Turning Over a New Leaf

Inspired by the ecological crisis, artists are seeking to connect with nature on a personal level—listening to glaciers, talking to plants, or taking biospheres for a walk.

Visitors at MASS MoCA get up close with a little piece of nature in Vaughn Bell’s Village Green, 2008.


“07757001122” reads a string of digits in white neon hanging on the gallery wall alongside photographs of an Icelandic glacier. Visitors are asked to whip out their cell phones and dial the number. The sounds from the other end of the line come promptly: crisp, staccato drips and splashes form different tones and patterns. They quicken and subside, creating what sounds like a bowl of Rice Krispies in an echo chamber.

The work, titled Vatnajíkull (the sound of), 2007–8, was on view at the Modern Art Oxford gallery in England last summer. Glasgow-based artist Katie Paterson dropped a waterproof microphone into an icy lagoon in the Vatnajíkull region of Iceland—home to Europe’s largest and most rapidly disappearing collection of glaciers. The microphone was rigged to an amplifier and a cell phone. During the two-month run of the show, the glacier accepted thousands of calls from around the world, expelling its own language of snaps, crackles, and plops while slowly melting.

Talking to glaciers, strumming the bass for a fern, glorifying an overgrown weed on a pedestal. Playful, yes. But these artworks also act as a sort of SOS, echoing the alarm Al Gore and environmentalists have been sounding for the past few years. And instead of deploying apocalyptic images of landfills overwhelmed by waste or melting ice caps swallowed by the sea, artists are finding new, conceptual ways to depict landscape.

“What we’re seeing now, especially among younger artists, is this ominous idea of celebrating landscape while it’s on the verge of disappearing,” says Steven Bode, director of the Film and Video Umbrella, a new-media-arts nonprofit in London. Via sound, sculpture, and installations, these artists are trying to fashion personal connections with a rapidly changing world.

“I’ve found that in working this way—with this bodily, physical experience of landscape—it’s possible to be both engaged in the idea of an empathetic response to what’s going on while at the same time having this sort of ironic detachment,” says Seattle-based artist Vaughn Bell, who built Personal Forest Floor (Portable Mountain), 2003–8. Composed of small, organic landscapes on wheels, the work is meant to be tended to and walked as one would a pet. “There’s a sense of lightness. The eco-crisis is an inspiration for my work and lends to its immediacy. But you still have this totally absurd image of someone dragging a mountain around the city on a leash.”

Rethinking the landscape in contemporary art started with Earth artists in the 1960s and ’70s. Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, and Michael Heizer broke out of galleries and museums. They traveled westward, and the journey, the experience, and their documentation became part of the work itself. They moved beyond simply depicting land and building things on it; they sculpted, manipulated, and displaced actual soil and terrain. It was a very macho approach—roughing up the land to achieve certain looks or effects. As environmental awareness grew in the ’70s and ’80s, artists aimed to be gentler. They sought to generate awareness and help the cause, be it through planting trees (Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Oaks, 1982–7) or building temporary alternative landscapes to be enjoyed by the public (Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Surrounded Islands, 1980–3).

This kinder, softer Land art continued into the ’90s as artists collaborated with scientists to address the growing issue of waste. Mel Chin coaxed toxins out of the ground with Revival Field (1990–present), and Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison tried to cure sewage problems in Colorado with projects like Boulder Underground/Overground Seep—A Wetlands Walk for Boulder Creek(1990). This impulse to heal the earth persists today with some artist-activists who are experimenting with solar power and alternative fuel sources. The problem, however, is that too often the actual art is a casualty of the process.

Recently, artists have been after “a better balance between art and science,” says Denise Markonish, a curator at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. Her “Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape” is on view at the museum through the 9th of this month. “Yes, there’s research—that’s conceptually important—but there’s an esthetic, experiential part of it, too.”

Katie Holten’s giant, jet-black sculptures of trees loom in galleries as if back from the dead. They may seem organic at first, but Holten handcrafts each installation, using only materials scavenged at the institution where she is working. Excavated Tree (Missouri Native: Flowering Dogwood), the most ambitious of these works, was built for her 2007 solo show at the Contemporary Art Museum in Saint Louis. The sculpture was modeled after a 1952 black-and-white photograph of a dogwood tree that had been yanked from the ground; it is elevated in the image, with its full root system on display. Holten built her version out of cardboard, wire, PVC plastic, paper, and tape gathered from trash cans and recycling bins throughout the museum. The black tentacle-like branches and roots of the 20-foot tree stretched out through the entire gallery space. It was a jarring sight, especially as it was indoors, and there was really no physical way around it.

“Katie’s relationship to the natural world is very specific,” says Jodie Vicenta Jacobson, a curator at the Horticultural Society of New York. “She uses whatever comes her way as material. And that’s how plants work—they survive on what’s around them.”

Holten is also responding to the idea of “something being a transplant, not considered ‘natural’ in terms of its surroundings,” says Sara Reisman, director of Percent for Art at the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. “Jane Benson’s Monument to Weeds works similarly. It asks what it means to be considered inappropriate to a specific site, and why we look at these particular plants as we would aliens.” Commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Monument to Weeds(2006) pays homage to the native species that are plucked from the landscape and discarded every day. A plastic sculpture of these plants sits encapsulated in Plexiglas atop an ornate concrete pedestal. With his photographic series “Tree” (2005–8), Myoung Ho Lee too transforms otherwise unremarkable parts of nature into art. Lee singles out one tree in each of his photographs—all of which depict landscapes in his native Korea—setting it against a stark white backdrop. The effect is reminiscent of studio portraiture í  la Richard Avedon, with each tree emerging as an individual.

Roxy Paine is another artist sculpting monuments to nature. His Maelstrom(2009), a trunkless mass of intertwined tree branches made of stainless steel, goes on view in the roof garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on the 28th of this month. Perched atop the museum, the sculpture’s manmade sheen is meant to play off the natural, bucolic Central Park setting. Paine’s chaotic entanglement of branches contrasts with Frederick Law Olmsted’s deliberate organization of the famous park. “I want it to be a swirling, destructive, uncontained force,” Paine says. “A tree that’s in the process of becoming an abstraction.”

The work is the latest in Paine’s ongoing “Dendroids” series. At their most basic level, the dendroids are stainless-steel trees—futuristic mutts, with attributes from various species. But conceptually, Paine says, they connect nature to industry and, consequently, nature to man.

Rotterdam-based Spanish artist Lara Almarcegui embraces, even preserves, industry’s mark on the land. In the tradition of Gordon Matta-Clark, who in the ’70s snatched up small, unaccounted-for corners of New York City at auction, Almarcegui takes out long-term leases on bits of land that have been either ignored or decimated by local industry. Then she does absolutely nothing to them. “These aren’t practices that seek to airbrush out the human influence on the landscape,” says Max Andrews, cofounder of Latitudes, a Barcelona-based environmental-arts nonprofit. “It goes back to Smithson, who looked very much at the role of humankind in terms of its impact on the natural world, whether through mining or extraction industries.” Almarcegui’s ongoing “Wastelands” series has turned into a European tour of sorts, with maps leading viewers to each site.

Icelandic artist Katrin Sigurdardottí­r offers viewers a more approachable version of the wild, using scale to change the relationship between humans and land. In 2007, at the Landesgalerie Linz in Austria, she installed three untitled white cubes. People had to kneel like ducks diving for food, with their butts raised and their heads disappearing into a square cutout. Viewers found themselves encompassed by blue glaciers crafted out of resin, with the cube acting as the milky white waters upon which the glaciers float. It was a safe and private way to experience—at least in facsimile—the voracious arctic landscape.

Sigurdardottí­r’s Haul(2005)—which will be included in “Beyond the Picturesque,” opening at the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst in Ghent, Belgium, on the 4th of this month—makes landscape even more manageable. The work consists of eleven miniature models of picturesque parks and countrysides that fold up neatly into otherwise unremarkable crates and boxes. Each depicted terrain is an amalgamation of different places and memories, from Switzerland to San Francisco.

This work is often interpreted as a means of exposing people to a foreign landscape, but the artist holds that this is not her intent. It’s rather “an idiosyncratic proposal of completely reversing your relationship to nature—playing on this idea that nature is something that we control,” she says. “When you put nature in these boxes, it’s very docile, desirable. But in fact nature is the complete opposite of that. Nature can kill us even if we’re living in a protected urban place. In Iceland especially, we don’t think of nature as our friend.”

The intentional lack of specificity in Sigurdardottí­r’s work speaks to a larger trend of globalization. “A lot more people get around to a lot more places,” Bode notes, adding that on its own, “the idea of the ‘wild’ and the ‘other’ and the ‘unexplored’ is less seductive. We end up having to build a new relationship to landscape out of the portable frames of references that we all individually carry.”

Author and journalist Michael Pollan popularized an interesting approach to agriculture in his 2001 book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, suggesting that plants’ desires aren’t all that different from our own. New York artist Peter Coffin plays with this idea in his ongoing performance-installation Untitled (Greenhouse), 2002–7, a functional, 80-square-foot greenhouse. Coffin fills the plastic structure with houseplants and invites a wide variety of musicians—from the electronica band Black Dice to experimental singer-songwriter Arto Lindsay—to come inside and play. Physically, Greenhousemirrors the setup of various scientific studies about the effects of certain types of music on plants’ health. But Coffin wasn’t after hard facts and did not even record his results. As musicians and DJs played hard rock, soft rock, rap, and techno for the ferns and potted palms hanging around them, the work became more of a social experiment about people actively acknowledging the plants’ presence.

The work has been installed everywhere from the Palais de Tokyo in Paris to the lobby of a corporate building in New York. And each time, Coffin sees a similar response—not from the plants, but from the performers. “It’s interesting how musicians changed their performance habits willingly or unwillingly or maybe even unknowingly,” the artist says. “They performed differently than they would at a local club. They were anticipating what plants might like. Most musicians, without my guidance, decided to play quiet, melodic music. All of them told me they enjoyed the experience and found themselves much more aware of how they played and much more challenged by an approach like this.”

Vaughn Bell, with her transportable ecosystems, similarly calls on the participation of collaborators to complete her work. In a sense her art is a demonstration of the environmentalist credo that our relationship to the land should be mutually beneficial—a “do unto others” philosophy that seeks to reverse years of selfish misuse. She extracts and preserves indigenous, often overlooked bits of land, and at the same time seeks functional ways to offer serenity and a daily dose of nature to city folk. Village Green(2008), included in “Badlands” at MASS MoCA, is the latest in her series of personal and portable biospheres. In this piece, five house-shaped, clear acrylic cases are suspended from a gallery ceiling. Growing inside are plants native to the museum’s Berkshires environment. Each biosphere has a hole carved in its bottom so that visitors can poke their heads in and join the plants—quite literally—on their level.

Bell’s other projects include Cultivation Utility Vehicle(2006–present)—a cart Bell periodically totes around public spaces, offering up small sections of earth, or “personal landscapes,” for adoption. She has “pocket biospheres” up for adoption at MASS MoCA as well. Anyone is free to take home one of these little patches of moss growing on a bed of soil inside a small plastic orb, so long as they sign an official adoption form: “I, Vaughn Bell, do hereby cede the care and ownership of the abovementioned pocket biosphere to _____________ under the condition that the pocket biosphere will be maintained and cared for to the greatest extent possible.”

“Approaching landscape from this perspective is a little bit bittersweet,” Bell says. “It’s sad but it’s humorous and maybe just a tiny bit hopeful. I recently saw this editorial cartoon—Al Gore holding up a giant sign in Senate chambers that reads: ‘The end is near!’ People are getting accustomed to that apocalyptic message. My outlook is that it’s a choice to make. If I was too apocalyptic I probably wouldn’t have the energy to make art at all.”

Rachel Wolff is an associate editor of ARTnews.

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