“I want to bring hope. As we come out of a period of sadness, I want to make art that encourages people to slow down, to leave their screens and look at nature, to find solace in the world around us.” Artist and sculptor Jean-Michel Othoniel has long been celebrated for his large-scale, jewel-like outdoor floral works, with La Rose des Vents recently unveiled as a permanent piece in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and other sculptures held in the Louvre. His new exhibition this autumn in Paris’ Petit-Palais Garden and Museum explores the theme of Narcissus (the flower and ideas around reflection); it’s an explosion of beauty that Parisians have been waiting for since museums shut their doors, but also a celebration of nature, in which they have found solace. He is not alone in his mission.

As science amasses evidence for the power of nature to transform mood, enhance cognition and make us feel good, so artists are finding new ways to encourage and intensify this connection. “Such a relationship [with nature] brings solace on a biological level,” says psychiatrist Sue Stuart-Smith, it “shifts our brain to a different mode of attention, brings levels of cortisol down and activates our parasympathetic [rest] state, which calms and replenishes”.

Jean-Michel Othoniel is known for his large-scale, jewel-like sculptures
Jean-Michel Othoniel is known for his large-scale, jewel-like sculptures © Jean-Michel Othoniel / ADAGP, Paris & ARS, New York, 2021
Gold Lotus, 2019, by Jean-Michel Othoniel
Gold Lotus, 2019, by Jean-Michel Othoniel © Jean-Michel Othoniel / ADAGP, Paris & ARS, New York, 2021

This replenishment is something we’ve reached for intuitively in the pandemic, turning our gaze outdoors and tramping local parks and pathways. What is interesting, says Miles Richardson, professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness at Derby University, is that we weren’t simply visiting nature more – but more actively engaging with its detail and texture. A study he worked on with Natural England found that time spent in nature related to increased life satisfaction and happiness. However, he emphasises: “It was the increased noticing of nature that explained improvements in wellbeing rather than the increased number of visits to nature, which didn’t.” The deeper the engagement, the greater the benefit – and this, he continues, is where art can help. “It acts as a provocation or a prompt. It makes you pause. You notice, and appreciate.”

The notion of pausing is embodied by work that Edmund de Waal has made for the New Art Centre at Wiltshire estate Roche Court. Better known as a potter, de Waal found his artistic focus moving outside the studio during lockdown, and he created a set of monumental Hornton-stone benches for the grounds of Roche Court. Their name – the same he used for last year’s indoor and outdoor exhibition at the New Art Centre – is Tacet, the musical definition of a pause.

Edmund de Waal’s stone benches at the New Art Centre in Wiltshire
Edmund de Waal’s stone benches at the New Art Centre in Wiltshire © Edmund de Waal. Image Courtesy New Art Centre, Wiltshire

“I wanted to make a place to rest and look at the landscape,” he says. “Now there’s a crying need to be taken out of ourselves. Our lives have been diminished. We need a vista.” And what a vista the benches have, set in the estate’s sprawling acres of lawns, forest and rolling hills – glorious 18th-century landscaping. As you lose yourself in such a view, says Stuart-Smith in her book The Well-Gardened Mind, “there is a sense of losing the boundary of ourselves, and feeling at one with what we are looking at.”

This idea of being part of and integrally connected to the landscape – also voiced by Barbara Hepworth, whose Family of Man is on display this summer at Roche, as well as at Yorkshire Sculpture Park – is instrumental when it comes to the positive effects of nature, says environmental psychologist Greg Bratman. “It isn’t about simply considering how nature can benefit us,” he cautions. “The most profound positive changes come from a feeling of interconnectedness with nature as a whole.”

Big Be-Hide, 2019, by Alicja Kwade
Big Be-Hide, 2019, by Alicja Kwade © Maija Toivanen, HAM, Helsinki Biennial 2021
A sketch for Repeating Pattern, 2021, by Inga Meldere
A sketch for Repeating Pattern, 2021, by Inga Meldere © Courtesy Inga Meldere

Humanity’s place within Earth’s ecosystem underlies this summer’s inaugural Helsinki Biennial, The Same Sea. “We are all part of the same nature,” says director Maija Tanninen-Mattila. “We co-exist on a planet where everything affects everything else.” Held on Vallisaari, one of 330 islands in an archipelago off the Finnish capital, the biennial features work from 40 international artists (such as Katharina Grosse, Alicja Kwade and Laura Könönen), a third of which is outdoors. Three-quarters of the artworks are fresh commissions, inspired by the island’s contours – such as Tadashi Kawamata’s Vallisaari Lighthouse.

The artworks will be framed by “a marvellous ecosystem, with wild flowers and more than 1,000 species of butterfly,” Tanninen-Mattila continues – and by the Finnish weather. “The experience will change according to the sunlight or the cold rain. Expect it to be rugged. There are no cars. We’re telling people to bring their walking shoes.” This is an engagement with art where nature and weather are part of the experience.

Sea of Desire by Ed Ruscha
Sea of Desire by Ed Ruscha © Fondation Carmignac
Path of Emotions by Jeppe Hein
Path of Emotions by Jeppe Hein © Jeppe Hein/Fondation Carmignac

On a different island in another sea – the Ile de Porquerolles, a nature reserve just off the French Riviera – this summer’s Fondation Carmignac exhibition The Imaginary Sea is also hooked to the life aquatic. Curated by US writer Chris Sharp, it ‘“forefronts man’s relationship with the sea as an immense and precious resource – and with the wondrous species which inhabit it”.

Opened in 2018, Fondation Carmignac was born from financier Edouard Carmignac’s vision “of a place where artworks and nature could come together in communion”, his son Charles explains. The trove of works include pieces by Henri Matisse, Jeff Koons and Bruce Nauman – some outdoors, others within the Carmignac Villa, a gallery whose ceiling is a massive panel of water. Outside, The Imaginary Sea is complemented by Pebbles by Olivier Millagou, which requires donning scuba gear and diving underwater. “Painted tokens, like little talismans, are hidden in amazingly beautiful places on the seabed close to the coastline,” explains Charles. “Visitors can pick them up and keep them, like an Easter egg hunt.”

Sadly, we can’t all make it to an island, with ever more of us living in, and potentially these days confined to, the city. But in the urban metropolis, the connection to nature – and art – is ever more important. Foreshadowed by rus in urbe, the ancient Roman belief that towns should be planted with trees for citizens’ wellbeing, “a growing body of research and an upsurge in mental ill-health is finally persuading urban planners of the urgent need for nature connection”, says Gretchen Daily, director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project, adding that “city dwellers experience about a 40 per cent increase in mood disorders relating to depression compared to rural dwellers.”

She points to Bratman’s research on how nature exposure can enhance cognition (people solved problems faster), as well as reduce rumination (those circular, spooling thoughts characteristic of anxiety and depression). Outdoor art proves a similar wellbeing boost in the bustle of the city. “In urban environments there are many demands on our attention,” says Miles Richardson. “Urban art can be very effective to prompt people to engage and tune in.”

Miami Mountain, 2016, by Ugo Rondinone
Miami Mountain, 2016, by Ugo Rondinone © Zachary Balber/Courtesy The Bass, Miami Beach
Part of Abraham Cruzvillegas’s Agua Dulce at contemporary art museum The Bass in Miami
Part of Abraham Cruzvillegas’s Agua Dulce at contemporary art museum The Bass in Miami © Courtesy The Bass, Miami Beach

In Miami, The Bass museum is making wellbeing an explicit goal of Art Outside – an exhibition designed as a socially distanced artistic panacea. This public-art initiative features 45 works (such as Ugo Rondinone’s Miami Mountain) scattered across the city, with walking tours and “Wellness Wednesday” fitness programmes threading between them. One piece made in response to the pandemic is Abraham Cruzvillegas’ Agua Dulce, imagined as an oasis of health and consisting of more than 1,000 native Floridian plants, many historically used in healing practices.

And in New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, Berlin-based Claudia Wieser has created her first outdoor public work, a cluster of five geometric sculptures titled Rehearsal. Echoing de Waal, Wieser “invites the public to pause, and escape for a moment”, says curator Katerina Stathopoulou, describing Rehearsal as a kind of bridge in itself, one that creates a “dialogue with the tranquil landscape of the park and the dynamism of the city life of Brooklyn”.

This sense of reaching out to the public chimes with Othoniel, as he puts the final touches on the more than 70 new pieces for the Petit-Palais Garden display – as well as an exhibition at New York’s Perrotin gallery selling smaller-scale sculptures of his iconic outdoor works. “This show will be one of the first after Covid – I really want to give people a gift,” he says. “I want them to feel a new world is coming, to take the time to be in the garden and enjoy it – to help people discover an ‘after world’, after the pandemic, perhaps – but also to show a fresh experience of the garden as heaven, as paradise.” A place, in short, to feel better.

Where to see

Jean-Michel Othoniel, The Narcissus Theorem, Petit-Palais, Paris, 22 September-2 January. othoniel.fr

Edmund de Waal, Tacet, and Barbara Hepworth, Family of Man, New Art Centre, Wiltshire, ongoing exhibitions. sculpture.uk.com

Helsinki Biennial, The Same Sea, until 26 September. helsinkibiennaali.fi

Foundation Carmignac, The Imaginary Sea, Ile de Porquerolles, France, until 17 October. fondationcarmignac.com

The Bass, Art Outside, Miami, ongoing exhibition. thebass.org

Claudia Wieser, Rehearsal, Brooklyn Bridge Park, New York, from July. publicartfund.org

The Oak Project x Studio Morison, Silence – Alone in a World of Wounds, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, permanent installation, ysp.org.uk

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