Environment refers to the circumstances, surroundings, or conditions in which we exist—natural, built, or social. The natural environment—specifically the interactions between all living species, both flora and fauna; the climate; and earthly resources—is unquestionably essential to the health and longevity of human beings. Our well-being depends on the strength and vigor of all existing physical, chemical, and biotic elements, for which we are ultimately responsible.

Explore art about the environment by clicking on the images above and browsing the content below.

Explore collection stories—texts, videos, and creative responses from faculty, students, artists, scholars, and curators to works in the Tang collection.

Tang Museum Collection: Student Response

On this delicately carved and pearly white sculpture, a parade of elephants makes their way in pairs across a curved base, which echoes both a hilly landscape and the form of an elephant’s tusk, from which the object is made. The ten, tiny elephants appear to march towards a snake, whose curved body creates tiny arches on the tusk’s wider end. Trailing behind and at the tusk’s opposite end is a small fish, whose form sinks into the ivory ground. While we know little about the artist, precise geographic origins of this work, and when it was made, it is undeniable that—like all the ivory carvings in the Tang’s collection and other museum collections—this is a controversial object. While it is art historically important and aesthetically striking, any pleasure that viewers might have when studying its form should be tempered when considering the origin of this rich, precious, soft white material. A response is shaped by not only the recognition that the sheer existence of this work is premised on the death of an elephant, but also from the knowledge that the current day market for ivory has become poisoned with greed.
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So much of my own attention when staring at this ivory carving is lost in the particular curves, crevices, wrinkles, and slopes of the elephants’ ears, snouts, tusks, and feet. But while examining this or any ivory carving, I must also consider the fact that I am not looking at just any material, but part of an animal. It is precisely this feeling that caused me to create my own works of art for elephants and their ivory. Through my own research, I have learned that elephants are highly sensitive creatures. They are feeling animals; they can experience pain, sadness, mourning, and abandonment in the same way humans can. My own artworks, Ivory, and Mother and Child, attempt to showcase the range of emotions that elephants are capable of. Ivory is an oil painting that communicates mourning through a juvenile elephant. This elephant is still growing its ivory tusks, so we can understand that it was not poached, unlike the rest of its herd. The youthful elephant looks at the ground, avoiding eye contact with the viewer, alluding to its feelings of pain, abandonment, and loss.

Ivory trade used to be a sustainable practice, but because of the increased demand for ivory, populations of people are pressured into committing mass killings of elephant herds in pursuit of the economic gains that come from harvesting ivory. The market is now riddled with brutality and environmental injustice. An elephant’s tusk, similar to a human tooth, is embedded within its skull. For a poacher to harvest the full tusk, they must cut open the elephant. There are different methods for harvesting, but regardless of the method chosen, the elephant will die. Because of this, every ivory carving must now be approached with the question: “How has this ivory been obtained?” There is a chance that the ivory was harvested after the elephant’s natural death, but the greater possibility is that this elephant was poached, or cruelly stripped of its ivory and abandoned.

The Tang sculpture, then, raises a number of questions, art historical and ethical. Among the most important, in my mind, is this: how do we responsibly display, study, and even find aesthetic enjoyment in this and other ivory carvings as we grapple with the knowledge that herds of elephants were and still are brutally mistreated and murdered for the harvest of their tusks?

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In Visiting Assistant Professor of English Maude Emerson’s “EN105: Imagining Earth in the 21st Century,” students took an interdisciplinary look at the Anthropocene, which included examining and discussing photographs in the Tang collection.
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Writing assignments throughout the semester explored the implications of environmental change. Students were encouraged to connect ideas about humans and nature and to imagine practical approaches to environmental problems that pose an escalating challenge. The class discussion around artwork from the Tang collection highlighted concepts related to this environmental discourse.
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Tang Collective Catalogs are short written responses from a multiplicity of voices responding to objects in the Tang Teaching Museum collection.
A dark, metallic sculpture of a birds-eye view of a farm with a silo and barn near the top of the sculpture and trees surrounding a field on the bottom.
Rachel Seligman, Tang Assistant Director for Curatorial Affairs & Malloy Curator
June 12, 2020
I’m working on an exhibition right now for fall 2020 that focuses on the issues and challenges women in the U.S. have faced in politics and society over the last 100 years. The show gathers 100 artworks by a diverse group of 100 woman and non-binary artists working in various mediums. The exhibition manifests a plurality of women’s experiences, views, and modes of expression.
One of the works in the show is Syd Carpenter’s Ellis and Anna Mae Thomas (2009–2010), from the series Places of Our Own. Syd Carpenter, a gardener herself, explores the history and contemporary practices of Black gardeners and farmers by transforming maps like the one of Ellis and Anna Mae’s property into relief sculptures full of movement and energy, that embody, as Carpenter has said, “what a flat form looks like when it inhales.”
Carpenter’s work reminds us of the reality of farming history: skilled Black men and women have worked the soil of this country, especially in the South and West, for generations, both as laborers and as innovators. In Leah Penniman’s book Farming While Black, she acknowledges how out of place she felt in the white-dominated agricultural community, and how immensely restorative it was to learn the true history of Black farming: that organic farming techniques are an indigenous African system revived in the U.S. by Dr. George Washington Carver; that Dr. Booker T. Whatley of Tuskegee University helped invent Community-Supported Agriculture; that Black farmers have been creating land trusts and cooperative farms in the U.S. for over 100 years.
In the composition of this sculpture, forms suggest an aerial view of the farm, but also a human figure composed of fields and roads and trees, reinforcing the conceptual connection between African Americans and farming. This link is far more expansive than a history of enslaved bodies doing labor, and is instead a wide-ranging, essential notion of land as key to agency, creativity, and justice. 

Additional Resources

Browse the Lucy Scribner Library Research Guides on:

Environmental Studies
Public Health

Pattern by Emma Fritschel ’19
Inspired by the exhibition Twice Drawn
The Tang Pattern Project celebrates the Museum’s 20th anniversary. Organized by Head of Design Jean Tschanz-Egger, past and current Tang Design Interns created patterns inspired by the Museum’s exhibition and event history.