by Polina Shubkina

Could you briefly describe your career? How did you get involved in the environmental art?

Barbara Benish (BB): It wasn't called environmental art when I started doing it. In my work, I always have been interested and involved with issues surrounding nature. When I first started coming to the Czech Republic, which was still Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, I was influenced by the work of some of the artists. In the book FORM, ART, AND THE ENVIRONMENT, Nathalie Blanc and I write about these artists in one chapter. The American Land Art scene was dealing with nature in a much more invasive way, it was almost using nature as a medium, instead of just a context. Artists like Ana Mendieta had a more participatory experience with nature, instead of landscape manipulation (Smithson and Heizer, USA). What I found with the Czech artists, Margarita Titlova, Štepanka Šimlova, Ivan Kafka, ... had a completely different approach to working with nature. When I came back to the United States, I began working with installations, with the space around nature without trying to manipulate it.

© Margita Titlova, "Krajina"-performance, Summer 1980

Tell us about your educational path?
BB: I always wanted to be an artist. There were no artists in our family, mainly farmers, so it was very unusual and strange that I wanted to do art. I was lucky to get scholarships out of high school, went to college with some false starts, but kept pursuing the arts. I went to the University of California and ended up graduating from the University of Hawaii; I moved to the South Pacific because I wanted to be involved with ethnography, which has been a parallel path in my life. At some point in Hawaii, I was able to study a living indigenous culture. This is why I was so interested in studying ancient and contemporary Hawaiian art. After that a received a scholarship to the National Royal Academy in Sweden, I spent a year in Stockholm; then I was in Mexico at the school for Fine Arts (Escuela de Bellas Artes en San Miguel de Allende). Finally, I came back to Claremont, California and did my graduate work there. That was a fantastic experience because there are five colleges there; I could study philosophy, social sciences, and not only focus on fine arts, which was a great opportunity.

©Barbara Benish, Věž”/Tower, (fabricated by Metlicek and Zajic, Hradesice), 2011. Recycling sculpture at Kampa Museum to collect e-waste materials

Could you please tell us about your most recent project?

BB: I think that, as an artist, we are always excited about the latest work. Usually, I am working on about five projects simultaneously. The one I am very interested in right now is the new video work, that's going to be dealing with Standing Rock, what's happening now at the Dakota protest. My work has gotten a lot more socially and politically engaged, this one is super radical, I will be doing the videos, standing on the grave sites of the corporate pipeline builders, and that's tied into some photographic and graphic work. It goes across mediums. 

The last big piece I did in Prague was a huge sculpture; that was installed at the banks of the Vltava river, by the Kampa Museum. It's called Tower, about 6 meters high, with wheels in circular tunnel shape that were built as a recycling center, serving both as sculpture and educational piece, informing the public about the electronic waste recycle. I wish this artwork would be permanent; it was a very challenging piece. Also at ArtMill (our NGO in šumava) we built a boat out of recycled plastic bottles and let it float down the Vltava river, in front of the museum to raise awareness about plastic in our waterways.

© Barbara Benish, 'Ubiquity', the University of Houston, 2011

 © Barbara Benish, 'Ubiquity', the University of Houston, 2011

Do you see any changes in the way the environmental issues awareness spreads among the general public globally and in the Czech Republic?

BB: I have been very fortunate to work globally. Even though for 25 years my studio was in the Czech Republic, I've been spending a lot of time in the US as well. I worked on a campaign with the United Nations on the effects of chemical waste, and that gave me an opportunity to do a lot of work all over the world. In November I was giving a lecture in FAMU (Prague), and I asked the audience, whether they know about the necessity of recycling, and the response was very positive, versus six years ago when we just started this campaign about plastic pollution. That said, plastic pollution is perhaps the easiest of all toxic chemicals to inform the public about, because we can see it; it has a form, it's something that everyone touches every day. It is a good place to start with public education because it's so obvious to everybody. The recent things that have happened, with the elections, are going to have a devastating effect on the environmental protection laws. But I remain optimistic, that is how I operate, we have to keep believing that we make progress with spreading the knowledge, that's why I am so committed to the education and outreach through the arts because that is the way to touch people's lives and make it personal. People are taking their heads out of the sand, because of the health issues, everybody knows someone who has cancer, or some other serious illnesses, and when we are starting to connect these dots with the chemicals and toxins in our environment, then people start changing their lives.

© Barbara Benish, boat out of recycled plastic bottles built by the ArtMill members 

Artists from your book, who inspire you the most?

BB: Margarita Titlova, I know her for thirty years, she is one of the early conceptual artists, working in nature, during the totalitarian times, when the border was closed... the way she uses the female body and integrates it into nature was radical. Milos Sejn had groundbreaking work, Milos Vojtechovsky, Stepanka Simlova, Adrienna Simotova (RiP), Vladimir Kokolia, Jana Prekova, and Lenka Klodova.

© Adriena Šimotová, Installations, Kampa Museum, 2011

What advice could you give to someone who wants to be a part of the change, but doesn't know how to make a difference?

BB: I always tell my students - get involved with any community groups, there is always something going on. Environmental groups, activist groups, artist groups, because once you get into a community the things just happen, the potential to change, when you are alone, is less than when you are working in the group. Reach out and get involved, doing a river clean up in your neighborhood, or doing a plastic pollution pick up. You will find creative people in these groups, whether they are artists or not, it’s not a big difference, it's the creativity that matters. 


Barbara Benish
Art Mill - Center for Sustainable Creativity | facebook page 
urbanautica Czech Republic