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  Marga Bijvoet

Greening of Art
Shifting Positions between Art and Nature since 1965

 

After half a century of art's predomination as an expression of the self on the one hand, and art as a technological experiment on the other hand, nature has returned to art, seemingly quite unexpectedly, no longer in the form of an image, as landscape painting, but in the form of real elements from nature.

I will attempt to describe the shifts in position between art and nature which took place during the past fifty years, shifts which set out to re-establish a lost relationship between art and the landscape-environment, and which attempted in various ways to re-connect art with nature, i.e. with what is defined as nature in twentieth-century Western culture.

Initially, some artists brought trees, vegetables, soil, or animals indoors. Others went outdoors, not to make another monument, but to make temporary 'situations' in the environment, sometimes with materials found at the site, sometimes with natural elements like wood, air, fog, water, and ice, or by making nature's processes the content of the work of art, for instance by exhibiting the germination, growth or harvesting of plants.

Hans Haacke, now known for his critical analyses of social and political systems, was among the first artists to experiment with biological processes. He related his experiments to the General Systems Theory which had become generally accepted by the early seventies.

The American earthworkers, like Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson and Walter De Maria, ventured into lonely places, far away from 'civilization,' to dig deep trenches in the desert floor or move tons of earth to create their marks, mounds or spirals, that might refer to ancient history. European land artists, like Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, chose to make walks instead, and limited their activities to minimal interventions in the landscape, shaping found materials, rocks or wood, into formal arrangements, or just documenting a - supposed - 'nature untouched.' Joseph Beuys's natural philosophy also was the starting point for his "soziale Plastik" (social plastic) and the "erweitertes Kunstbegriff " (expanded concept of art), the concepts for which he became known. Named after the use of these new materials, taken directly from the natural environment, Arte Povera, Land Art and Earth Art were born.

A clearly new concept was presented by the land reclamation projects and the recultivation of sites left damaged by chemical industries or mining companies. Originally an idea of Robert Smithson, it almost took a decade before the first two projects in this field were realised, in 1979, one by Robert Morris and the other by Herbert Bayer. These commissions initiated a major development in land reclamation projects where artists were invited to participate in the design and implementation of such projects.

Another kind of interest in a nature, almost thought lost, found a means of expression in the actions and performances of the seventies. Its motives are drawn from identification with the earth as Goddess, and from representations of the nurturing Mother Earth, such as are found in fertility rituals and cults. The majority of these performances were anthropological in nature and directed at the exploration of ancient myths, such as those of the native American-Indian and Australian aboriginal cultures. Their philosophy of nature sees the earth as a living being, to be treated with awe and respect. Along this path, the idea of an organic cosmology, which has lived a shadow existence since the Renaissance, found reconnaissance in art again. In particular, female artists sought to redefine their position in art and in society in these performances, as a search for their own self and being. There was an obvious relationship with the rise of the feminist movement. Ana Mendieta, Hera, Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz, among others, have linked the "rape" of the earth, i.e. nature, and that of woman, in ritualist actions and performances. It is difficult to verify the true nature of this return to a certain spirituality in respect of a new attitude to nature. This aspect seems at least central to the works of Wolfgang Laib and Herman de Vries, who both believe in the mystical side of nature, proposing a re-enchantment of the world.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Dutch artist Herman de Vries, who had an education as a botanist, made numerous "random objectivations," as he called his experiments with randomly falling pieces of paper or leaves. Only the principle of chance determined the final configuration. The current focal point of de Vries's work with plants, earth and other natural materials is the creation of environments that should reveal the essence of nature, such as the fragrances of beds of rose petals or lavender.

In the meantime, the next generation of American sculptors took on the task of encroaching upon the urban-natural environments. This "sculpture in the extended field," as Rosalind Krauss defined it, asked questions about the concept of sculpture and its position between art and architecture and the environment involved. It had become obvious that the traditional monument had become obsolete, and needed to be replaced by a work that involved the surrounding site as part of the work.

Robert Irwin's theoretical writings in particular stimulated and influenced the further developments of a "site-determined" sculpture defined by its level of relationships to the surrounding environment. Many of the sculptural works in this category do not only deal with the landscape, or use natural materials, but also include industrial ones. However, the fact that the new kind of 'public art,' or 'art in public places' as it is generally called, began to ask questions about how art could have a new function in the true transformation of our living environment, makes it an important movement within the frame of this book.

A few artists began to design whole parks and gardens, often in collaboration with landscape architects and other specialists in this field, showing a overall expansion and encroachment of sculpture/art into the field of other disciplines and the landscape or environment at large. Some created personal gardens, originally private, like Ian Hamilton Finley's Little Sparta at Stonypath, James Pierce's Pratt Farm, or the late filmmaker Derek Jarman's garden. Others were intended as public gardens, landscape parks, or nature reserves (German: Naturschutzgebiete) from the start. Agnes Denes, Harriet Feigenbaum, the artist couple Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, Nancy Holt, Patricia Johanson, Alan Sonfist, and Hermann Prigann belong to the group of artists having evolved this new kind of public art, characterized by interdisciplinary collaboration and inquiry.

Lately, Europe seems to be swept by a movement of artists who make little 'gardens' in parks and in urban environments, always as part of exhibitions. Self-evidently, these 'garden' artists work both indoors and outdoors, with real and artificial plants; natural elements are combined with sculptural forms. Following the postmodern ethic, their positions vary as widely as the materials and forms they use. Whereas some create assemblies of plants in pots, others plant a selection of vegetables and flowers in an aesthetic arrangement to see them grow, flower and wilt. When artists began to venture outdoors - as land and earth artists - in the late sixties to explore the natural and urban environment and chose natural elements, like earth, air, fire and water, or natural processes, like the growth cycles of plants, as an art form, no artist wanted any association with gardening and gardens. On the verge of the new millennium, have artists become the new gardeners of Eden? Are we on the road to a 'plant art,' or a 'garden art,' that is just the next mode of art?

Nature in all its different forms, whether as natural elements (earth, air, water, fire), its processes in the form of annual rhythms and cycles (germination, growth and harvest), cosmic and astrophysical phenomena (summer and winter solstices/equinoxes), or as landscape as a whole (parks and garden design), has regained a real position in art during the past fifty years. Although I will more or less follow the usual chronological treatment, my focal point will not be the stylistic or formal aspects. Instead, the relationships between art and nature will be examined as an investigation of the environmental space at large, using the prevailing forces of our culture today as a guide-line: the dominant position of the sciences, and the scientification and technologization, the consequences of the mobility they brought, like travel and tourism, and the tensions between the urban environment and the surrounding landscape. The artist's (as well as the general puplic's) interest - sometimes even resembling scientific inquiry - in cultural history, including research into the monuments and ruins of ancient civilizations and studies of myths and rituals of non-Western cultures (whether past or living), will be reflected in view of the accompanying de-mythologization and secularization. It may not be a coincidence that these elements of interest occurred in the anthropological, archeological and social sciences as well as in the visual arts at the same time; that artists have gone outdoors to explore this environment as the extended space of the self at exactly this moment.
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