Is there truly any art that can surpass the beauty and majestic power of nature itself? Wasn’t it Neil Young who said “Nature is a monument to be preserved,” or words to that effect? The earth is neither object nor subject and we are a part of nature’s flow process. Denaturized, we perceive nature as distant from us. There is seldom a direct connection. The effects of technology and conditioned systems of data intake may have something to do with this incredible gap that now exists between nature and humanity. Like culture, nature has become an untouchable, a distant phenomenon we prefer not to engage with. Images of nature, images that represent culture are superseding the living culture. Why this image preference? Images enable a disconnect to occur between cause and effect, between social desires and global capital needs—scales that no longer have a dimensionality that accords with the ecosystems we humans are a part of.
Wheatfield with Agnes Denes standing in the field
Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan
© 1982 Agnes Denes
The disconnect from the physics of the world, something Denes’ art recognizes and confronts tends to works against nature and seen cumulatively against civilization. Nature, like humanity, has a memory. Nature designs effortlessly, and at no excess. Resource use is simply a cyclical life system. So many urban art projects involving nature are decorative and quite beautiful, but they do not encourage a sense of our links to nature and art has a firm footing in the philosophical and poetic intransigence of humanity—its blindspot being the way capital as an abstract concept transgresses earth value. Nature is so often a foil used for merchandising or marketing scheme. Agnes Denes planted Wheatfield — A Confrontation (May 1982) in Manhattan, two acres of wheat sited not far from what was the World Trade Centre’s location before 9/11. Just a block from Wall Street and facing Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, Wheatfield enabled city people to actually see the foodstuffs they eat growing where they live. The wheat harvested from the site went on to 28 world cities as part of the International Art Show for the End of World Hunger. Subsequently, the wheat grain was planted at various world sites in a gesture of symbolic solidarity for inequity, the consolidation of capital and the control and privatization of resource values by private enterprise.
Agnes Denes offered a more intuitive vision of working with the earth than most artists of that era, and a renewal of what art actions or events could be, with ephemeral, cyclical themes built into her art action this was pioneering work, less recognized in the male-dominated conceptual and minimal, even Land Art genres of the time. Her vision was less about disruption of the land, than an exchange with forces that we are a part of. Denes art enhances a re-connecting of self to other, the physical world to that we live in. The optics of such an approach is heightened in a world of internet “connectivity:” where our responsibility for the physical dimension is weakened by illusions bred in cyberspace. The theatre is in us, and it is perpetually changing… as if the change were a part of us. The body with its miraculous systems of healing and adaptability, cannot endure external pollution or contamination, just as it needs water to survive. The earth’s water systems are changing increasingly threatened by climate change…
Artists’ conceptions of working in and with the environment changed greatly since then, in part as a result of Agnes Denes initiatives. Agnes Denes’ Wheatfield (May 1982) pioneered this brand of public art—temporary yet permacultural in its intent. Later the artwork was harvested to make room for yet another billion-dollar luxury complex development, Denes’ amber field of wheat was unforgettable. The impact on the art world was immediate and controversial. Denes realizes intuitively nature needs no manifesto or ideology, and nature is the source of our sustenance. Nature will act independently of our beliefs, or concepts, our egos. Eco-systems, not ego-systems!
Presaging Wheatfields, was Denes’ art action Rice/Tree/Burial with Time Capsule (1968) at Artpark in Lewiston, New York. From 1977-79 the original work was re-enacted, and again in East London, England in 2009 as part of the Barbican’s Radical Nature show. The ritual gesture—part of the sowing and harvesting—brings us back to agrarian origins of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia, where notions of “wild” evolved in response to “cultivation” – hence civilization. All this plays a role in the artist Denes’ way of acting, being, and creating art works. She camped by the edge of Niagara Falls feeling the force of nature, nature’s incredible power and energy making the ground tremble with a consistent presence, ever awakening a realization of the fragility of life. As Denes comments,
“I planted rice to represent life (initiation and growth), chained trees to indicate interference with life and natural processes (evolutionary mutation, variation, decay, death), and buried my Haiku poetry to symbolize the idea or concept (the abstract, the absolute, human intellectual powers, and creation itself). These three acts constituted the first transitional triangulation* (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) and formed the Event. According to evolutionary theories, Event is the only reality, while the reality we perceive is forever changing and transforming in an expanding evolutionary universe in which time, space, mass, and energy are all interconnected and interdependent…”1
The action of this burial was symbolic. It carried with it a sense of the cycle of life, of how temporary our place, and the place living elements we are part of, in nature, really are. Trees can be identified as spirits… Interconnectivity between species and life forms was alluded to by various gestures, including a tree that was chained to the project. Trapping life, or exhuming spirits, we always seem to have a basic arrogance as humans. The lesson Agnes Denes’ artworks and actions emphasize is our need to live in harmony with nature, to understand the bio-feedback essence of ebb and flow that is life. Competition between species, and the presence, even violence of life’s natural systems, are part of the gesture.
Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule – 11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 Years (Triptych) 1992-1996, 1992/2013. Type-C print, 36 x 36 inches
© Agnes Denes, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York
As with all Agnes Denes’ works, there is a theatrical aspect, and affirmation that nature is a great theatre, art produced by humans being a minimal aspect of all that. Denes embroiders the land, cultivating some essence of our being with sources for living.
Burying a haiku poem, a minimal action re-energizes the original poetic identification and affirmation of the artist as a conscious actor in the nature theatre. Rice expresses a certain humility and is used all over the world as a source of sustenance. You can never bury a poem, only what the poem represents. It is a beautiful way of thinking t let the beauty flow back into a river of unconscious being.
In Ylöjärvi Finland, Denes created Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule (1992-1996), a landform (hidden Earth Art) and the event/ project inspired a truly worldwide collective action as 11,000 people planted 11,000 trees. Each participant received a certificate as recognition of their part in a collective earth action. This “mountain” (420 meters x 270 meters by 28 meters high) is protected by the people of Finland for 400 years on the artist’s request. As a landform, Mountain – A Living Time Capsule is an example of Anthropocentric positive action, the exact opposite of Clear Cuts—Denes’ art work in Finland is a Clear Plant, something we need to do more of, given the CO2 levels on planet Earth. The government of Finland presented Agnes Denes’ Tree Mountain at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 as Finland’s commitment to relieving ecological, social and cultural life on the planet. With a tip of the hat to biomimicry, the 11,000 trees planted collectively followed a mathematical pattern whose source brought together aspects of the Golden section and pineapple/sunflower patternings. Nature designs unconsciously. Nature runs on sunlight. Trees grow. Nature fits form to function. Trees grow.
Carbon capture, the drawdown of CO2, and reducing city temperatures on a planet that is eating up, as so many identify involves a variety of initiatives. One positive action involves planting trees in volume to offset the effects of human actions in the Anthropocene. Doing so in cities directly affects the temperatures as water is “held”, and photosynthesis takes place. One of Agnes Denes’ most interesting proposals, A Forest for New York is to regenerate the 117-acre Edgemere Landfill, an area as of yet barren and treeless, largely forgotten. To build a monumental forest area is a city is truly something that fits the needs of our times. The forest could be a place for recreation, cultural activities, and engender some bird and wildlife habitat, however modest.
Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule—11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 Years, (420x270x28meters), Ylöjärvi, Finland, 1992-96, Winter view (2001)
© Agnes Denes, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York
Ecological consciousness is at the heart of any art of the future, an understanding of the ephemeral character of life, and the minimal scale of being. In response to climate change, Denes has worked in Holland redesigning 80 kilometres of the centre of the country. Here is an Earth art that has a poetic and responsible function. Invited by the InClimate: Climate Change Solutions, Awareness and Action group whose interdisciplinary progressive involve people from the community, as well as scientists, engineers and climate change advisors, Denes’ more recent proposal is to create giant sand dunes for the Barrier islands further offshore from New York City and on the lands adjacent to Rockaway Beach near New York harbor. As Denes’ says, “I am used to being on the edge and going against the tide – well, here that happens to be the ocean.” All these projects were foreshadowed by Denes’ work in the 1980s involving coastal landfill and design. Some forty years ago Agnes Denes and other ecologically minded visionaries realized and presented prototypical proposals at Rio de Janeiro, Moscow, Kyoto and London conferences, as the effects of global warming and climate change were becoming prescient. For the present New York region project, it is expected further islands can be built into the New York Harbour area as situational climate events project a need for it. The project will include Denes’ Spinning Flower public art sculptures on the beach area. Vegetation, including shrubs and Pitch and Pond Pine trees, will help stabilize the sand dunes to help inhibit sea rise and the effects of wind and storms. Fitting form to function as nature does Denes designs with nature, using the forms of natural dunes and building landforms into a fully functional way of containing the effects of sea-level rise, and consequent storms. The prototype for the Rockaway project was presented at the PS1 Dome in the Rockaways. It can be a prototype and model for similar initiatives involving public participation and input in low lying areas worldwide. Once realized the coastal project will contribute to an ecosystem that challenges and works with the ecological and climatic changes already taking place.
As the landscape and environment change on our planet, artists’ like Denes’ engagement moves from theory and concept (something early land art often emphasized) to direct action and process-oriented art or alternatively an art that involved landscape integration as part of its vernacular. Like Michael Singer who is presently working on living sea walls, for the coastlines of the United States in the forms of pods, Agnes Denes’ pioneering initiatives brings an artist’s vision that exchanges art for nature and nature for art. It is all the same thing in the end, or is it the beginning?
1 Agnes Denes, http://www.agnesdenesstudio.com/works2.html
About John K Grande
John Grande is a poet, writer, author, and occasional curator. His works have been published extensively and he has an interest in ecology and art manifested in his poetry, his Worldwalk project, and the articles and shows he has curated. Towards the Forest; for Edvard Munch was published in the UK as a brochure in 2018. His most recent Business Relationships include Art Space Ecology; Two Views Twenty Interviews (Black Rose, Montreal, 2019), Jason deCaires Taylor (Museo Atlantico, Spain, 2019), and Stonehenge & Avebury, (Winchester, UK, 2020). His website is johnkgrande.com.