Art of the matter

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How art is helping hotels embrace sustainability & biophilia

By Katie Terres, Head of Operations for art consultants ARTIQ

Architects and interior designers have offered hoteliers many ways to practice sustainability and embrace biophilia in recent years including: constructing porous buildings, using renewable energy sources or low-energy and recycled materials, employing intelligent planting strategies and creating large-scale windows that dissolve indoor–outdoor boundaries, as well as employing local craftspeople and suppliers. But how does art fit into this spectrum of future-proofing and responsible development?

The great historical argument – namely, that art is autonomous from real lived experience and should remain so – is being successfully challenged by the call for sustainable thinking and ethics. Sustainability is core to business and government strategies and to the wider social consciousness. Today’s hospitality guests respond to and engage with sustainability because they are already actively doing so in their everyday lives. It certainly wouldn’t be outrageous to suspect that art with a sustainable ethos might look something like a child’s school project – but, in reality, sustainability and biophilia in art are more about conceptual frameworks and processes than a home-brewed aesthetic.

Arts Council England has made it a key focus to get ‘arts and cultural organisations to engage with sustainability in such a way that they start the process of transforming themselves into a low-carbon, sustainable and resilient sector’. Art practice historically used toxic pigments, solvents, petrochemicals, formaldehyde and other ecologically-destructive preservatives. Many cadmiums, cobalts and lead-based paints are now banned, and artists have been gravitating for quite some time towards natural materials, such as beeswax and organic linseed and flax oils for mixing paints, along with eco-friendly fine-art paper either recycled or made from bamboo fibre and cotton and free from optical brighteners.

In Europe, there is a preponderance of imported ready-made frame mouldings, with a large array of woods and frame finishes imported from different continents. Hotels can ensure briefs include stipulations for local companies to use sustainably sourced materials and natural paints, stains and finishes. Recycling vintage frames is also a favourable aesthetic and on-trend method of practicing sustainability.

Beyond the canvas, artists are exploring mediums and materials such as digital art, 3D printing (using recycled plastics), found objects, biodegradable materials, and even more irregular resources. One example is art world darling Rashid Johnson who has, over the past five years, created a portfolio that more closely resembles architectural planting strategies than traditional painting or sculpture. Several metre-high metal casings create supersized shelving systems for large interior spaces, filled overwhelmingly with potted plants. At an aesthetic level, his installations – part-interior scheme, part-art – harness that other hot topic associated with green living: biophilia.

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Biophilia, a term first used in 1973 by German-American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, is a hypothesis that humans have an innate propensity to connect with the natural world. However, this doesn’t preclude non-living mediums. Artist Dominic Harris’s preferred medium is digital renders of plants, birds, feathers and fish (anything from the natural world), which appear as static representations at a standstill, but suddenly burst forth in response to interact with the viewer’s movement in approach. This is the natural world repurposed for cool urban folk.

There are also many artists whose practice asks questions of the viewer. As well as providing art for sale or rental, we are finding an appetite on the part of hoteliers for year-round art programmes, including shorter-term art exhibitions. Biophilia and sustainability are perfect exhibition subject matter and artists working in this area have fascinating stories to tell.

Artist Peter Matthews, for example, works on un-stretched canvases in an easy-on-the-eye visual language of abstracted forms. But his process subscribes to an environmentally-sound philosophy. The artist eschews the traditional studio space, currently under threat by high rental value in cities, and instead camps out in coastal locations in the UK and further afield. ‘Immersion with the ocean and nature is central to my practice, as is the notion and experience of the journey,’ Matthews explains. ‘Since 2016, I have been taking my paintings to a larger scale and incorporating found objects into the making process, visually and materially, and also sewing pieces and fragments of paintings made in different countries and ocean bodies together into one painting.’

Choosing local, sustainably-grounded art is the essence of a contemporary attitude towards development. Hotel investors, operators and interior designers should be encouraged, for many reasons, to patronise local artists and art institutions. The guest experience is always enhanced by a strong narrative context; and if a hotel can engage its local community to use its food and  beverage facilities through the work of artists and makers, it not only has a message, but it is also going to see a sustainable return on investment.