Agnes Denes: Work 1967-2013
23 November 2013 – 9 March 2014
by NICOLA HOMER
On land valued at $4.5bn (£3.25bn), she harvested grain planted by hand, which travelled to 28 cities in The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger and was planted in solidarity around the globe. As Denes explains: “Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept. It represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns. It was an intrusion into the citadel, a confrontation of high civilisation. Then again, it was also Shangri-la, a small paradise, one’s childhood, a hot summer afternoon in the country, peace, forgotten values, simple pleasures.”1
While Denes is known for her sometimes playful approach, she displays an acute understanding of philosophy, science and vision in her environmental art practice, which has led Lowery Sims, a curator at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York to call her a “modern-day Leonardo”. Yet as the postmodern art historian Robert Hobbs observes: “While Leonardo invented out of a need to make new things, Agnes Denes creates to simplify and to cut through the morass of information now available in order to arrive at new concepts.”2 It is this ability to refine knowledge and ideas to produce engaging visual constructs3 in a digital age of complexity, when the world is becoming ever more connected, that makes her art so relevant today. In Denes’s own words: “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.”
Now, Denes has a retrospective at the golden, crescent-shaped Firstsite visual arts centre in Colchester, organised by the Fonds régional d’art contemporain Champagne-Ardenne in France.4 The show provides British viewers with a unique opportunity to see her groundbreaking art. It not only features coloured photographs of Wheatfield (she does all her own photography), but also images of her other important environmental art projects, such as Rice/Tree/Burial (1968), re-enacted at ArtPark in upstate New York in 1977, and Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule, Ylöjärvi, Finland (1982-83). Furthermore, the exhibition features conceptual drawings, including “Pyramids”, “Map Projections” and “Philosophical Drawings”. The exhibition was the starting point for this interview, in which Denes talked about her career and how to tackle climate change in New York and around the world.
Nicola Homer: I read that, at the beginning of your career, you studied the traditional art of painting at Columbia University in New York. And yet you became a primary figure among the conceptual artists, who emerged during the 60s and 70s. How and why did you arrive at the decision to become a conceptual artist?
Agnes Denes: My art had little to do with what I learned in schools or with anything that was going on in the art world. I was working pretty much on my own, investigating and researching, and actually asking questions that were unheard of. Some of them were rather crazy, such as re-evaluating human knowledge. I went into all these different fields and studied them. So I had little time for interaction with what was going on out there, and politics was never on my mind, but research and wanting to know more was. Innovation was not clarified in my mind; that comes when one is looking back. In retrospect, they tell you it was innovative; they tell you it was 50 years ahead of its time. But these things come afterward. When you do things, you do them blindly, prompted by something inside you.
NH: So it was a natural process?
AD: Yes, it was constant research, a constant questioning. I questioned everything, in art and in the world, and in all of knowledge, not just related to art.
NH: In your retrospective at Firstsite, I read that you announced your commitment to environmental issues and human concerns in the public realm with your symbolic “event” Rice/Tree/Burial, which was first realised in 1968 in Sullivan County, New York. Why did you decide to focus on the environmental art movement at that time?
AD: There was no such thing at that time. For me, it was a natural outgrowth of everything that went on before that. I started out as a painter, but soon found it limiting and kept being interrupted by the edge of the canvas. What I say in a possibly flippant way, looking back, is that: “I just got off the wall and went into the landscape.” I realised that humanity was in trouble. I still do. At my age, I’m writing my seventh and eighth books. I’m writing about the fact that the world is in trouble. I felt at that time that I had to deal with environmental issues. I spoke at global conferences. These things were 40 years before the environmental art movement that everybody is doing now. I’m glad they are because it’s important. But when I started it, people had no idea what I was talking about.
Rice/Tree/Burial, that I did first in 1968 and then realised on a large scale at ArtPark in the 70s, was a very complicated project. I planted a rice field above the Niagara gorge, chained a sacred Indian forest and buried a time capsule – representing a philosophical statement. I went out to the edge of Niagara Falls and lived there on the edge for eight days and nights before they had barricades set up. I was a foot away from death. I had to face up to the power of nature and to see my own insignificance; my own smallness as a human being is what I experienced there on the edge. Sleeping there overnight, when the ground shook under me and I could have been brought down by the power of the water any minute, was an incredible experience that was important for me to get started with. That was Rice/Tree/Burial. That and some other works, which started the environmental art movement that nobody was doing at the time. It was just not cool art.
NH: I read that when you performed this work above the Niagara gorge, you decided to bury a time capsule, including Haiku poetry.
AD: Yes, that was also a part of the project: life and death, and communication with the future. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. It was designed to be opened 1,000 years from now.
NH: That is extraordinary.
AD: Well, considering that I design time capsules to go 5,000 years and 50,000 years and also one million years in the future. I just couldn’t manage to realise them because of the money involved and the research of how to communicate with something so far ahead, or where to put it. Antarctica – which was the only safe place I could think of – is already, within my lifetime, melting. I designed an elaborate time capsule to be placed within one of the ice shelves, which would move towards the ocean, and when it hit salt water, it would let out a sound, a beat, so that people would find it. But look at what is happening; there is no safe place to put anything for the future. I have tried to send it out into space, but who knows what will happen to that. So it’s very difficult to think long-term into the future.
NH: Generally speaking, what do you dream that the concept of the time capsule might mean for people in the future?
AD: Communication, for one. We are so interested in the past. Why wouldn’t the future be interested in us? People always like to compare themselves with other people, to other times, to other eras, to see how much we have grown or changed. A lot of my work deals with the past. If you look at my piece 4000 Years – If the Mind … (1976), I translated one of my statements into middle-Egyptian and it became poetry. The philosophical insight of an era is important. There are changes; it’s not that we’re getting better or worse. It’s just that we are changing. We are becoming more complicated or more nuanced, let’s say, and in some ways more superficial due to lack of time to dig deeper. While there is more information around, there is less digestion and application. This is much more complicated than a sentence or two.
NH: I think you made a very good point about the public discourse relating to climate change, in reference to the warming in Antarctica. Could you tell me a bit about how you situate yourself in relation to the debate on global warming?
AD: We have known about global warming for a long time: scientists, and me as an artist who knows science. I really understand and study science. We know that we are going into an ice age and global warming simultaneously. The weather changes are tremendous. My design of future cities 40 years ago tried to deal with global changes, but, of course, nothing was done about them. There would be self-contained, self-supporting city dwellings to withstand the weather. Pretty soon we are coming to the point of having to deal with that. Look at this winter; look at the summer that they are predicting. Problems around the world. This summer is supposed to be hotter than any summer before. What can we do to protect ourselves? We have to do something pretty soon, but humanity is always doing things in hindsight. You know the saying: “You live life forwards and think about it backwards.” But if we just understand what we are doing, we are ahead of the game. There is definitely global warming, but the cause of it is being questioned. And as the problems accelerate, maybe genetic engineering will be tried with possibly disastrous consequences.
Right now, at my age, I am proposing to build mega-dunes and barrier islands to protect the New York harbour. A dune is made of sand and holds down the waves. I’m not only proposing to build double dunes that would slow down the waves, but also barrier islands further out in the sea. I am bringing my expertise to this project having worked on low-lying areas before with projects in the Netherlands, where I was asked to redesign 80km of the centre of Holland, and working on various landfills. I am doing a lot of research and working with scientists as I go. People are writing about this mega-dune concept of mine with the barrier islands. I tell them that I understand that I am a little blade of grass in the wind. I’m a very small person and may not be strong enough to make this happen, but I will fight as long as I can, and as long as I live, to help humanity because all of my art is to help humanity in some form. Each work is helping humanity in a different form, either understanding, or living, or surviving, or just kindness and compassion. But politicians interfere, big money interferes, a lot of self-interests. The world looks at a woman’s work differently. Especially when it is about science, philosophy, maths, engineering, city planning, and so on. It is changing slowly with each generation. I don’t dwell on these things, the world does. I hold on to my thinking and make my art as much and as long as I can.
NH: Among your greatest achievements is Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982), where you planted and harvested a two-acre wheat field on landfill in lower Manhattan (an area now known as Battery Park City). The harvested grain travelled to 28 cities in The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger and was planted around the globe. Could you describe how the concept of the work symbolises your ecological concerns?
AD: I was invited to do a public sculpture and decided we had enough public sculptures, enough men sitting on horses. I decided to plant a wheat fieldinstead. I was lucky enough that, after one year of struggle and holding out for the concept and the positioning of the project, I found a place as prominent as Battery Park City. It was on open land at the bottom of Manhattan Island, four acres of empty space, and they gave it to me. The land was then, in 1982, worth $4.5bn, and I used it for almost a year to produce a wheat field. I had only $10,000 to do the project, and I would have needed $110,000 or $210,000, so I used two acres of it, which was the only land I had money for. Even then, I had to borrow, find volunteers and use my own money, to plant two acres of wheat.
It was the most beautiful site in the world, 20 feet from the Hudson river. The ocean liners would come in the morning and salute the wheat field with their foghorns and do it again when they left. On 4 July [Independence Day], they sprayed us with red, white and blue sprays, and it became a wonderful thing for the city, and a concept that travelled to so many other cities. I used everything from the field: the hay after the harvest was given to the city’s mounted police for the horses, and the seed was carried away by people. First it went into this museum in Minnesota in a show called The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger. That show travelled to 28 cities around the world and people took my wheat – which I donated – and carried off little packets of it to plant in solidarity.
Wheatfield was a very difficult thing to do. I had no money, had to call every morning for volunteers. I felt that if I couldn’t pay them, at least I had to feed them. So I would go home from the field at nine o’clock in the evening and make sandwiches for the next day for the volunteers. I worked seven days a week making it happen. I had a wonderful gardener who worked for the city, who was my helper, and the volunteers every day.
NH: Wheatfield was re-staged in Dalston, east London, as part of the Barbican’s Radical Nature exhibition in 2009. This suggests it still holds resonance today. I wonder if it was your intention that it would be quite a contemporary idea?
AD: No, my intention is always to do something worthwhile. I never think of its history or what will happen to it in the future. I don’t think that way. The Barbican really tried to do it, but there is no space in London, so it was squeezed in between two buildings, and the Barbican itself abandoned it after a while, so it was done by another artist. But it was nice that they thought of it. Usually when I have an exhibition, they just bring sacks of wheat or a harvester into the museum, which they have done in one of my retrospectives at the Ludwig Museum [in Cologne, Germany]. That was enough; just to call attention to the fact that it was labour-intensive and what it was like.
NH: So it illustrates what can be achieved with a volunteering spirit and hard work?
AD: Exactly. And what can be achieved in a city. If you read the text I wrote for Wheatfield, I mention how I had to fight everything that was against it, because you can’t do things in the city that you could in the country … But doing things that are difficult is usually worthwhile. We have to try to do things that are difficult.
My decision to plant a wheat field in Manhattan instead of designing just another public sculpture grew out of a long-standing concern and need to call attention to our misplaced priorities and deteriorating human values.
Manhattan is the richest, most professional, most congested and, without a doubt, most fascinating island in the world. To attempt to plant, sustain and harvest two acres of wheat here, wasting valuable real estate, obstructing the machinery by going against the system, was an effrontery that made it the powerful paradox I had sought for the calling to account. It was insane. It was impossible. But it would call people’s attention to having to rethink their priorities and realise that, unless human values were reassessed, the precious quality of life, even life itself, was perhaps in danger. Placing it at the foot of the World Trade Centre, a block from Wall Street, facing the Statue of Liberty, was to be a careful reminder of what this land had stood for, and hopefully still does.5
NH: One of your other great achievements is Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule, Ylöjärvi, Finland (1982-83), which is a man-made mountain planted with 11,000 trees by 11,000 people from all over the world at the Pinziö gravel pits in Ylöjärvi, as part of a monumental earthwork. This is one of the largest reclamation sites in the world, which is designed to be protected for 400 years. How do you think Tree Mountain will benefit future generations?
AD: Well, first of all, it’s going to be the first man-made virgin forest as it takes about 400 years for the ecosystem to rebuild itself. When people destroy the land today, they are obligated to restore it, to plant trees, but that is not enough. Replanting trees at random will not make a forest and we need the forest structure and its ecosystem to survive and benefit other species. You know how beneficial forests are. That is why I insisted, when I was invited by the Finnish government to do Tree Mountain in Rio de Janeiro at the Earth Summit, that it be protected for 400 years, so that it will become a virgin forest. Otherwise, you create something, you put it into the world, and different politics and different interests obliterate it. Things have to be strong enough to survive, but sometimes they need to be protected. I think you asked me what was the intent for the future, and the future is that people will look back and say that we weren’t that wasteful, we did think of the future, and that we do need forests to survive for so many reasons. I constantly fight the brevity of our lives. I think by going way back into the past and as far ahead into the future as I can. It’s important for a foothold, so that you don’t just think of the moment.
NH: At Firstsite, the blueprint for Tree Mountain displays similarities to your drawings of “pyramids”. Please could you tell me a little bit about the concept of space and time in these pyramids?
AD: The pyramids weave in and out of my work from the very beginning in diverse forms dealing with a great variety of issues important to humanity. Each form and concept represents an enigma, something to which we must respond. These forms are visual philosophy, which convey ecological, social and cultural issues in a multitude of shapes. Every pyramid and every form seeks a purpose, poses a question and seeks an answer for humanity. They all deal with the past, the present and the future.
I created the first pyramid as a visual philosophical concept in 1967 in Dialectic Triangulation: A Visual Philosophy, together with the triangular matrix of the Human Argument. These were followed by the pyramid of Dictionary of Strength that was 11 years in the making; the pyramid of thought processes, Matrix of Knowledge; and pyramids of human remains, Human Dust. The Predicament (Pascal’s Perfect Probability Pyramid and the People Paradox – the Predicament) represents our society with thousands of tiny people who sit in protected isolation without privacy, believing in the illusions of freedom without having any. They represent alienation in togetherness and uniqueness in uniformity.
There are real pyramids and exotic ones, imaginary and philosophical, they represent logical structures, architectural innovations and society-building. They represent the past and the possible future we will invent. Some pyramids are not exactly pyramid-shaped and their meaning spans all of human existence. Some pyramids float in apparent weightlessness, while others are made of the weight of conscience. But what they all convey is the human drama, our hopes and dreams against great odds. They represent the paradoxes of existence and like grand mandalas, define our destiny.”6
NH: Could you tell me a little bit about your philosophical drawing entitled The Human Argument (1967)?
AD: It makes fun of logic. It is using symbolic logic to depict all possible human questions and arguments in this one diagram. I create a “Truth Table” and a “Lie Table”, which is not just the reversal of truth but it is arguing backwards, from knowledge to ignorance. It is making fun of logic by making it illogical while it is actually making sense.
NH: I’m fascinated by the global scope of your artistic practice and drawn to the playful nature of your drawings. In the “Map Projections” series that you produced between 1973 and 1979, you recast an image of the globe in a series of 3D shapes, such as an egg, a snail, a hot dog, a cube and a doughnut. Why?
AD: Why not? Why not make fun of the only little place that we know in the universe. And imagine what people would look like in a world in the shape of a hot dog or a cube, a doughnut or a dodecahedron. The Map Projection: the Hot Dog, which is owned by and was exhibited in Paris at the Pompidou Centre, is called “Saucisson” in French, which is much more eloquent than “hot dog”. All the Map Projections are accurate in their measurements. The longitude and latitude lines are where they are supposed to be and the continents are also correct maps. It took many years to work that out.
NH: How did you work out the exact measurements?
AD: Hard work. That was before computers.
NH: Over the course of your career, you have achieved great recognition for bridging art and science in a visionary way, which calls to mind Leonardo da Vinci. And you also reference great philosophers such as Bertrand Russell in the Human Argument. What has been the strongest influence on your practice over the years?
AD: Philosophy, I guess. I love it and have written it all my life. It’s the way I think. Always analysing, dissecting everything and connecting things not usually associated with each other.
NH: Would you say that philosophy has been the strongest influence on your career?
AD: I grew up asking questions. Every kid is asking questions, but my questions would sometimes stump the grown-ups. I guess if I had been a man, my work would have been looked at differently. There are no women philosophers. Well, very few. And I guess very few artists who may be considered philosophers. It will take many more generations before people will be totally equal. They look at a woman’s work as a woman’s work. They look at a man’s work differently and ask a man different questions. It’s something I don’t dwell on. I don’t see any difference. The world does.
NH: Could you reflect on your achievements and tell me what you are most proud of?
AD: Having survived. That is an achievement. Attending global conferences and speaking on important issues so early. I was on the edge of the art world with one foot in science and global concerns. My art was novel and different, and new. People now say I was ahead of my time. You put something into the world and the world will do with it what it can, the best it can at the time. The understanding may come later, in hindsight.
I feel sorry for humanity. I think we are in such great trouble, starting with overpopulation, encroaching on each other’s territory, people fighting all the time. It’s not always just nationalism and religion, fighting corruption and bad leadership trying to find justification for the fight, but the disillusionment of the young not getting what it wants – the dreams that it dreams of – the integrity and self-esteem that gets lost as it succumbs to life and gives up on those dreams. The feeling of helplessness that sets in and the lethargy that follows. And it’s not just wars, overpopulation, inequality or nationalism, but whether there will be enough food in the future for everyone and enough clean drinking water. I wrote about these problems in The Predicament in Book of Dust and other writings 40 years ago, and Pyramids of Conscience is about the scarcity of water in the future. And all the species dying out as their habitat disappears. And world hunger: how are we going to deal with farming, the necessities to feed billions of people? Obviously new technologies will need to be invented soon and not always just for profit, but to help humanity.
You ask of what I may be most proud. I guess having spent a lifetime dedicated to the welfare of humanity. The mindset of civilization, our society so talented and so short-sighted – these are my concerns. These are the things that are important, not fame or glory.
NH: The bigger picture?
AD: Exactly. There are many universes.
1. Agnes Denes quoted from an essay, The Philosophy and the Act in Wheatfield – A Confrontation, Battery Park Landfill, downtown Manhattan, two acres of wheat planted and harvested, Summer 1982.
2. Professor Robert Hobbs in Agnes Denes’s Environmental Projects and Installations: Sowing New Concepts. In: Agnes Denes(monograph), Herbert F Johnson Museum,Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, l992, pages 163-70.
3. Agnes Denes wrote in an excerpt from the lecture Evolution and the Creative Mind, Smithsonian Institution (1978): printed in catalogue essay for Agnes Denes 1968-1980 – A retrospective, Hayden Gallery, MIT, Cambridge, MA: “I believe that art is the essence of life, as much as anything can be a true essence. It is extracted from existence by a process. Art is a reflection on life and an analysis of its structure. As such, art should be a great moving force shaping the future.”
4. Agnes Denes has had three retrospectives in major museums previous to this one and 500 exhibitions to date, and has received numerous major awards.
5. Agnes Denes quoted from an essay, The Philosophy and the Act in ‘Wheatfield – A Confrontation, Battery Park Landfill, downtown Manhattan, two acres of wheat planted and harvested, Summer 1982.
6. From an excerpt of an essay by Agnes Denes, A short history of The Pyramids, 2005.