Artists' books and the environment

Artists have always been interpreters of contemporary issues and those who choose the book as their medium are no exception. While artists' books were emerging as an expressive new artform in the 20th century, the global movement of environmentalism, striving to protect the natural world, was also formalising and gaining political expression.

This article looks at three artists who have used the book to express their concerns about environmental issues or adopted environmentally conscious approaches in their practice.

Nancy Campbell

How to Say 'I Love You' in Greenlandic is an artist's book by writer and printmaker Nancy Campbell. It was conceived during a residency at Upernavik Museum in Greenland in 2010 and contains pochoir prints, a printmaking process that uses stencils. The prints depict silhouettes of Arctic icebergs, a melting landscape, and Campbell pairs them with words from the West Greenlandic language of Kalaallisut which is on UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger. The words are printed alongside their English translations. For instance, kinguneqartarpoq translates as 'he drinks a second brew from old coffee grounds or tea leaves' and akunnagaa as 'it is too late to begin'. Campbell wishes the words to be "anchored on paper…in the hope that a fragment of this poetic language will be preserved in a safe place where other people can find it."

How to Say 'I love you' in Greenlandic, artist's book, by Nancy Campbell
How to Say 'I love you' in Greenlandic, artist's book, by Nancy Campbell, Oxford: Bird Editions, 2011. Museum no. 38041013053665. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

herman de vries

Dutch artist herman de vries is concerned about the breakdown of the relationship between humans and the environment. His practice involves collecting, cataloguing and displaying items found in nature. In Rosa Damascena damask roses (a recurring material in his installations and publications) aim to activate the viewer's physical senses and remind us of our primal connections to the natural world.

Artist's book, 'Rosa damascena', 2nd edition, by herman de vries and suzanne de vries
Rosa damascena, 2nd edition, artist's book, by herman de vries and suzanne de vries, Eschenau Summer Press, 1990, Germany. Museum no. 38041998104079. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1986 de vries and his wife susanne (who both use lowercase letters for their names to avoid hierarchy) began a long-term project, Die Wiese (The Meadow). They bought a small plot from an area of commercially farmed land near their home in Eschenau, Germany, and spent the next 33 years working to return it to its natural state. Using de vries's expertise as a trained horticulturalist, they began by planting a hedge as a border around the plot, shielding it from the surrounding culture of pesticides and fertilisers, and collected seeds from nearby embankments to plant there. Over time this encouraged birds, insects and mammals to make the plot their habitat. De vries's photobook Die Wiese: Eschenau 1986 – 2013 documents the changes in the landscape from 1986 until the book's publication in 2013.

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Tamsin Green

Artist Tamsin Green founded manual.editions in 2021 as a platform to publish her handmade books in an environmentally friendly way. Its principles are to minimise waste and the use of harmful materials, make locally and prioritise recycling. She works with paper from producers who are committed to sustainable sourcing and recycling, and with a printer based only 3 ½ miles from her studio. Paper off-cuts from the bookmaking process are used as packaging for her books.

This is How the Earth Must See Itself: a walk with natural features was published by manual.editions in 2021, and contains archival material, open-source data and Green's own photographs. Walking the south coast of England, she followed rock features categorised by the Ordnance Survey's (OS) mapping of the area in the late 18th century, part of Britain's preparations for a feared French invasion. In the resulting photobook, the OS surveyors' systematic classifying of natural features merges with Green's personal experience of wandering solitary in the landscape.

Artist's book, 'This is How the Earth Must See Itself: a walk with natural features', by Tamsin Green
This is How the Earth Must See Itself: a walk with natural features, artist's book, by Tamsin Green, London: manual.editions, 2021. Museum no. 38041021006762. Photograph © 2021 manual.editions
Background image: (Detail) Artist's book, 'Die Wiese: Eschenau 1986–2013', by herman de vries with susanne de vries, Eindhoven: Peter Foolen Editions, 2013. Museum no. 38041013053988. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London