Can painting cairns be considered a form of environmental art?

painting cairns

The act of stacking stones atop one another, either intentionally or by accident, is among our most ancient artistic practices. Cairns, as they are commonly known, serve a variety of purposes in different places around the world—from marking trails to aiding navigation, to memorializing the dead. They can be found on every continent and are a beloved hiking feature in many national parks, particularly those that have to deal with rugged terrain and a lot of precipitation.

While rock-stacking is often considered an art form, it is a controversial practice in some instances, most especially when done on public lands. In fact, it is generally frowned upon—even illegal, in some cases—to build cairns without authorization on national parks and other protected areas. While some cairns are a great way to mark a trail, others serve no purpose at all and just end up being obstacles for hikers or even creating dangerous conditions.

It is also important to note that, when they are removed from their natural habitats in order to be built, painting cairns can negatively affect ecosystems by destroying the homes of numerous species. For example, fish, amphibians, and insects in rivers and streams depend on the crevices and hollows between rocks for shelter. If those rocks are taken away to make cairns, they disrupt the entire habitat.

Can painting cairns be considered a form of environmental art?

This brings us to the question: Can painting cairns be considered a form of environmental art? To answer this question, we need to understand what environmental art is and the role it plays in contemporary culture. Environmental art is defined as art that takes into account the environmental impact of a work and the role that artists play in affecting social and ecological change. It is a movement that began in the 1990s when artists started to think about their environment not just as lived or built space, but as a cohesive system where humans play an important part.

Artists who create works that are considered environmental art often use natural materials such as flowers, leaves, ice, branches, dirt, sand, stone, and water as the very basis of their artwork. By situating their works in specific locations, they seek to transform the way that site is viewed while simultaneously disclosing what was previously there. This requires that observers and audiences rethink how they see their surroundings and pay closer attention to the minute and distinct parts that comprise what we tend to overlook as a coherent environment.

In this context, it makes sense that someone like Bryson would be interested in addressing the issue of cairns by painting them. While the process may not seem like a direct intervention into the landscape, it is an exploration of how the practice of creating rock piles can be used as a tool to engage with the broader issues of climate, community, and Indigenous caretaking and knowledge. Moreover, it serves as a reminder that cairns are not just cultural symbols of the land, but also signs of human stewardship and care.

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