Love as the Healing Force in Environmental Action
"Love heals. When we are wounded in the place where we would know love, it is difficult to imagine that love really has the power to change everything."
– bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions [Harper Perennial, 2001], p. 209.
"Research has shown that when we live on car-filled streets, our number of close friends drops by half. We eat half the meals we used to with friends, family, neighbors."
– Bill McKibben, Where Have all the Joiners Gone?: A Declaration of Dependence [Orion Magazine, 2008].
When speaking about ecology and environmental action, the conversation often circles back to an existential fear of survival of the human species. Driven by our ongoing exploitation of the Earth, this fear leads as much to avoidance of these questions as to environmental protest, resulting in a standstill that continues the current trajectory of environmental crisis. It was therefore a great joy to see that both the artists exhibited at Mater and those participating in Pela Terra: Gathering of Art and Ecology took a completely different approach: an environmentalism based on communality, attention, care and, ultimately, love.
Mater, curated by João Rolaça and the cultural association Oficinas do Convento in Montemor-o-Novo, featured three generations of environmental ceramic artists whose work is closely linked to the association: Virgínia Fróis, Marta Castelo, and Maja Escher. Spread across the two floors of Pavilhão Branco [Galerias Municipais de Lisboa], the three artists’ installations and sculptures in found and built material create an atmosphere of peace and reverence. Exploring the relationship aesthetics of Earth and beingthey demonstrate a shared intuition-based attention and care for the environment.
Despite being unconnected, except for both featuring Maja Escher, the artworks at Pela Terra speak a similar language as Mater: a language that points directly to the exceptional development of contemporary ecological art in Portugal and beyond, in terms of its artistic novelty. Under the artistic direction of Duarte Martins, Pela Terra explored the natural and lived environment of Idanha-a-Velha and the hosting regeneration project that occupies the surrounding land, Idanha-à-Vida, through a well-curated three-day programme. Mostly created in residence, the artworks included Alexandre Delmar’s video installation in the 6th-century Sé of Idanha-a-Velha, A Fala das Cabras e dos Pastores [2015–2023], which maps the various oral expressions the shepherds and their animals use; Gustavo Ciríaco’s performative art walk questioning our relationship with the Earth that circles the village in its activation by Ana Trincão; Evgenia Emets’ meditative poetry and art trail Ser Terra?; and an art trail featuring site-specific works by Fernando Roussado, Maja Escher and Sérgio Carronha, completed by an honorary piece displaying the words of poet, artist, and Idanha-a-Vida pioneer Peter Zin.
The art trails of Pela Terra were balanced with other works in music, literature, ecology, and documentary that highlighted the various clashing points of views of contemporary regenerative practice, linguistics of ecology, and the very relationship of art and ecology. This relationship was best formulated by Michael Marder’s speech in which the philosopher refers to art as being connected to articulation—rather than the artificial, as is most commonly used. Here, contemporary art served as the connecting force of communion, creating a bridge of understanding between the village residents, the festival’s visitors, and the people of the regenerative project.
Interestingly, both the Mater exhibition and the Pela Terra festival draw on the ecological practice and the mixed rural communities of their respective bases in Montemor and Idanha. The featured artworks present the beginning of new artistic methodologies of care for the Earth—methodologies that seem to be growing out of the particular precarious environment of Portugal and that adopt a love-rather-than-hate counterpoint to globally felt climate anxieties. In this, the Mater exhibition provides a defining direction, led by Fróis’ work as an artist and as a facilitator at Oficinas do Convento, with both her artistic work and the Convento community considered pioneering in the contemporary ecological art movement in the country. The community basis of both Mater and Pela Terra is likewise significant, considering the predominance of ecological projects being based on communal living and the known sustainability of this communality— something the younger Idanha-à-Vida project is yet to attain in the longer term.
Perhaps therefrom also stems this shared preoccupation with methodologies of care and love, which was best reflected in a repeated phrase by Pela Terra artists Sérgio Carronha, Maja Escher, and Fernando Roussado: “There is no need for art here. It is already beautiful.”Their works showed therefore minimal intervention in the environment—a notable shift from the ecovention approach of earlier eco-art.
The three artists’ approaches diverged thereafter, finding different answers to the problem of “articulating themselves” in their reluctant engagement with their surroundings.
Sérgio Carronha found his answer to this problem by repeatedly walking the trail until settling on a feeling of care for the people who will walk it henceforth. His Ponto Chave  installations are made out of found materials, primarily poplar branches, painted in the artist’s signature natural pigment-coloured dotted patterns and scattered across the entirety of the trail. These included walking sticks placed on the bottom of a steep hill; the shell of a tree trunk placed in the midst of the hill, providing a point of rest during the climb; and sculptures showing the trail directions or which path not to take. The largest piece was a tipi-shaped shelter in the midst of the part of the walk that receives the most direct sunlight, created in collaboration with Escher, who worked on the covering fabrics—coloured in natural soil pigments and beeswax drops that made the sunlight shimmer to the delight of children, who were first to enter the shelter in curiosity.
Maja Escher’s main piece, Ave Mai , likewise formed a shelter, even though its investigation process was somewhat different. It is a continuation of her large-scale textile structure submerso/percolação da água , exhibited in Mater. This earlier piece features a wall of pigment-coloured textiles, hung from hazelnut and eucalyptus twigs and engraved with beeswax through patterns and sentences. Created largely in situ, the work plays with our perception of light and shade, inadvertently, and perhaps unintentionally, positioning the viewer in the state of a species in direct relation with sunlight, rather than from the anthropocentric point of view we are used to.
Escher takes this aspect of her work even further at Pela Terra, with Ave Mai investigating the “dance” that various elements make in the wind. Playing with its locus at a windy site on top of a hill, the work forms an abstract bird tied with raw cotton strips to various more-than-human entities—a rock, the stem of a tree, a branch, a stem of high grass—all dancing in community through the epicentre of the Ave Mai. Its reaction to the problem of articulation is similarly based on the artist’s attention to her surroundings. Conceptually, it highlights the commonality, whether in togetherness or in opposition, of various more-than-human and—when we touch or enter the shelter—human entities.
Fernando Roussado’s Bento  takes an even more conceptual approach, being located at the one part of the trail that is most obviously touched by the human hand: at what previously was an horta and today is a water reservoir with an abandoned hunting cabin. The sculpture exists in an expanded spaceof a triangle that intersects the oval shape of the pond. Roussado hand-carved the sculpture from a fallen oak further down the trail—shaping the trunk of the tree into the stock and grip of an oversized hunting rifle and its branches into the walking sticks that hunters from Idanha historically used to hunt wild pigs. The hunting weapon seems to float just above the water, facing the one place from which it is not clearly visible—the very place where the trail enters the clearing. The sculptural field forms a triangle with its third axis to the hunting cabin—the perfect location if you are to shoot at Bento itself.
Playing with the geometry of the space, Roussado’s work interacts with the circle of life that the oval of the pond represents by creating a kill-or-be-killed triangular tension that is inherent in nature, whether we wish to accept it or not. This unsettling tension is completed by nature itself, with Bento being best experienced if you sit still next to the sculpture, allowing the pond to spring to life with the tiny frogs, dragonflies and water snakes that appear once you are still enough.
Seeing the three artists’ works together, three different interpretations of care—and thereby love—for Earth emerge. For Carronha, this articulation of care is directed to those who are walking the trail: the people who make up the human part of life on Earth, with his works forming the red thread of this excellent trail-as-exhibition. Escher’s work is instead concerned with articulating the dance, the expressionist core of communal love, of human and non-human elements. For Roussado, this articulation concerns the potential tension of the life-and-death cycle that the love relationship holds, regardless of whether we choose to play an active role in it or not, coupled with the encouragement to pay attention—the foundational act of love and care—to the life around us.
Considering Mater as the guiding rod of ecological contemporary art in Portugal, it shows yet other symbiotic formulations of care and love. Consisting of a myriad of small details with its numerous small, carefully made objects from twigs, earth, clay, ceramics, beeswax, salt, bricks, tiles, rocks, cotton fabric, thread, rope, and some photography, it draws our attention to the value of attentive research and the caring articulation that follows. This is perhaps best encapsulated in Virgínia Fróis’ suspended sculpture pêndulo , positioned in the cubic elevator-like space that bridges the two floors. An upside-down cone is suspended at the very top, half-filled with water that must have slowly been dripping down—too slowly to be visible to the naked eye, but leaving a coloured trace inside the ceramic sculpture. Directly underneath is an entirely round container, likewise suspended and this time with its content hidden in shadows. One layer down is yet another cone, similarly half-filled with water, until the vertical structure reaches its conclusion with a circle of cracked earth on the ground floor. The work gives the perception of a meditation on the slow watering process of the Earth itself—perhaps alluding to the patient care needed to re-water the dry lands of Portugal. Fróis' other works, abrigo , pião , and o chão que pisamos , boast a similar connection to watering structures, containers, and tools that mediate between the human and the land. The latter, for example, shows two opposite squared pieces of land: the first, dark and filled with growth, is supported by an irrigation system connected to a bucket hanging beside; the other, dry, light and inactive.
Marta Castelo’s escrita da cidade , on the bottom floor, draws on human interaction and ways of living with bricks, outlining structures of human buildings which clearly differ from those we usually encounter by the care given to their interconnection with what seems to represent a well. Their geometrical positioning uses straight angles without entirely fencing off any section of the village, as if resisting the Western destructive practice where borders made through roads and walls destroy the natural migration and movement of wildlife and water. The strongest impression of Mater is, however, not any singular work but the pieces together with their aesthetic, speaking of the long-term research that has brought care to the artists’ encounter with nature—a calm of meditative understanding, peace and slowness that necessarily acts as a driving force for any sustainable regenerative, ecological, or environmental action we may take.
Taking one step closer to questions of human perception are Gustavo Ciríaco’s and Evgenia Emets’ performative trails at Pela Terra, both articulating our understanding of our surroundings. Ciríaco’s Lingua de Terra is firmly based on the artist’s theatric practice and anthropologic background, combining research, movement, drawings, and audience participation. Activated by Ana Trincão, who has previously worked with Ciríaco on several performances, the walk takes its audience around the outskirts of the village, speaking about different ways of perceiving our surroundings. At each stopping point, Trincão shows one of Ciríaco’s drawings, gives some context and invites the participants to join in a physical exercise. One point traces the history of the Earth from the time of its beginning, 4.5 billion years ago, through steps that show the relationship of different points of time; another speaks of the arc of time and the ancestral nature of the future by walking backwards and paying attention to the landscape opening up in the opposite direction, allowing us to predict what is to come.
Lingua da Terra also challenges our understanding of when and how our senses are activated: if we are in a vertical position, it is our ears that are activated; if we lean forward, our sense of smell activates; and if we lie down, it is the palate that is most active. In other words, it is not only where we are, but also how we are in relation to the world around us that defines our perception and relationship to all that is on Earth—drawing attention to our position and action that any act of care or love would require.
Evgenia Emets’ work Ser Terra? similarly asks us to reconsider our perceptions of the Earth by reflecting on the world from the Earth’s point of view through calligraphy-painted flags, each with a question that we are asked to suppose the Earth poses to us and a poem that the artist reads out. The questions—such as “When is my time?”, “Where is my wilderness?”, and “Where is my medicine?”—challenge the participants to engage with an Earth-centric rather than anthropocentric perspective. At the final stop, Emets performed a tea ceremony and gave out ink and brushes, asking each participant to pose a question back to Earth. Despite the art trail’s attempt to go beyond the anthropocentric, most articulations and worries considered the “we” and the “I”: “How can I meet you?”, “Are we doing right?” Most striking was a question posed by one of the residents of the village, who joined a small post-festival excursion around the trail which saw Emets’ questions creating mutual understandings between the village residents and the regenerative project’s participants. After a few minutes of silence, clearly thinking of the extreme decrease of water that Idanha has experienced over the past 50 years, she asked: “Why did you not warn us before?”
Together, all these pieces are reformulating and re-articulating a new understanding and artistic language of the human-Earth relationship. It is a language based on care, patience, and attention—the very basis of the love that is a prerequisite if we are to stop the destruction of the planet we inhabit and find the healing act of love that bell hooks speaks about. Articulating thereby love as a healing force also in environmental action, the artists in Mater and Pela Terra are showing us the way towards new beginnings, understandings, and possibilities for the future of life on Earth.
Maria Kruglyak is a researcher, critic and writer specializing in contemporary art and culture. She is editor-in-chief and founder of Culturala, a networked art and cultural theory magazine that experiments with a direct and accessible language for contemporary art. She holds an MA in Art History from SOAS, University of London, where she focused on contemporary art from East and South East Asia. She completed a curatorial and editorial internship at MAAT in 2022 and currently works as a freelance art writer.
Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro.
Mater . Exhibition views, Pavilhão Branco. Photography: Bruno Lopes. Courtesy: Galerias Municipais de Lisboa.
Pela Terra . Photography: Nuno Barroso. Courtesy: Pela Terra & Duarte Martins.
This included a commissioned reading by novelist Joana Bértholo on the past, present, and future of the village, a contested and, at the time, debate-causing documentary screening of Ganado o Desierto; trails with ecologist Justin Roborg-Söndergaard on the water-focused regenerative work of Idanha-à-Vida and with archaeologists Tiago Lourenço and José Cristóvão on the history of the village from the perspective of the trees; musical performances and/or workshops with Mariana Root, Pedro Calado, Não És Tu Sou Eu, Banha da Cobra and the Adufe study group of the village; as well as a roundtable discussion including some of the previous participants, philosopher Michael Marder, and architect and art mediator Matilde Seabra.
Bill McKibben, for example, speaks of the “correlation between human community and healing the environment,” as Krista Tippett puts it in her public radio conversation with McKibben “The Moral Math of Climate Change,” in On Being (10 December 2009). In McKibben’s words, “maybe you start cooking more and better yet, cooking for a bunch of people at one time, which means you have your neighbors over or you figure out how to share cooking and have the pleasure of. … In the end, it’s strong communities that are efficient, that replace consumptive pleasure with deep human pleasure, that allow us to imagine a future that actually works.”
In conversation with the artists at Pela Terra, as well as thereafter on the phone. This conflicting sentiment was curiously echoed by the founder of Idanha-à-Vida, Tobias Rihs, who, despite inviting Martins to curate Pela Terra, was uncertain of the role contemporary art could play in an environment he loved to walk in as it was.
Ecovention refers to Amy Lipton and Sue Spaid’s language. See e.g. Sue Spaid, Ecovention: Current Art to Transform Ecologies (Contemporary Arts Center, 2002). This shift may be seen in parallel to the climate action movement’s shift from being based on the fear caused by the current climate emergency to love for the planet, as well as the simultaneous shift in philosophy driven by queer theory. As bell hooks refers to in All About Love: New Visions (Harper Perennial, 2001; p. 209), it is only love that has the “the power to change everything.”
The idea of expanded sculptural space refers to Rosalind Krauss’ concept in “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (October, 1979), where she defines conceptual sculpture as interacting not only with its physical context but also with its “expanded” concept, in the various relationships between spaces.
The title Bento comes from a local hunter that Roussado was introduced to in his childhood. Bento hunted much less than the other hunters, making the sculptor mythologise him as the kind, considerate hunter who only killed when he needed to.