I manufactured a Wheatfield Simulator (early prototype) as a hommage à Agnes Denes. I’ll fix the wood (smaller holes and a water sink), add a counterbalance (a cellphone holder or a bookshelf?) and find wheat for it. It’ll be my halloween costume.
I got the opportunity to interview Agnes Denes last Saturday at her Soho studio. The interview focused on the conservation efforts of the Tree Mountain (1998).
I asked her what it felt like when it was discovered that the rice of the Rice/Tree/Burial (1968) was contaminated (the soil used in the planting was from a nuclear plant water cooling overflow site and the rice developed a red hue). She explained that that was not a problem for her, as it is inevitable that artworks change. Artworks in galleries change when audiences see them and art made outdoors changes when nature effects it (This feels like a reference to Hans Haackes’ Recording of climate in art exhibition, 1968-1970). Like many artists she does not believe that artworks can fail. I continued asking how much an artwork can to change before it becomes a different piece.
Eero: How much can original plans change until…
Agnes: It becomes an other artwork? It does not matter. It doesn’t matter. So it’s an other artwork. It is still used, still your communication, it’s still your mind. It’s not a problem.
This prompted me to think that the Tree Mountain is an artificial intelligence – It has a mind of it’s own, which exists outside the artist and effects the world according to it’s own logic. The Tree Mountain is a complex prosthetic, an organic device which recreates her thinking (perhaps it is a “landscape organism” as Nancy Holt describes the gravel pits in Pinsiö). This means that questions concerning the restoration / conservation of the artwork should also asked from the mountain itself.
I asked her how she defines “visual philosophy” (a term she uses in The Dream, 1990). She explained that when she started as an artist she believed that she could “revitalize all of knowledge” but she soon understood that this was an absurd goal. In the process she started to experiment how to “visualize impossible processes” trough art (such as logic, mathematics etc.) and the concept developed from this. I interpret that “visual philosophy” is a method for displaying material and social structures which produce knowledge: It seeks to create representations of how our perception of the world functions. This is a two way process (at least in the case of the Tree Mountain). When we make sense of the world, we make the world and this worlds then starts to make sense of us. I think this is why she call the mountain “a living monument”.
“Visual philosophy” feels like a prototype of (artistically steered) object orientated ontology. The geometrical shapes she works with, illustrate human processes of sense making. The shapes map-out how human intellects effect the world. The shapes she presents as artworks don’t actually show the world – They show how the world is being made. This feels very similar to the way Robert Smithson talks about maps. He argues that a map is being read in relation to a terrain and the terrain is being read in relation to map but neither produce an authentic reality. If there is something authentic, it is the relationships of these elements (map / terrain).
All of the trees in the mountain are of the same species (this has prompted critique from professionals who work with reforestation). During the interview I learned that there is a reason why all of the trees are the same: They illustrate the arrogance of human design. She explained that the Tree Mountain is “a forest which tries to be a virgin forest” and defined her desire to develop a virgin forest as “arrogant”.
Agnes: We copy and copy and copy. […] We have a tendency of copying. We also have a tendency of not seeing too far because we are surrounded by other sheep.
The trees in the mountain are owned by selected individuals and their ownerships cannot be sold or traded. They are inherited by the owners offspring. People own the artwork but they cannot sell it. This means that the aftermarket of the artwork is designed by the artist.
She is a true pioneer of the environmental art movement. When compared to todays standards, her collaborations with experts (such as the rice expert who identified the contaminated rice of Rice/Tree/Burial) and scientist don’t feel very deep. But this is understandable because institutions or traditions for art&science collaborations did not exist when she started. The act of contacting a rice expert seems small but it was a pioneering gesture. She attempted to develop an understanding of the world by relying on knowledge sourced from outside of her own field. This gesture was motivated by political ambitions (related to de-development!).
Agnes: He [Leonardo DaVinci] was interested in developing things that didn’t exist and I saw the opposition. I was interested in undoing things what did exist. […]
Eero: What did you hope to undo?
Agnes: All of it.
Eero: All of it?
Agnes: Everything. You have to change. You have to not undo it but you have to see the other side. You have to see the other side to understand it.
At first I thought that she’s talking about humanity: But she is talking about knowledge and about undoing the particular kinds of knowledge, which have led to contemporary environmental catastrophes.
I’m currently editing the interview and I hope to interview her again. I’d like her to define what she means when she is talking about “virgin forests” and to envision some kind of utopian future for the artwork with her.
Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change (2018) Nathaniel Rich. The text is too detailed for me but very informative. It identifies climate change as a weapon and links the oil industries efforts of discrediting climate change research as the origin of post-truth era possibly even post-expert).
In “How to Wreck the Environment,” a 1968 essay published while he was a science adviser to Lyndon Johnson, [Gordon] MacDonald predicted a near future in which “nuclear weapons were effectively banned and the weapons of mass destruction were those of environmental catastrophe.” One of the most potentially devastating such weapons, he believed, was the gas that we exhaled with every breath: carbon dioxide. By vastly increasing carbon emissions, the world’s most advanced militaries could alter weather patterns and wreak famine, drought and economic collapse.
Interview: Agnes Denes (2015) Maika Pollack. A long and good spirited overview of Denes’ career. Pollack has a huge appreciation for her work.
“I hate to put tags on things, because tags change, and they change with the requirements made on them. And we’re changing modes and needs. Words are changing. I find that old expressions are outdated, so when I write something, I try to find a new expression that hasn’t been born yet. It’s difficult. We use up words as we use up images. We use up everything, and that’s good, because it makes us grow.” -Denes
AGNES DENES Living Pyramid (2015) Ann McCoy. A critical view to the Living Pyramid (2015) temporary artwork installed in Brooklyn.
Denes bends nature to her will—trees are chained and planted on grids determined by Denes. The problems of mono-agriculture, which she has been accused of because her Finnish forest was comprised of one type of tree, have long been known. The creatures inhabiting her forests aren’t allowed the kind of complex habitat that would be more to their liking. We now know that trees communicate through their root systems, educating their neighbors. Nature has no voice in Denes’s work.
Eco-art is evolving, with many artists trying to work within existing natural systems. […] We hope the trees will aid this reclamation, and prevent erosion when they become rooted. Denes had consulted a horticulturalist for the Living Pyramid, and had submitted a long list of grasses that turned out to be more suitable for prairies. Common grasses and annuals were substituted due to the growing season and length of the installation. As with Denes’s forests, the plants used for the Living Pyramid are more symbolic than ecologically sustainable.
Denes is heroic, having survived a sexist art world with sheer grit and intelligence. She has produced a remarkable body of work and thought. The Living Pyramid holds its own whatever its eco-imperfections, and exists as a flowering monument to Denes and her complex explorations.
A Forest for Australia: Challenging Loyalties (2015) Jock Gilbert & Sarah Hicks. Overview of the degeneration of the A Forrest for Australia (1996) artwork by Denes.
The forest displays a stubborn refusal to be conserved […] A Forest for Australia is a living register of the extreme fluctuation of weather conditions in south-east Australia, now exacerbated further by climate change.
Within this rather precarious existence of the project are also registered many of the ideals that informed Denes’s original concept – the registering of the “nervous tension” of cities, the questioning of the status quo and the challenge to initiate new thinking processes through provocative, meaningful communication. It is these ideals that we argue should continue to be cultivated through any contemporary engagement with the project.
The Dream (1990) Agnes Denes. Her own text, which calls for art to change. I particularly like the last quote here where she warns that art in public space claims it as it’s own. I share this understanding.
All my philosophical concepts seem to culminate and come to life in my environment/sculptural works. They are meant to begin their existence in the world when completed as works of art, and come to full realisation as they grow and evolve with the changing need and perspectives of mankind.
Making art today is synonymous with assuming responsibility for our fellow man.
I believe that the new role of the artist is to create an art that is more then decoration, commodity, or political tool. It is an art that question the status quo and the direction life has taken, the endless contradictions we accept and approve of.
[…] I see the importance of art emerging beyond a personal style, trend or region, pointing to new ways of seeing and knowing that enhance perception and awareness and forming new insights and new methods of reasoning.
Public art has become the newest game, a new phase in our overproduction and somewhat indiscriminate cluttering of our environments. In the light of our tendencies towards quick consumption, depletion, and reaching saturation points, especially when the results are not exactly satisfactory, public art may become extinct before we have had a chance to see its best examples.
Public art, like any other art, must have an immediate and a lasting effect. The difference is that public art invades areas where people live and work as opposed to museums or galleries where they go by choice. This alone ought to create a responsibility to the public whose common ground is thereby invaded. And this is where the dream comes in (or disappears). It is difficult to visualise a dream collectively, especially with strange bedfellows. And we know what happens when ideas are forced into mold. Public art is important for our communities and for artist expression, but it will fail if we cannot come to terms with its complexities and potentials. It is essential that art remain free to renew itself through the assessments of a world whose issues it reflects and analyses. Art in the public domain loses its preciousness, but it gains in strength by becoming a social phenomenon, sharing itself with others willingly and effectively.
Bought a tickets to Sonic Arts Union: David Behrman, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, Robert Ashley (in memoriam) gig on Friday. I have no idea what the gig is going to be like but the texts are convincing.
Messaged Agnes Denes and requested an interview (Got a reply and send her a list of questions to consider).
Participated in a talk by Imara Limon’s on New Narratives at the Amsterdam Museum at the Independent Curators International spaces in Manhattan. The New Narratives program is an ongoing series of events, exhibitions and pedagogical programs which seek to develop critical approaches to the Amsterdam museums existing practices and permanent collection. Visitors of the museum have been offered “colonial nostalgia” trough exhibitions which focus on the “Golden Age of the City”. For example Dutch 17th century group portraits and the display of luxurious objects disguise the violence of colonial practise, trough which wealth was accumulated the families displayed in the paintings.
Limon explained that the past isn’t painful, what’s painful is that contemporary institutions have not changed and diversified their practices. Diversity and inclusion are frequently discussed (superficiality trough banderols on museum walls) but the discussions seldom have an impact on how the museums actually work. To change the narrative she had organised museum tours which were guided by a diverse range of guides, who made sense the collection from their perspectives. They were also working to add new subtext to items in the collection. “It’s not about output – It’s about the input” she explained.
I’m not sure but I thought that this meant that they are trying to change how the museum make sense of the world (I tried to ask more about this but I couldn’t frame my question properly). When asked if there are taboos that she was advised not to address (trough her curatorial work) Limone answered that “You can say anything but who is listening”. A taboo she addresses was that there is not enough diversity in museum staff, which underlines the impact colonial history has on present day.
I’m in serious trouble in navigating these discussions. I can seem to find proper terms to initiate discussions. I fear that museums cannot change: They reproduce the past indefinitely.
When the Harlem Renaissance Went to Communist Moscow (2017) Jennifer Wilson.
My article in Finnish: Ympäristötaiteen konservoinnin jäljillä (On the trail of Environmental Art Conservation) is available online. It’s packed with strong claims concerning public art and a rare view to Land Arts. The text features:
- A detailed report of the conservation efforts of Spiral Jetty (1970)
- A summary on what nonsites are (according to Robert Smithson) and how text build landscapes
- A well grounded argument that land-art conservation efforts should be organised in séance-sessions
- An argument that temporary events (performances, campaigns) can be used as monuments which serve neoliberal economics
- An argument that The Tree Mountain 1996 by Agnes Denes does not help to protect nature (I don’t think it’s even intended to)
- An argument that site-specific, land- environmental- and street art, seek to expand the dominance of institutional art thinking
- An view (between the lines) that artists should consider what kind of infrastructure their artworks are depended on (more then the art they make)