20181008

Learning about the problematic relationship that land-art has with the cultures of the indigenous peoples of America.

The Face of the Earth (2015) by Stefany Anne Goldberg. The text states that Robert Smithson was directly inspired by the Serpent Mound and that he used it as a model for Spiral Jetty. Goldberg points to Entropy And The New Monuments (1966) to argue that Smithson wanted to produce “anti-monuments” that merged with their environment over time – Goldberg states he wanted to criticize the idea of an everlasting modernism (best exemplified in American architecture). I don’t buy this. Authors like Naomi Stead have shown that architects such as Albert Speer were particularly interested in imagining their designs as ruins. (Here are notes from an article by Stead).

Architects, Smithson once said in an interview, tend to be idealists. They look at their structures and think about how they will cover over the earth. They try not to picture their buildings fallen into ruin, sucked back into the landscape they once sat upon. American builders are especially idealistic because the land they were given to build on since the beginning has been thought of as empty space. […] “America,” said Smithson, “doesn’t have that kind of historical background of debris,” and so Americans don’t often think of monuments the way Europeans do, as potential ruins, subject to entropy, subject to change, involved in the story of Time. Time, for Americans, goes mostly in a straight line, from Point A to Point B, with all things getting bigger and better, even when they collapse. For Smithson, time was like a spiral dissolving in salt, neither static nor cyclical but just moving, just going, disappearing and coming back again.

The last quote from Smitson is from the Entropy Made Visible (1973) interview with Alison Sky. It shows a blatant disregard of the cultures of the indigenous peoples of America. Nancy Holt’s Up and Under (1998) looks like it has been inspired by the Great Serpent Mound and the Mound City in Chillicothe.

Rising Into Ruin (2017) Kate Morris. The article investigates the “Post-modern landscape” by comparing Smithson notes on ruins, to artworks by American artist Alan Michelson. Morris argues that Smithson saw ruins as static “end states” and points out that many indigenous cultures of Americas have an opposing cyclic view of time. The text offers a good overview on what Smitson was after with The Monuments of Passaic (1967) text/actions.

[…] I argue that the works of Smithson and Michelson differ in important ways that are reflective of their cultural perspectives: namely, Smithson regarded ruin as an end state, while Michelson posits it as a condition that portends other states to follow. The argument hinges on the distinction of ruin as a stage in a cycle rather than as a point in a purely linear progression.

A postmodern condition that [Craig] Owens failed to locate in Smithson’s work is an attack on the idea of progress itself, though it seems clear in retrospect that Smithson’s careful documentation of the decline of industrial infrastructures was exactly that. Moreover, it is this aspect of Smithson’s practice that resonates strongly in Michelson’s work, where the notion of progress is conflated with settler colonialism, and thus its dissolution can be regarded as not only a postmodern but distinctly postcolonial condition.

Entropy tells us that nothing can stay in suspension forever; dissolution is inevitable. In “The Monuments of Passaic” Smithson’s entropic vision may come across as temporally muddled, but phrases like “rising into ruin,” “limited eternity,” and “a lower stage of futurity” obfuscate what is actually a rather linear progression.

Sympathetic as he is to Smithson’s dystopic vision, Michelson has also been drawn, paradoxically, to the latent hopefulness of “entropy made visible.” In both Mespat and Shattemuc he focuses on the crumbling infrastructure of industrialization, and by association, of colonialism itself.

The Spiritual Legacy of the Ancient Ones (1992) Robert Houle. A text from the catalogue for Land, Spirit, Power exhibition organized at The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (almost 30 years ago!). Here is a very detailed review of the exhibition by Scott Watson. I was encouraged to study this exhibition by Richard William Hill and Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora), whom I was kindly introduced to at the Vera List Center Forum 2018: If Art Is Politics event. The text attempts to build a framework for reading the art of the indigenous peoples of Americas, in a way which would not rely on a colonial gaze for making forcing sense a particular-western-defined-sense.

Houle’s text is critical towards post-structuralism and postmodernity because it disregards non-western modes of existence. In short: Not all origin stories are bad, not all narratives should be deconstructed and the critique that post-structuralism engages in does not challenge the infrastructure that enables it. It is a smokescreen! Modernity is in dept to indigenous cultures – Artist such as Pollock and Picasso formulated their encounters with indigenous artworks into techniques.

The text also has a detailed history of how the indigenous peoples of Americas have been portrayed in Euro-Western art. It provides a critique of Monument for the Native People of Ontario (1984–85) artwork by Lothar Baumgarten. More on that particular artwork and Houle’s commentary on it in Naming and Reclaiming (2018) Shirley Madill.

The article is filled with interesting details. For example: “There is no word for ‘landscape’ in any of the languages of the ancient ones still spoken” and ” [I]ndividuality operates in the language of paradox, irony, and ambivalence”. The text ends in a beautiful invite: “[T]he spiritual legacy of art from any one culture offers reassurance that the human species has some commonalities which are important to knowing who we are, where we are, and where we are going”. Quotes from Houle’s text below.

Continue reading “20181008”

20180813

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.

20180315

Finally completed a lengthy article about my experience of working as Environmental- / Land Art Conservator for the Strata project in Pinsiö 2013. I worked in a team tasked to restore Up and Under (1998) by Nancy Holt and The Tree Mountain by Agnes Denes (1996).  A big part of that text is an analysis of the controversy caused by Spiral Jetty conservation efforts. The text is currently being reviewed by Mustekala.org and if it passes I might translate parts of it into English too. I should craft it into a zine too…

I contacted Dia foundation in New York and offered to prepare a presentation about the the work we did for the environmental artworks commissioned by Strata.  They haven’t replied yet. Attempted to open a dialogue with contemporary art conservators at Kiasma too but they haven’t replied either. They must get a lot of contact requests from Environmental- / Land Art Conservator’s around the world.

Finnish Cultural Institute in New York is trying to arrange a meeting with the NYPD mounted police unit for me. We drafted a long letter together and I hope it’ll open a dialogue with them. I’ll start the visa application process tomorrow.