Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape (1965-ongoing) returned to full bloom this past summer. The public artwork looked fresh in a season of exhibitions around New York teeming with organic matter.
The thin strip of forested land just north of Houston Street in Manhattan could be confused with any other micro park or community garden in the city, except that Sonfist’s plot is denser with vegetation than most—and wilder. There are no paths, benches or water features, but there is a grove of beech trees carpeted with mugwort and Virginia creeper. There are elms and white ash, and patches of dogwood and violets. Planting these native species, Sonfist cultivated a microcosm of Manhattan’s ecology before colonialism: asphalt peeled back, gears of industry monkey-wrenched, Henry Hudson sent home.
Of course, the natural world Sonfist conjured is highly cultivated: nature-esque. It is a garden. Time Landscape is maintained by volunteers who pull the weeds, defined in this case as any post-17th-century interloper. We can admire the indigenous landscape while imagining the modern bureaucracy behind it, the legal wrangling that keeps this city-owned piece of real estate at NYU’s doorstep looking feral.
This tension is part of what Sonfist was after, and the heightened feeling of contrast between nature and culture in his work is what distinguished him from many of his Land art contemporaries. In 1964, Leo Marx published The Machine in the Garden, describing two great “counterforces” often at loggerheads in American literature and thought: faith in technological progress and a devotion to the pastoral ideal. Epitomizing this conflict is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s description of a locomotive’s whistle in the Catskills—“the long shriek, harsh above all other harshness”—shattering his contemplative repose among the leaves, “the beautiful diversity of green.” Sonfist inverts Hawthorne’s “little event,” staging an eruption of the pastoral in the cityscape, offering urbanites a vision of green overgrowth, or at least a sideways glimpse of it, to be caught while charging toward the postlapsarian Apple store.
There is a temporal dimension to Sonfist’s work that stretches beyond seasonal change. “As in war monuments that record the life and death of soldiers,” he wrote, “the life and death of natural phenomena such as rivers, springs and natural outcroppings need to be remembered.” Time Landscape in this regard is a monument to the marshes of NoHo that the city murdered in the name of forward progress, long ago laying the foundation for a future of globalized, networked higher-education platforms.
Writing from the U.K. in the 1970s, Raymond Williams observed how “the common image of the country is now an image of the past, and the common image of the city an image of the future. That leaves, if we isolated them, an undefined present.” That last phrase captures a lot of the weirdness evident in Pierre Huyghe’s installation on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum. Most summers, the Met’s roof is a showplace for large-scale sculptures that offer a nice backdrop for after-work drinks. Huyghe made the place look like a “ruin in reverse,” to quote Robert Smithson paraphrasing a line from a Roger Corman movie.
The French artist removed some of the paving stones on the roof deck, piled them haphazardly and scattered seeds in the muddy, gravelly ground beneath, allowing wildflowers—aka weeds—to grow over the summer. The wall text claimed that a few prehistoric stone smashing tools were present in the mix, also dispersed haphazardly. Other parts of the project looked more deliberately placed. Huyghe had a granite boulder hauled up and set across from a mad-scientist fish tank containing crustacean life-forms that apparently hadn’t evolved for millennia.
A lot of time was packed into this landscape. Geologic time, evolutionary time, the time of human culture, seasons, rooftop sunsets and then, finally, the crucial eyeblink: that time it takes a given visitor to sip a beer, admire the park views, Instagram the whole thing, and then ponder his place in the vast universe for a while. Huyghe cultivated a garden in an expanded sense, a place where human actions and natural forces were joined in a dynamic collaboration. That collaboration is always happening, of course—even if the end product is not always clear or desirable—but Huyghe’s contribution was to frame it, make it conspicuous, put it on display in (on?) a museum.
The sprawling environment encouraged viewers to take note of multiple processes happening simultaneously. Some of these, like erosion and evolution, happen so slowly as to be imperceptible to an individual viewer. But that human-centric view may not always be the most reliable or informative. Speculative Realism, a philosophical school currently providing quite a bit of theoretical decoration to art-world press releases, offers terminology for thinking about the world in this way, decentering humans and giving new attention to how ecological and geological forces operate as coequal agents in the world. But there are other traditions that can help us understand the human-nature relationship.
Murray Guy’s “The Secret Life,” curated by painter Leidy Churchman, proposed an intellectual framework that is decidedly less fashionable. The show’s title comes from a 1973 book, The Secret Life of Plants (later adapted into a documentary), exploring “the physical, emotional and spiritual relations between plants and man.” There is a New Agey tone to the original text, which offers some dubious speculation about the perceptual and emotive capacities of plants. Auras are measured and orgone energy accounted for. This rhetoric offers a jolt today, but one that’s helpful for realizing the true strangeness of our relation to nature. Rochelle Goldberg’s installation Cannibal Junk (2015) included a field of vibrant green chia sprouts growing on a gray carpet on the gallery floor. The most prominent human contribution to her ecosystem consisted of twisted chunks of cast bronze that looked broken and junky. I was also struck by Joachim Koester’s black-and-white photograph of a marijuana plant. Depicted in sharp focus, the plant looked boring and ordinary, mobilizing little desire. These plants have no conception of what we want from them. They will never get high on their own supply. They will simply grow until they stop, unaware of the huge implications their carcasses and seeds hold for health care, criminal justice, politics and the designs high schoolers scrawl on their notebooks.
“All Watched Over,” the title of the James Cohan summer show, alluded to a 1967 poem by Richard Brautigan that imagines a cybernetic future in which humans are tended to by great artificial-intelligence machines that regard us as we regard ladybugs and bees. Brautigan’s poem is a radical ecological vision; by ceding our biblical roles as caretakers of creation to the new digital higher-ups, humans can return to a holistic relationship with our fellow mammals and plants. In other words, technology is freedom is slavery. However, the selection of work didn’t really explore the ecological significance of the poem’s proposition, instead offering a meditation on links between big data and spiritual cosmology. Data in the colloquial sense was evoked by Michael Riedel’s paintings of bureaucratic-looking forms and Michael Portnoy’s digital images of kale containing encrypted information. While we fret about databases, our ancestors worried about the cosmos, represented here by Aboriginal artist Nonggirrnga Marawili’s dream-time paintings and Paul Laffoley’s visionary diagrams of the heavens.
At City Hall Park the Public Art Fund staged “Image Objects,” a show of outdoor sculptures by seven artists who are best known for working with digital imaging tools. Most of the works were fairly conventional, even if their digital origins were conspicuous (or at least noted on the accompanying plaques). Jon Rafman’s marble pieces looked like homages to Henry Moore’s abstraction but turned out to be even more banal than that—distorted reproductions of classical busts created with the sculptural equivalent of applying a Photoshop filter. Amanda Ross-Ho’s contribution was a witty but flat take on the traditional focal points that dot English gardens. It was derived from a still-life group—a generic bust, some cubes and spheres—she found in an instructional photography book, the perfect target for tourists’ snapshots.
More interesting pieces played with garden semiotics: Alice Channer made 3-D-printed boulders in concrete, aluminum and steel. Rocky outcroppings are usually signifiers of wildness within otherwise manicured landscapes. Channer’s work presented natural-looking forms as synthetic, digitized and reproducible. Timur Si-Qin’s contribution brought a note of cynicism that pierced through the garden as surely as any locomotive whistle. Three black monoliths, each adorned with a variation on a yin-yang symbol and the word “Peace,” stood in a group under a grove of trees. If Hawthorne’s 19th-century train was overly harsh, these 21st-century trade-show henges are overly smooth and slick, offering a hairsplitting nature-culture contrast: the cold comfort of corporate design set within a well-tended lawn in the world’s financial capital.