Culture is economy. Culture is ecology. Today, nature and human culture intertwine at every level. To look to the future, design, production, development, and virtually all types of human activity must engage in a dialogue on the selection, use, and management of resources.

Economists, like artists, can use the world’s natural capital creatively and sustainably. Maria Rebecca Ballestra occupies a fascinating place at the crossroads of art in a time of change. Ballestra’s art is based on the processing and reinterpretation of social, political, and environmental themes. She seeks to change the coding of ethnicity to encourage intercultural realization of a language that embraces cultural nomadism, green technology, and the evolving global perspective of the twenty-first century. Often, her projects and the sites that she selects for her interventions are not traditional or centred on places that we associate with world culture, but include locations such as Ghana, China, Abu Dhabi, Brazil, the Mediterranean, Iceland, Mongolia, Wales, Madagascar, Costa Rica, and Singapore.

Through her travels and projects, Ballestra produces ephemeral expressions of a truly global diversity. When she decided to build a project that addresses the planet’s health and what humans can do to ensure its well-being, she initiated Journey into Fragility (2012-present). The places she chose were at risk, either culturally—in the case of indigenous populations—or biologically—in the case of flora and fauna. In a few instances, actions were already underway to improve the impact that humans have had in the Anthropocene Era.

Sowers (2019)
13 x 4 x 4 m, Ca’ Foscari, Venice
Photo: Venini

Sowers (2019) is situated in the open courtyard adjacent to the Venetian Gothic palace built in 1453 and designed by architect Bartolomeo Bon. It is now the seat of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Where Sowers stands is precisely where the Grand Canal is at its widest, and it is also where the Regata Storica takes place on the first Sunday of September. Like a portal or entrance to a new Anthropocene paradigm, the work’s steel-and-iron frame is an arch that serves as both architecture and sculpture. As public art, less focused on the sculpture as object and more on how sculpture can present zones of transition and transformation of our vision of civitas, Ballestra’s artwork is a natural continuation of the interests that she has pursued in her projects addressing global migration and sustainability, including the Festival for the Earth, initiated in 2016. Parenthetically, the Ca’ Foscari Palace, upgraded and restored in 2013 to focus on using green environmental practices, became the oldest building in the world to have received a LEED certificate for sustainability.

Sowers has become a symbol of permaculture practice. It integrates eight hundred glass tiles that were specially produced for the installation by Venini S.p.A., a world-famous glass producer, founded in 1921 by Venetian lawyer Paolo Venini and antique dealer Giacomo Cappellin, that is now represented in museums around the world. Venini became main sponsor of Sowers, bespeaking its commitment to the community, to nature, and to the future.

Through her travels and projects, Ballestra produces ephemeral expressions of a truly global diversity.

A closer look at Sowers reveals the remarkable variation of colours in the bands of glass tiles. They were produced in collabo­ration with father-and-son architectural team Elia and Lino Barone, and there are a variety of seed samples embedded within them. The seeds represent diversity and are analogous to those kept in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault situated near the town of Longyearbyen on the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen. The forty seed species in the glass tiles were selected from among the many plant species introduced to Europe via the Silk Road, famously used by Marco Polo, that wends its way from Asia. Like people, animals, and birds, plants migrated as part of a process of cultural evolution and exchange, and they transformed the ecology of the places where they were introduced. With global warming, the migration of species and life forms is occurring quite rapidly, though it is not always visible. Selected by the Padua Botanical Garden, the seed samples include tea, sesame, rhubarb, cotton, nutmeg, ginseng, asafetida, red sandalwood, jujube, grapevine, saffron, camphor, cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, ginger, and Indian sandalwood. The horizontal bands of glass squares that traverse Sowers resemble a close-up of a section of DNA, a self-reproducing material present in most living organisms. The main constituent of chromosomes, DNA carries genetic information. As symbolic an archway as it is visual and spatial enigma, Sowers establishes a new paradigm and place for art in the Anthropocene Era.

Cross-pollination, interdisciplinary exchange, and cultural exchange all modify what we could call the aesthetic of our era, on this stage of the theatre that is the planet from which we are inseparable. Resources, along with ecosystems, are increasingly stretched, threatened, or disappearing. Harmony is created by establishing connectivity between self and other, culture and nature. And as migrations are increasingly occurring in so many regions due to climate change, we have to accept that nature itself is sending a message to us. We have the best communications tools and the newest technologies, but they cause a physiological disconnect between ourselves and nature, even though we are ultimately perceptual beings, drawn to the visual and sensual aspects of screen-based and permaculture realities.

Ballestra is enabling communities, and individuals, to move beyond isolation, to communicate and connect into a global circuit of artists, scientists, business people, and technologists to deal with change in an era of global eco-crisis. As David Attenborough stated at Davos this past January, “The Garden of Eden is no more.”