Where art and nature meet: Curator Jane Ingram Allen on the first International Nature Art Curators’ Conference in Korea

For the first time, curators from around the world came together in South Korea to discuss the the art of curating nature. 

The inaugural International Nature Art Curators’ Conference was held in Gongju, South Korea, from 30 September to 5 October 2013. Jane Ingram Allen, Curator of Taiwan’s Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project, shares her thoughts on the conference and the symbiosis between art and nature across the world.

Group of international curators shown after the first meeting to discuss the Global Nomadic Project at the International Nature Art Curator’s Conference, 2013, Gongju, South Korea.

Group of international curators shown after the first meeting to discuss the Global Nomadic Project at the International Nature Art Curator’s Conference, 2013, Gongju, South Korea. Photo by Timothy S. Allen.

The International Nature Art Curators’ Conference in Korea, the first event of its kind, included presentations by nineteen invited international curators from thirteen different countries, all of whom are doing projects involving art and nature. I was one of the invited curators and I presented information and photos about the Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project, which I have been curating in Taiwan each year since 2010.

This project, held in the small fishing village of Cheng Long on the Southwest coast of Taiwan, brings together six artists from different countries to make site-specific sculpture installations, using natural and recycled materials, that focus on different environmental issues each year. The goal of the Cheng Long Art Project is to raise awareness about environmental issues, and we invite artists to create temporary site-specific artworks that can contribute positively to the environment and go back to nature over time. At the Korea conference, I was able to show photos of past installations in Cheng Long and talk about the curatorial concepts for this project.

Jane Ingram Allen of the USA, Curator of the Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project in Taiwan, making a presentation at the International Nature Art Curators' Conference, 2013, Gongju, South Korea. Photo by Timothy S. Allen.

Jane Ingram Allen of the USA, Curator of the Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project in Taiwan, making a presentation at the International Nature Art Curators’ Conference, 2013, Gongju, South Korea. Photo by Timothy S. Allen.

What is “nature art”?

Although the conference was focused on nature art, not everyone necessarily defines “nature art” in the same way. Some call this type of art “land art”, others call it “eco-art” and “environmental art.” This conference brought out the many ways that this type of art can be defined, and how in Asia “nature art” has a long history and a unique approach. Man is part of nature and the focus is on living harmoniously with nature, rather than the usual western way of trying to conquer and control nature. Many of the projects and artworks shown by other curators at the conference seem to have no focus on environmental issues, but are more about man’s relationship with the natural world and putting artworks in a natural setting that could be about any subject and using any materials or techniques.

Presenters and other participating curators after the panel on “Sharing the Spirit of Nature Art” at the International Nature Art Curators Conference, 2013, Gongju, South Korea. Photo by Timothy S. Allen.

Presenters and other participating curators after the panel on “Sharing the Spirit of Nature Art” at the International Nature Art Curators Conference, 2013, Gongju, South Korea. Photo by Timothy S. Allen.

Sharing the spirit of nature art

The most important benefit of this conference in Korea was the opportunity to meet other curators who are interested in art and nature, and to find out what they are doing in different parts of the world. The first seminar at the conference was called “Sharing the Spirit of Nature Art”, and included a presentation by me about the Cheng Long International Environmental Art Project. Other speakers were:

Presenters and pointed questioners at the “Moving Nature and Art” symposium at the International Nature Art Curators' Conference, 2013, Gongju, South Korea.

Presenters and pointed questioners at the “Moving Nature and Art” symposium at the International Nature Art Curators’ Conference, 2013, Gongju, South Korea. Photo by Timothy S. Allen.

At the second seminar, “Moving Nature and Art”, presentations were made by:

  • Clive Adams, Director of the UK Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World
  • John K. Grande, an independent environmental art writer and curator who has curated international nature art exhibitions at botanical gardens in Canada
  • Giacomo Bianchi, President of Arte Sella, a nature art park in Italy with installations by international artists
  • Sue Spaid, environmental art curator now living in Belgium who has curated eco-art exhibitions and directed art centres in the USA.

Opening up the discussion 

One unusual aspect of the conference’s organisation was that pointed questioners were designated for each of the presenters. After the formal presentations the questioners, who were invited speakers and international artists-in-residence in Gongju, asked questions of each speaker. The discussion was also opened up afterwards to questions from the audience, which included local artists, curators, professors and some students from the university. This method of having people designated to ask questions did ensure that there would be some discussion after the speeches, but it seemed a bit awkward and forced to me.

Istvan Eross (Hungary) putting the name of his nature art organisation on a map of the world at the International Nature Art Curators' Conference, 2013, Gongju, South Korea. This map eventually showed all the organisations around the world that participated in the first conference of nature art curators. Photo by Timothy S. Allen.

Istvan Eross (Hungary) putting the name of his nature art organisation on a map of the world at the International Nature Art Curators’ Conference, 2013, Gongju, South Korea. This map eventually showed all the organisations around the world that participated in the first conference of nature art curators. Photo by Timothy S. Allen.

The International Nature Art Conference was a great opportunity to exchange ideas about art and nature, and to see new artworks by different artists. As one of the invited curators, Grant Pound, Director of Colorado Art Ranch, USA, put it,

The major benefit (…) was connecting with people doing projects in other parts of the world and finding those similar to Colorado Art Ranch. This conference was a chance to find new artists and to meet people from other countries doing similar projects.

The range of projects presented at the conference was amazing, from the large Arte Sella project in Italy, which includes hundreds of artworks by well-known international artists and a sizeable budget with thousands of visitors each year, to small projects such as the Oranki Art Project in Lapland, Finland, started by a young artist couple, Tuomas and Ninni Korkalo.

Final meeting of the International Nature Art Curators Conference, 2013, Gongju, South Korea, to discuss Yatoo’s Global Nomadic Project. Photo by Timothy S. Allen.

Final meeting of the International Nature Art Curators Conference, 2013, Gongju, South Korea, to discuss Yatoo’s Global Nomadic Project. Photo by Timothy S. Allen.

On the third day of the conference we also had presentations by other curators invited to this conference, such as Anni Snyman (South Africa), Director of international land art project Site Specific, Rumen Dmitrov (Bulgaria), Founder of Nature Art Symposium Gabrotski bringing international nature artists to Bulgaria to create site-specific works, and Lynn Bennet-McKenzie (Scotland), Director of nature art programme Ceangal bringing artists to the Scottish highlands to create site-specific nature art. The presentations also included those by other artist groups in Korea that are interested in art and nature, such as Magmamnews, Alternative Art Space Sonahmoo, International Baggat Art Exhibition and of course, Yatoo, the organiser of this conference.

Clive Adams, Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World, UK, playing music on the traditional Korean instrument sculpture installation created by Korean artist Ko Soung-hyan, for the 2012 Geumgang Nature Art Biennale, Gongju, South Korea. Photo by Tomothy S. Allen.

Clive Adams, Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World, UK, playing music on the traditional Korean instrument sculpture installation created by Korean artist Ko Soung-hyan, for the 2012 Geumgang Nature Art Biennale, Gongju, South Korea. Photo by Tomothy S. Allen.

The artists in Yatoo have been doing “nature art” since a handful of young artists founded the group in 1981. The group has presented the Geumgang Nature Art Biennale since 2004, an event that invites many Korean and foreign artists to Gongju every two years to create site-specific installations in a beautiful area along the Geum River. As conference participants, we toured this nature area and saw many interesting artworks by foreign and Korean artists.

One of the most interesting works we saw was by artist Ko Seung-hyan: an interactive, stylised traditional Korean musical instrument, the artwork is created from a huge tree trunk whose branches act as amplifiers for the sound when visitors play the instrument. Ko is one of the founding members of Yatoo and one of the organisers of the conference along with Mr. Jeon Won-gil, Director of the Yatoo International Project and chief organiser of the International Nature Art Curator’s Conference 2013.

Another sculpture installation, created for a previous biennale, was a series of metal rings installed under a bridge by Yatoo artist Ri Eung-woo. This sculpture, whose metal rings are arranged in a pattern to represent the notes of a traditional Korean folk song, examines ways to represent sound visually.

The sculpture installation by Korean artist Ri Eung-woo, President of Yatoo Nature Artists Organization, shown in the Geumgang Nature Art Biennale 2012. This work is composed of rings hanging under a bridge, and the rings represent musical notes in a traditional Korean folk song. Photo by Timothy S. Allen.

The sculpture installation by Korean artist Ri Eung-woo, President of Yatoo Nature Artists Organization, shown in the Geumgang Nature Art Biennale 2012. This work is composed of rings hanging under a bridge, and the rings represent musical notes in a traditional Korean folk song. Photo by Timothy S. Allen.

Nature art goes nomadic 

Many hours at this first conference were spent discussing what the Yatoo organisers call the Global Nomadic Project. The organisers’ idea is to bring nature art on the road and travel to many different countries around the world from 2015 to 2018, sharing their art and interacting with colleagues in different countries. One disappointment for me about this conference was that the focus tended to be more about Yatoo’s Global Nomadic Project and not so much the broader idea of moving nature art forward. I expected the conference to focus more on networking and exchanging ideas about international nature art or environmental art around the world. The Yatoo conference organisers assured us that artists from other countries would also be able to join the Global Nomadic Project and travel with them to other countries making their works. However, it was not clear how the other artists would be selected or how they would be supported, since Yatoo expects to get funding for the Global Nomadic Project from the South Korean government’s art council. Some funds may be available to help fund foreign consulting curators and administrative expenses in other countries.

Left to right, Ri Eung-woo, Chairman of Yatoo Nature Art Organization, and Jeon Won-gil, Chairman of Yatoo International, organisers of the first International Nature Art Curators' Conference, 2013, Gongju, South Korea. Photo by Timothy S. Allen.

Left to right, Ri Eung-woo, Chairman of Yatoo Nature Art Organization, and Jeon Won-gil, Chairman of Yatoo International, organisers of the first International Nature Art Curators’ Conference, 2013, Gongju, South Korea. Photo by Timothy S. Allen.

International networks must be strengthened 

I also was a little disappointed to see that I was the only one attending this conference that represented a project in an Asian country. It seems that Yatoo does need some help to reach out to other like-minded organisations and artists in other countries, particularly in Asia. There was one organisation from Africa, but none from South America or Australia.

However, the conference did result in the publication of a book that lists the international nature art organisations known to Yatoo, with photos and contact information. This is a great resource and should be expanded to include more organisations around the world that do land art, nature art or environmental/eco-art. I realise that funding was limited and all those who applied could not attend. The Yatoo organisers did ask the curators attending the conference to help to expand the list of nature art organisations around the world. I hope that this first conference of nature art curators can foster more meetings of international groups interested in the environment and art, and spread this movement to more countries.

Jane Ingram Allen

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Related Topics: Asian art, international art, land art, curatorial practice, art conferences, sculpture, installation, public art, art and the environment, events in Korea

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Where art and nature meet: Curator Jane Ingram Allen on the first International Nature Art Curators’ Conference in Korea — 1 Comment

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