Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on December 15, 2009 by permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Hillstrom Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Winds of Inspiration, Winds of Change

by Donald Myers

 

Who has seen the wind?
(title and repeated line from an 1893 children's poem by Christina Rossetti)
 
Voiceless it cries, wingless flutters, toothless bites, mouthless mutters
(riddle posed by Gollum to Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, 1937, by J. R. R. Tolkien)

 

Winds of Inspiration, Winds of Change is an exhibition about wind and, more specifically, about windmills and, especially, their modern descendants, wind turbines -- those magnificent, disturbing, compelling, alarming sentinels that march across more and more vistas as the power of wind is explored and embraced as a crucial element in the global energy and climate crises. (right: Elaine Rutherford, Windsong, 2009, Mixed media on panel, 24 x 48 inches)

Participants in this invitational exhibit were asked to contribute an artwork that relates in some way, thematically or aesthetically, to wind turbines and/or their ancestors, windmills. Winds of Inspiration, Winds of Change deals with wind turbines both as environmentally sensitive structures and as objects with a powerful, sublime presence. It also is concerned with the older windmill, a well-established element in art with various symbolic meanings, including as an inspirational symbol and as an indication of humankind's dominion over nature -- as it's frequently encountered in seventeenth-century Dutch painting, for instance. The exhibition thus references aesthetics, technology, the history of art, and the environment.

Each participating artist is represented by her or his artwork and an artist statement (which are reproduced in this exhibition catalogue). Artists were asked to address in their statements their interest in the wind turbine and windmill theme, perhaps indicating how, in the creation of their work, that theme came into play.

Nearly fifty artists from across the state are exhibiting in Winds of Inspiration, Winds of Change, including invited faculty from Minnesota colleges and universities, and local artists from the St. Peter and Mankato area. In the former group are faculty artists from Gustavus Adolphus College, as well as artists from Bemidji State University, Bethany Lutheran College, Bethel University, Carleton College, Concordia College, Macalester College, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, the University of Minnesota-Morris, Minnesota State University-Mankato, the College of St. Scholastica, the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University, St. Catherine University, St. Mary's University, St. Olaf College, and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. The Hillstrom Museum of Art thanks all the artists for sharing their fine work.

Winds of Inspiration, Winds of Change is presented in anticipation of the expected installation of one or more wind turbines on or near the Gustavus Adolphus College campus. The exhibition is expected to raise awareness of turbines and their value as an alternative energy source by placing them in a cultural, historical and artistic context. The exhibit is also meant to consider that, although wind is a clean source of energy, there are some less than positive aspects of wind turbines that must be recognized. The Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, which is active in developing and supporting wind energy, has generously provided funds to help sponsor this project.

In conjunction with Winds of Inspiration, Winds of Change, the Museum will sponsor a lecture by Arthur K. Wheelock, Curator of Northern Baroque Painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., an expert on Dutch painting, especially of the seventeenth century. He will consider the frequently occurring image of windmills in Dutch art from that era, allowing comparisons to be drawn with contemporary wind turbine artworks that are becoming more prevalent today. Wheelock's lecture, which is titled "The Windmill: Its Varied Functions and Symbolic Associations in Dutch Art," is free and open to the public and will be presented at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, November 1 in Wallenberg Auditorium, Nobel Hall of Science. (right: Jason Elliott Clark, The Source of Wind, 2009, Relief and monotype on paper, 22 x 30 inches)

Just as windmills did in the past, wind turbines are today altering the character of the landscape. And one can turn to art historical terminology regarding landscapes to find a concept that illuminates the effect that viewing a wind turbine often has on the artistic sensibility. The "sublime" is a concept described and developed by eighteenth-century English philosopher Edmund Burke, who was interested in the powerful feelings of awe, majesty, and even fear that mountains, cataracts, gorges, and other dramatic formations in the landscape can cause in viewers. Many Romantic artists of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century sought to bring to their art that sort of thrill, which is similar to what many experience when seeing a wind turbine off in the distance. It's a disconcerting sensation that combines our appreciation of the grace and beauty of the turbine with dawning recognition of its immensity of scale. Such a feeling can be enthralling, and even potentially dangerous if, as seems to be a common experience, it occurs while driving and suddenly spying a wind farm off to the side of the road.

The immensity of wind turbines is, in a very fundamental way, frightening. A similar "sublime" effect occurs in The Colossus (Prado, Madrid), a dark, romantic image of a giant, long attributed to Spanish painter Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828). The Colossus depicts a gargantuan monster of immense, human form whose appearance over the horizon strikes sheer, instinctual terror in people and animals shown in the foreground of the painting, causing them to flee in mindless panic. In a similar manner, enormous wind turbines are also awe-inspiring and frightening. And often one can hardly look away from them because, unlike Goya's hideous monster, wind turbines are graceful and elegant in form, like enormous modern sculptures.

Turbines are thus visually exciting, even without recognition of their ecological value. And they are perhaps all the more fascinating because of the fleeting, ephemeral nature of wind, a force that can range from gentle and pleasant to powerfully devastating (as any one associated with Gustavus Adolphus College will know, because of the highly destructive tornado of March, 1998). Due to wind's particular nature, it is not surprising that it has been personified in myth and art. As early as the eighth-century B.C. with the Greek poet Hesiod, the winds were given names and mythological personifications, and were associated with the cardinal directions. In ancient Greek art, Boreas, the harsh north wind, was often depicted as a winged old man, sometimes (following the lead of the second-century A.D. Greek geographer Pausanius) with snakes instead of feet. Zephyrus, his gentler brother, the fertilizing god of the warm western wind of spring, was often imagined as a young man with a pleasant face, as he was shown later by Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) in two of his most iconic paintings, the Primavera (Spring) and the Birth of Venus (both Uffizi, Florence). In the former, Zephyrus pursues the springtime nymph Chloris, and from their union the fertile ground bears flowers. In the latter, his gentle breath wafts the newly born Venus to shore.

Personifications like the wind gods Zephyrus and Boreas are ways to show the source or cause of wind, but the effects of wind have also been of interest to artists, perhaps most notably in the proliferation of windmills depicted in Dutch painting of the seventeenth century. Although the first known windmill dates to an earlier time and different place- eastern Persia around the ninth century A.D.-- it is in the Netherlands that windmills became so common as to be emblematic. A notable example of the windmill's appearance in Dutch art is The Mill (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), painted between 1645 and 1648 by the great Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). A pensive depiction of a mill atop a high cliff and silhouetted against a darkening sky, the painting effectively deifies the windmill, making it an icon of progress and of humankind's ability to control nature.

The thousands of windmills in the Netherlands were used for a variety of purposes, including the all-important task of draining coastal lands, and the windmill soon became a symbol of the Dutch and their resourcefulness. It also took on various other symbolic meanings, including religious and political ones, associations with temperance, and, especially noteworthy, as a quasi-religious emblem of the spirit that, like the wind that turns a mill, brings life and spirituality to humans. An emblem book from 1625 by seventeenth-century Dutch writer and publisher Zacharias Heyns includes an image of a windmill with the heading "Spiritus vivificat," or, roughly, "the spirit gives life," a phrase used by Christ in the Gospel of John 6:63: "It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless." Heyns' windmill emblem also has a Dutch subtext that translates "The letter kills, but the spirit gives life," a further Biblical consideration, from 2 Corinthians 3:6, of the idea that the breeze that moves the windmill is like the spirit that provides the soul of humankind. (right: Pam Bidelman, les totems dans le soleil, 2009, Oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches)

For many, the wind turbine is like the windmill, also highly emblematic, and embraced as a hopeful symbol, an indication of the spirit of renewal of both the earth's environment -- through the turbine's ability to supply energy that will not pollute with carbon -- and of our nation's economy, as wind energy becomes more prevalent and provides jobs in the industry.

But unlike with the general embracing of windmills by the Dutch (who apparently had no aesthetic or technophobic qualms regarding the structures, but viewed them as ingenious and beneficial devices), today's wind turbines certainly have critics. Some of the most frequently-voiced concerns have to do with the aesthetics of turbine structures in the landscape; with noise and possible health concerns for those who live near turbines; with the ecological effect of turbines on wildlife, birds in particular; with the effect fields of turbines have on the ability of radar to read the weather and correctly detect aircraft; and with the cost and viability of wind as an energy source.

Aesthetics are difficult to argue, since they are related to personal taste. Many find the view of a field of gently turning turbines to be appealing, while others find their presence to be marring of the landscape. Aesthetics, moreover, can be changeable, and what might now seem new and strange, and maybe disturbing, may in a matter of a few years become completely accepted. For example, skyscrapers when they first appeared were, to some, alarming, hideous monstrosities, but they are now widely admired. One of the artists in this exhibition described his grandfather telling about how reluctant many farmers were to rural electrification in the 1930s, believing that the power lines and poles would somehow injure or kill their livestock, an attitude that now seems quaint but was a real concern at that time. Power lines soon became a common part of the countryside, as did the windmills that were used to pump water, and these became part of the scenery depicted in art of the era, such as landscapes with electrical lines by American Scene artist Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) or the Self-Portrait by Regionalist Grant Wood (1891-1942) that shows him standing in front of a windmill (Figge Art Museum, Davenport, Iowa).

Often the issue of the aesthetics of wind turbines is closely related to property values and the belief that a new structure like a turbine will lower them. But as was noted in a summary of a 2007 report from the National Research Council, a division of the National Academies of Sciences (the summary can be found at http://dels.nas.edu/dels/rpt_briefs/wind_energy_final.pdf), the effect of turbines on property values will naturally diminish as they become an accepted part of the landscape.

In many places, this has yet to occur. In England there has been distinct opposition to wind farms, particularly in rural areas that rely economically on tourism and are loathe to have modern structures such as turbines looming over their charming, old-fashioned villages and the surrounding countryside. In 2003, readers of Country Life magazine, in fact, voted wind farms as the worst eyesore in the English countryside. Another notable campaign of opposition to wind turbines, in the U.S., came from Cape Cod residents who did not want a wind farm to be located in the Nantucket Sound beyond their shores. The late Senator Edward Kennedy, whose family's compound in the area would have had a view of the turbines, was a strong opponent of the so-called Cape Wind project, estimated to have the capacity to supply around 75% of the energy needs of Cape Cod and Nantucket Island. As was reported in The Boston Globe in 2006, Kennedy even arranged for a secret "poison-pill" to use against the project, by quietly adding to an unrelated bill an amendment that would give Massachusetts' governor-a wind farm opponent-authority to veto wind farm projects. Environmentalists were appalled, including Barbara Hill, executive director of the grassroots organization Clean Power Now (www.cleanpowernow.org), who appeared in a clip on an episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in August 2007 that also featured video of Kennedy stating, "We all know I'm for wind energy. We have successful wind energy onshore; we ought to have wind energy off shore; but we ought to do it right. And THAT [Cape Wind] is not right!" In such cases, an attitude of "not in my back yard" seems to be in play. The value of non-carbon-emitting turbines for power is recognized-but put them somewhere else.

Denmark has been a leader in developing wind power, and also in creating a positive aesthetic attitude towards turbines and well-designed wind farms. The country in the 1970s relied almost completely on foreign oil for its power, but the Danes made a concerted campaign to become energy self-sufficient, basing their efforts heavily on an abundant natural resource, their strong winds. Denmark is now virtually independent from outside energy and, not incidentally, is a leader in the manufacture of turbines. Denmark also leads in development of philosophical approaches towards planning and design of turbines and wind farms, an example of which is a 1996 study by Frode Birk Nielsen titled Wind Turbines & the Landscape, Architecture and Aesthetics. A preface to that study, "The Music of the Landscape," notes how medieval castles in Denmark, now a part of the historical and visual heritage of the country, were erected in high, visible places where construction today would certainly not be allowed-taking up the same theme discussed above, of the gradual acceptance of change to the landscape. The text suggests that wind farms can "'activate' the experience of nature," continuing with the author's belief that "we will accept the wind turbine in the long run and finally consider them not only a way to ensure cheaper energy but also an element in the landscape on par with water mills, sluices, bridges and cranes. They take on a functional and aesthetic value which helps us to perceive them as beautiful-as 'music in the landscape.'" (left: Bruce McClain, Night Winds, 2009, Acrylic on canvas, 54 x 72 inches)

Some who criticize wind turbines do so on the grounds of perceived health risks from the structures. Dr. Nina Pierpont is a pediatrician in New York with an extensive website devoted to what she calls "Wind Turbine Syndrome" (www.windturbinesyndrome.com). She presents complaints from people living near turbines in several locations, problems that include disturbance of sleep, headache and nausea, difficulty concentrating, episodes of panic, and others. Pierpont's study, not surprisingly, has been assailed by the wind industry, including both the American Wind Energy Association and the British Wind Energy Association. The latter has suggested that Pierpont's study methods were unscientific since they were based mainly on a small sampling size of only ten households. Gerry Meyer of Brownsville, Wisconsin, whose farm and household are presented on Pierpont's website, has earnestly described a range of health and other problems.

But, according to a recent article in USA Today, one of Meyer's neighbors, Rudy Jaeger, who has a turbine on his own farm, thinks the complaints are exaggerated, claiming that the noise levels are no worse than the sound of traffic. One artist in this exhibition noted how pleasant she finds the swooshing sound of turbine blades to be, while another, who spent extensive time in a wind farm while working on his print, commented on how quiet the turbines sounded to him. The British Wind Energy Association suggests that health issues from turbines are not widespread, noting that there is no evidence of "Wind Turbine Syndrome" from countries like Denmark, where turbines are much more common than in most other places.

The effects on health of turbines and their noise remain under investigation, including at a conference held in Aalborg, Denmark this June, sponsored by the Aalborg University Acoustics Department and part of a series of conferences "devoted to exploring the origins, propagation and effects of wind turbine noise" (www.windturbinenoise2009.org). Certainly a reasonable standard for locating turbines in relation to existing residences needs to be set. But it seems clear that different people react differently to the noise and the effects of wind turbines.

Ecological concerns about wind turbines are particularly centered on their effect on birds. Critics fear that there will be significant numbers of deaths of birds from collision with spinning turbine blades, and that there could also be negative effects on migratory patterns. However, the summary of the 2007 report from the National Research Council cited above found "no evidence of significant impacts on bird populations" at the current level of wind turbines in the U. S. It notes that while around one billion birds are estimated to be killed annually by human structures, in 2003 only 37,000 or fewer died from collisions with wind-energy facilities. And the United Kingdom's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (www.rspb.org) does not oppose wind turbines when placed responsibly, favoring them over other, climate-altering energy sources: "We believe that climate change represents the biggest long-term threat to birds and other wildlife, and view renewable energy technologies, including wind power, as an important part of the solution. However, we must ensure that our most important wildlife sites are not put at risk by such developments."

Ecological concerns about the safety of bats have also been raised, although newer designs of turbines have led to far less roosting of bats on or near them. There remains a concern that the lungs of bats are susceptible to a sometimes-fatal injury called "barotrauma" that occurs when bats pass through low-pressure areas caused by the tips of turbine blades. Also, there seems to be some failure of the bat's echolocation system when it encounters moving turbines, with the bat not always able to recognize the danger because its usual method of detection of obstacles has become less effective.

This phenomenon is similar to a separate concern regarding turbines, the fact that, especially in groups of wind farms, they can play havoc with weather and aircraft radar systems. Recent innovations, however, have allowed radar to distinguish between aircraft and turbines, and once the positions of wind farms are properly considered, Doppler radar will likely be able to recognize the difference between a turbine and a tornado. Dave Zaff, a science and operations officer with the National Weather Service who was quoted in a recent Associated Press report, suggests that 99% of the time, wind farms will pose no problem, and that forecasters the rest of the time would err on the side of caution in issuing weather alerts.

The cost and viability of wind energy has, until relatively recently, been a major hurdle in its acceptance, but several factors have served to increase wind's appeal. Among these are improved technology, concerns about rising costs and environmental effects of carbon-based energy, and an embracement of wind power by those with political power. Not only are turbines better designed than formerly, making them more efficient, but also there are improvements being made to the energy grid, which allows power collected at a turbine to be transferred and stored, so that it is unnecessary for all the power generated to be used immediately and in the same location whence it comes. There has been an impression that wind power can only supply a fraction of needed energy, but, as was noted in a article in the online version of Time magazine in June, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science has "found that current technology could harness enough power to supply more than forty times the planet's present-day levels of electricity consumption," and that there is enough wind power in the prairies of the Midwest to supply as much as sixteen times the current demand for electricity in all of America.

More and more people, including elected officials and members of the energy industry, are seeking ways to make wind power a more central part of the solution to energy needs. President Obama showed strong support for wind power during his presidential campaign, and on Earth Day this April he announced that his administration would create a program that will lead to offshore wind energy projects (perhaps including the Massachusetts Cape Wind project that Senator Kennedy opposed). Obama has noted that not only would such a program help improve the climate situation, but also it would create many jobs, thus aiding in economic recovery. Controversial graphic artist Shepard Fairey, whose Hope posters depicting Obama were a notable presence during the presidential race, has recently designed a similarly iconic image with the caption "Clean Energy for America" and a depiction of wind turbines set against a majestic, mountainous backdrop. It is available as a sticker that is part of the "Power Up America" campaign recently launched by MoveOn.org, a political activist organization strongly in favor of development of wind energy.

There is clearly great potential for wind power to help in solving energy and climate concerns. The subject will surely be a large part of discussions to occur at the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference, to be held in Copenhagen in December 2009, in which representatives from around 170 governments are expected to participate. One of several pictures on the opening web page for the conference (www.cop15.dk) is a photograph of a wind turbine towering over a verdant landscape, with a rainbow in the background. It's a hopeful image that suggests that wind power -- though not without its problems and detractors -- has enormous potential for a positive impact on our current energy and pollution crises.

"Who has seen the wind," asks the poet Rossetti, and we know that we have all seen it, through its ability to affect everything it touches even though, as in Gollum's riddle, it has neither a voice nor a mouth, nor wings for its flight, nor teeth for its bite. Artists in this exhibition help us to see the wind as a powerful force, a kind of renewing spirit that can be harnessed for the benefit of all.

 

About the author

Donald Myers is Director of the Hillstrom Museum of Art.

 

Combined Check List/Artist Statements for the exhibition

Please click here to view Combined Check List/Artist Statements for the exhibition

 

Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on December 15, 2009 with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on December 13, 2009. The essay was written in connection with an exhibition titled Winds of Inspiration, Winds of Change, held at the Hillstrom Museum of Art September 14 through November 8, 2009.

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