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Ethics & the Environment 8.1 (2003) 103-111

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The Greening of Gaia
Ecofeminist Artists Revisit the Garden

Gloria Feman Orenstein


In 1987 I wrote, "In the creation of new cultures that neither pit humans against nature nor set them above it, but rather situate humans within the cycles of the cosmos and celebrate the interconnectedness of all things, the arts have begun to play a major transformational part. This, in itself, makes ecofeminism a different kind of political movement, for instead of viewing the arts as adjuncts to political activity or as distractions from political activism, ecofeminism considers the arts to be essential catalysts of change." 1 Here I was referring to the public arts events in which political activists and artists came together to co-create rituals of protest at sites of ecological harm, such as the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, the Livermore Weapons Lab, the Nevada Test Site, the Women's Peace Camp at Greenham military base in England, and the Women's Pentagon Action in Washington.

In the eighties and early nineties, ecofeminist artists often invoked the symbol of The Great Mother, The Goddess, or Gaia in order to emphasize the interconnectedness of three levels of creation, all imaged as female outside of patriarchal civilization: cosmic creation, procreation, and artistic creation. These images soon became positive symbols for healing the splits that have dominated patriarchal civilization in the West—splits between [End Page 103] the material and the spiritual, the human and the non-human, the mind and the body, the sacred and the profane, nature and culture, and the masculine and the feminine. In the works of ecofeminist artists of the eighties, the Earth Mother signified the view that all forms of life were interconnected with culture and the arts through their mutual creation by a sacred cosmic energy or agency originally imaged as female.

Ecofeminist artists of the recent past reclaimed imagery from ancient cultures in order to examine values that were non-patriarchal, and that created greater respect for the cycles of nature and the integrity of the Earth's ecosystems. In contrast, ecofeminist artists of the new millennium, who have internalized the knowledge that humans are capable of living on the earth without destroying it, exhibit less of a need to examine the past. It is more urgent for them to concentrate on the work that needs to be done to regenerate the earth today, to heal a planet whose wholeness and integrity have been destroyed in the patriarchal present. These artists tend to focus on healing the damage through direct, hands-on, aesthetic and scientific collaborations with the earth herself.

As Rebecca Solnit has written, "Contemporary artists recognize landscape not as scenery, but as the spaces and systems we inhabit, a system our own lives depend upon." 2 She notes that today the viewer has become part of the landscape, and the artist has become a collaborator or mid-wife, working in harmony with the land. Works created through such collaborative processes are often called site-specific, for they have left the "art space" or gallery, and have come to life at a site that already exists in the sense of being a "ready-made." If we begin to see all of nature as a living landscape in which we participate, every locale is a potential art site. Ecofeminist artists of the new millennium point out to us how, as residents of the site, we might see things differently when we collaborate with the regenerative cycles of nature, and are committed to developing and maintaining sustainable systems on Earth. These artists are concerned with listening to and understanding the language of nature, and in engaging in a healing relationship and dialogue with nature. They speak to nature in its own language—be that the language of the water, the soil, the air, the trees, the waste recycling processes, or any other process of life maintenance and ecological balance.

In this work, above and beyond the value of the aesthetic creation of an object like a sculpture or an Earthwork...


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