by Sakhi SobtiJul 11, 2023
"I make art for dialogue and to learn anew" - Ben Whitehouse
Ben Whitehouse is a British artist who moved to the USA in 1985, to study under Maya Angelou at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. His love for the open spaces and elements of nature reflect in his canvases, his video works, and photographs.
Whitehouse's work deals directly with climate and our environment through his paintings, videos and photographs, where he invokes and pays tribute to the existing beauty and health state of our natural environment, interwoven with the warning signs of its degradation.
The landscapes presented by Whitehouse are usually bereft of human presence or intervention, though in a few video works we do get a view-over-the-shoulder of the person rowing the canoe on the lake. The view of the sky changing over the day is definitely from the artist's viewpoint. His awareness of the environment is something he has known since he was a young artist. His father was a filmmaker who dealt with issues of the environment and that definitely inspired him and brought to his work an early socio-political awareness. Whitehouse is keen to spread the word and have it translate into action, as he is in tune with the reality that many of us know about the dangers of treating our environment poorly but to translate that to habit-changing behaviour is hard. Through his joint platform 'SkyDay', he promotes awareness as well as love for the environment.
STIR speaks with him about his social art and inspirations. Here are some excerpts:
Georgina Maddox: Tell us about your involvement with environmental art and how it has grown—especially given that it is now most important across the globe with climate change becoming a hard reality.
Ben Whitehouse: I have always been involved with environmental issues. My father, who was a documentary filmmaker, made a film called The Choice, way back in 1970 when the environment was not even the burning issue that it is today. The environmental art film looks at pollution of the air and water and long before climate change was a popular conversation. I was just eight-years-old at the time and pollution and climate were always a family conversation around the kitchen table. I will be truthful and say that initially, I did not want to be an artist because I saw how difficult it is to be an artist or a filmmaker in this world and I didn't want to be an artist, but it's a calling I couldn't avoid. (Laughs)
So I studied art. I came to the United States from London to attend Wake Forest University, studying under Maya Angelou (BA '85). I later studied under Vera Klement and Charles Harrison at The University of Chicago (MFA '91). My work has been exhibited widely including at Flowers East (London), Gallery Henoch (New York), and the Delaware Contemporary. I began working with the primary market and had a primary dealer shipping the work internationally.
Georgina: Tell us about the growth factor, how have things changed over the years?
Ben: The key is first of all to refuse to compromise. I don't mean angrily, but persuasively. I will never repeat myself because my primary reason for creating art is to learn something new each time. I am reminded of the analogy of the snail. It is motivated to move wherever it wants to go, slowly perhaps, and surely and as it moves to its desired place, it leaves behind a trail. For me the trail is the artwork, the thing I leave behind. I try to learn about environmental phenomena and my relationship to them and in doing so I leave behind an artwork. The intention is to have a dialogue and to learn something new in the process, which is my understanding of growth as a contemporary artist.
Georgina: As climate change starts impacting every facet of life, artists become the cultural leaders in their response to it, helping people understand what is happening, beyond the strict science of the phenomenon. What do you have to say?
Ben: My art activism springs from a long enquiry into the meaning of our relationship to environmental experience. We inhabit a rapidly changing environment and how we connect (or not) to that changing environment is perhaps the defining question of our time.
Environmental experience is complex and multi-layered. An authentic expression of even a single moment of it is challenging, let alone attempting to account for all 86,400 consecutive seconds that comprise a day/night cycle. Every moment is the unique byproduct of all that has come before and each day is a dynamic evolution of such moments. Sometimes that evolution seems slow and subtle. Sometimes it is dramatic, bizarre even. And there are times when I wonder if anyone will believe what I just saw.
SkyDay is a free educational platform with the mission of offering young people inspiring citizen art initiatives on global sustainability. The SkyDay Project (skydayproject.org) is a global citizen artwork I co-created that uses social media platforms and its website to look at the sky and photograph it while connecting it to humanity through our shared sky all over the world. In different ways, the sky and the atmosphere are all around us. We 'swim' through it and don't think about it much. This lack of connection leads to abuse. We have chemically changed the atmosphere with Chlorofluorocarbons carbons and other carbon emissions—the protective layer around the earth has always been a thin one but by chemically changing it we are no longer as protected from the harshness of the sun and the unfriendly atmosphere of space, we are protected from when we have a healthy sky.
Ben: The 10the anniversary of SkyDay and Sky Day Project is fast approaching and I am keen to explore further how we can help. How can scientists and artists explain themselves better? How can we inspire people to raise climate change higher on their list of voting priorities? Our job is to provide helpful ideas to our readers, not just to have 'sky day' but to really effect change and move the needle. This is why we created Sky Day. In 2014 I had already bought an electric vehicle, an electric car and arranged for our home to be powered solely by wind and solar so I had already accomplished two of the three most important things an individual can do to help promote change. The third is to raise awareness in the community and inspire people to vote for wiser and better energy policies. This is the true key to our success and survival. Time is pressing so we must promote change on a national policy scale if we are to help ourselves in time. These are easy things to say and very hard to do. We invite your readers to share their creative ideas about how an organisation like ours can be helpful in this space.
Business has a lot to offer in this regard if it figures out how to make the transition from unsustainable to sustainable practices cheaper, better and more inspiring than the old ways. Elon Musk often says things I don't personally agree with but his company Tesla is a great example of how business can be a positive force for change. Tesla makes cars that are faster, better, and cleaner than older cars and they are safer too. That's hard to say no to. And when the government offers tax rebates as an incentive to buy them. Why? Because new, clean cars create jobs, and pollute less so there is less cleanup and fewer health issues–even better. But they will only do this if you the citizen demand it at the ballot box.
Georgina: "Art moves you in ways that you cannot articulate. There's something to be said about the effect of art—something moves you to action where facts and information don't," said Radha Mahendru of Khoj, a New Delhi based artists' collective. What is your opinion?
Ben: I think that this is a beautiful idea and I am deeply moved by it. Art does affect us in ways that perhaps facts and information do not and the desire to do more for our planet can spring from looking and experiencing art.
However, I am concerned about the 'stickiness' of ideas too; by this I mean the persistence of an idea to translate into action. I have noticed that people can be very moved and involved by art but they move back to their everyday existence and forget about the message underlying the art once that moment has passed. We (understandably) move on with our lives and despite being 'inspired' go back to our regular practices, which are not always environmentally friendly. Music can be an incredibly effective way of inspiring people, of course. I grew up listening to the Beatles and I once met Yoko Ono, and I find what she is doing with her art very inspirational. 'Imagine' (which we now know Yoko wrote) is one of my favourite songs.
It is a kind of stickiness we hope to achieve with our projects at SkyDay like The Skyday Project. Another thing we are trying is the world's first advertising campaign for our planet. You can check it out on our Instagram page, with this campaign we hope to create awareness and inspire positive action to connect to our environment and to the only one sky we share. We believe this lack of connection to the environment is a big part of the problem because connection leads to caring and caring leads to positive actions in the community. Make sense?
Georgina: Tell us about your plans to work with India as your area of interest.
Ben: I have always wanted to come to India. Your food, your culture, your style…it is all magnificent and inspiring to me. I would love to experience it for myself. So consider this a call to all curators, schools and organisations who are interested in showing my work and/or asking me to talk. What are the possibilities?
Georgina: Your engagement, like the vistas and scenes you represent, seems almost 'outside time', indifferent to the 'fashions of art' or the 'vagaries of the contemporary'. Please elaborate.
Ben: 'Outside of time' was a critique of my work in Artforum if I remember correctly. I know what the writer meant but my work is actually intimately tethered to a specific moment in time. But this question gets to the heart of what art really is. As an artist you have a dialogue with the work and then your work goes out into the world and people have their own unique dialogue with it. So, where does the artwork really exist? On the wall? In the mind of the beholder? Or it does hover in space somewhere in between the two?