Written by Robert Dingle
At the conference Landmark Exhibitions: Contemporary Art Shows Since 1968 held at the Tate Modern Carlos Basnaldo opened by making the statement ‘the history of exhibitions can be seen as an ecology of art itself’. Such a statement stands to reason to be followed by the question(s), what would an ecology of art look like and how would it function?
In 1866 the German biologist Ernst Haeckel provided the etymological basis for what we now come to understand by the term ecology. Combining the Greek word oikos, for ‘homestead’ with logos, for ‘wisdom’ he yielded oekology, now rendered ecology, to mean the study of the household of nature. It was in relation to this underpinning that in 1927 Charles Elton defined the modern subject of ecology as ‘the study of animals (and plants) in relation to habit and habitat’ (Elton, 1927)1.
The first imperative of ecology is to understand the cause and maintenance of variety, diversity and the complex relationships that underlie the seemingly simple system of fuelling the biosphere from the sun and radiating back its energy as heat. The second imperative is to understand both the laws of communal living and the individual relationships among the vast array of species and population densities living today.
The biosphere becomes in such a case the totality of all separate ecosystems, this includes all living plants, all animals, all processes of decomposition together with the air, soil, and waters in which life is persevered.
An understanding of the ecology of art, following Elton would thus be the study of art in relation to habit and habitat, exploding the relationships, intricacies and interactions between artists, artworks, dealers, museums, institutions, curators, exhibitions, galleries, private and public sectors, art fairs, biennales and the art market. A much more complex and intricate process or procedure of study than simply viewing exhibitions as the sole historical markers or traces of arts ecological progression, although to some extent that is exactly what they are.
We could simply put it: the ecology of art could be considered as the study of the art world. Comparable to the biosphere, the art world is itself constituted by a series of ecosystems, which are the inextricable links in the spectrum of relations, actions, transactions and exchanges in regards to the habit and habitat of art.
Thought of as the basic ecological unit the term ecosystem was refined by the British ecologist Arthur Tansley in 1935. Tansley’s stipulates that an ecosystem could vary from being as large as the entire biosphere or as small as the cup of a pitcher plant.
How can we come to view the ecosystem as an ecological unit in comparison to the art world or biosphere? And how would the inspection of the individual, overlapping and multilayering relationships and interactions exhibited within the ecology of art fall in line with the tendencies exhibited in all manner of other varying ecological systems? How could we begin to describe an ecosystem within the ecology of art?