptions, processes and displays within specific places. I describe the content, narrative forms and materiality of the works, paying particular attention to artists’ engagements with the archive in the context of collaborative projects. I pursue answers to two key questions: how do visual artists’ projects engage with contemporary understandings of environment and environment-human relationships? And how does the current debate on environmental change play out in the making and reading of contemporary visual artists’ works?
The first section, containing three chapters, provides the theoretical and methodological context and rationale for the thesis. It sets out the analytical framework for the study of the selected artworks, methods and sources. The second section discusses three case studies: Mark Dion’s project A Yard of Jungle, based on the 1915 field work by American scientist William Beebe in Brazil, for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992; Chrystel Lebas’ ongoing collaborative research into ecologist Edward James Salisbury’s personal photographic archive of British plant habitats from the first half of the twentieth century; and the photographic book by Nguyen the Thuc Kohle unter Magdeborn [Coal underneath Magdeborn] (ca. 1976), documenting the impact of open-cast coal mining on a local community in the German Democratic Republic in the 1970s, which was exhibited in the Leipzig archival exhibition Freundschaftsantiqua [Friendship antiqua] (2014) alongside a commissioned series of photographs of the former mining site by Christiane Eisler.
The primary resources for these artists’ projects are the archive and related fieldwork. In this context, the archive encompasses not only documentary materials, but also the geological archives of the Earth and the human body as archive. Fieldwork sites referenced in these projects include a variety of locations within tropical and coastal environments as well as a mining region undergoing regeneration. The thesis examines the agency of the materials these sites hold, how and to what ends they are appropriated in the process of artistic knowledge production. The structural device of montage is presented as a means of connecting heterogeneous materials drawn from different temporal and spatial contexts. Throughout, the thesis raises wider questions by situating artists’ representations of environmental change in the context of debates over the ideas of ecology, environment and the Anthropocene.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Driver, Felix, Supervisor
  • Gilbert, Helen, Supervisor
  • Hawkins, Harriet, Advisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Jan 2018
Publication statusUnpublished - Dec 2017


  • art
  • archive
  • environmental change
  • Anthropocene
  • Ecology
  • Re-performance
  • Re-enactment
  • fieldwork
  • landscape
  • photography
  • Mark Dion
  • Chrystel Lebas
  • Nguyen the Thuc
  • William Beebe
  • Edward James Salisbury
  • Christiane Eisler

Cite this