20th CENTURY LAND ART IN THE 21ST CENTURY: AGNES DENES


What do you do when you want to start a discussion around the environment? You may put pen to paper or paintbrush to canvas. If you’re a Land artist, however, you are the paintbrush and the environment is your canvas.


Hallmarked as a pioneer of the American Land Art movement, Budapest-born New York-based artist, Agnes Denes rose to fame in the 1960s, alongside many of her Land Art contemporaries, such as Robert Smithson and Hans Haacke. Her earliest work Rice/Tree/Burial with Time Capsule (1968) consisted of four parts; a planted rice field in the Niagara Gorge, a chained group of Indian trees, a haiku written by the artist herself, encased in a buried time capsule, and a final eight-day occupation of a cliff ledge overlooking Niagara Falls. As the inaugural piece of site-specific Environmental Art, Denes harnessed the metaphorical power of Conceptual Art, transforming the immateriality of the written word into something tangible, something visible to the naked human eye. Whilst Conceptual artists such as Piero Manzoni drew attention to the significance of the Earth in works such as Socle du Monde (translating to ‘Base of the World’), Denes goes one step further, intertwining such abstract ideas with physical action.


If you’re a Land artist, however, you are the paintbrush and the environment is your canvas.

In Rice/Tree/Burial with Time Capsule, Denes uses the rice to symbolise growth and new beginnings, the imprisoned forest critiquing man’s interference with the natural landscape, and the buried haiku referring to Environmental Art’s origins in Conceptual art, donating spoken words to the land and, thereby, signifying the start of Denes’ commitment to environmental issues. The artist kept no copies of this haiku, implicitly declaring her sacrifice of personal thoughts. Denes spoke of this burial as:


“… a cause-and-effect process, [marking] our intimate relationship with the earth. On the one hand, it indicates passing, returning to the soil, disintegration, and transformation; on the other, generation and life-giving, placing in the ground for the purpose of planting. It is also a metaphor for human intelligence and transcendence through the communication of ideas - in this case, to future descendants.”

This idea of rebirth and regeneration encapsulates Denes’ artistic practice, furthering the environmental rhetoric through various art forms. Ironically, the soil used for the rice field, which was intended to provide sustenance to the local community, was contaminated by radioactive waste, resulting in an inedible, yet aesthetically captivating, crop yield. Unintentionally, Denes had drawn attention to how technological advancements and society’s continuous growth can have lasting implications for our environment. Her most well-known work, Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982), purported to bring the two opposing factions together, that of society and the environment, and initiate discourse through providing opportunities for coexistence.


In the most densely populated city in the United States, the last thing you would expect to find yourself lost within would be a wheat field. But in 1982, this became a reality for New Yorkers. Located in Lower Manhattan, a mere two blocks from Wall Street, this two-acre block of land was transformed over a period of four months from a landfill into a flourishing wheat field. Wheatfield – A Confrontation intercepted urban life with rural agriculture. Post-installation, Denes made use of every harvestable element; the 1000 pounds of fodder was donated to New York City’s police horses, and the seeds to be exhibited in 28 cities as part of The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger, inviting visitors to take home seed packets to plant in their own backyards. Denes created this work to be a paradox;


Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept; it represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, and economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns. It called attention to our misplaced priorities.”

In consideration of Denes’ statement, Wheatfield is essentially a commentary on society. In the modern era, our priorities have shifted from a globalised, shared commonality to a more capitalised focus, wherein the health of our economy takes precedence over the health of our natural world. As technology continues to progress and our cities grow in terms of size and population density, the environment plays second fiddle to other, more self-centred, priorities. Technological advancements have made caring for ourselves all the more simple; food is readily available without consideration for where it has come from; the clothes on our backs are available at the click of a button without thought of who sewed them and their working conditions; and, the foundations of our homes provide us with protection from the storms brewing outside our windows, a tempestuous climate the direct result of our neglect of our environment. Denes draws attention to this issue, asking us to reconsider nature’s role in our everyday lives, and not just in terms of our reliance on the environment, but, also how we have exploited it.


The ephemerality of Wheatfield speaks to our ever-changing surroundings. This empty industrial lot in Lower Manhattan was once an untamed landscape where wildlife was plentiful and nature was unimpeded by the wants of man. Denes, in a sense, is returning this derelict space to that former unspoiled landscape, allowing nature room to thrive and breathe, in direct opposition with the smog emanating from the city.


In this site-specific work, Denes evoked the need for participatory experience; through the volunteers who oversaw the crops, the New Yorkers who came to marvel at this oxymoronic sight, and the museum visitors who left with a pocket full of seeds and the potential to sow their own crop. An essential component of Wheatfield is participation. Such sentiments translate to the current need for global participation in the first against climate change. Whether it be by volunteering to take an active role in the sowing of ideas and initiatives, partaking in protests, or by implementing small changes in your everyday routine that will be sure to enact positive change. Each step in the fight against climate change is worth our time and effort; as at the end, we shall have a flourishing crop to reap.


In 1982, Denes intended for this work to confront the city and the urbanisation of everyday life. However, nowadays, it speaks more so to the vulnerability of our world. Denes uses this performance work to cut through the hustle and bustle of the modern day, interrupting city life to introduce a moment of contemplation into our otherwise busy consumerism-driven lives. The message underpinning Denes’ practice is ultimately inspiring:


“In a time when meaningful global communication and intelligent restructuring of our environment is imperative, art can assume an important role. It can affect intelligent collaboration and the integration of disciplines, and it can offer skilful and benign problem-solving. A well-conceived work can motivate people and influence how things are perceived.”

In an interview with Nicola Homer of Studio International, Denes discusses the importance of scientific discourse in her work, having designed futuristic cities that are built to withstand the environmental pressures of climate change. [insert image here of Absolutes & Intermediaries] Questioning the human practice of living life forwards, yet thinking about it backwards, Denes argues that retrospection is one of the underlying causes of climate change. Whilst we may be regretting our past failures to prevent climate change, at the same time, we may be missing opportunities to ease its current effects through affirmative action.


Whilst site-specific, Wheatfield speaks to a universal audience. In the decades after the end of Denes’ 1982 performance in Battery Park, Lower Manhattan, the climate conversation continues, calling to attention the economic exploitation of our environment and initiating social change. The enduring relevance of this piece in the 21st century demonstrates how hindsight has hindered our progress, and that foresight, taking positive action and implementing changes into our daily routines, is the way forward.


Written by LTTS Writer #JADE_LE_PETIT

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