Regeneration on Tree Mountain
In previous issues I analyzed major works of Earth art that I found more aesthetic than ecologic. Now, I wrap up this series of columns by looking at examples of Earth art that are deliberately green—that actually help restore the Earth. Agnes Denes has been creating these kinds of works for decades.
Denes gained notice in the United States for Wheatfield—A Confrontation (1982), a two-acre field of grain she planted on an empty, four-acre lot right next to the World Trade Center towers. She cleaned the land, covered it with 200 truckloads of soil, and then hand planted seeds that reaped 1,000 pounds of wheat. Denes then shipped that wheat to 28 cities around the world as part of an art show about ending world hunger.
The “confrontation” of her project’s title refers to the challenge the wheat field posed to the financial capital of the world and its obsession with accumulating wealth rather than serving human needs. This is in-your-face Earth art pushing a comprehensive environmental agenda.
Denes is a visionary whose work, she proclaimed to me, cannot be fully characterized by the label “restoration Earth art.” I agree. She incorporates science, mathematics, and philosophical pronouncements into her work, which has both a conceptual basis and direct social and ecological effects through built-in public involvement. However, many of her projects do involve restoration and reclamation—components I find missing in so many examples of Earth art.
The health of the planet is in a precarious state and cries out for such restoration more than ever. Earth artists often use natural materials and forms just to dazzle us with their imaginative constructions. They may have to stretch themselves to embrace this more complicated phase of their movement, making art that emulates Earth processes, as Denes surely has.
Her Tree Mountain—A Living Time Capsule (1996 to the present) brings together essentials of her Earth art on a scale that is hard to imagine. She had a mountain of soil piled into an elliptical cone over a gravel pit near Ylöjärvi, Finland; it measured 420 meters long, 270 meters wide, and 28 meters tall. She then had 11,000 people plant 11,000 trees in a golden section and “sunflower/pineapple” pattern around her mathematically designed mound; convinced the Finnish government to promise to preserve it for four centuries; and gave the tree planters and their heirs the right to pass on their living legacy of a tree for at least 20 generations. That is the time-capsule element of Tree Mountain. In her artist’s statement, Denes says:
The forest will be kept for the next 400 years, thereby creating the first manmade virgin forest. It will take that long for the environment to re-create itself. The 11,000 people who came to plant the trees received a certificate valid for four centuries that they can leave to their children as custodians of the trees. My forests are mathematical in order to combine the human intellect with the majesty of nature. I restore the land, rejuvenate it, and fill it with wonders of new human understanding.
Denes’s grand project required support of a multigovernmental agency—the United Nations—and the Finnish Ministry of the Environment. Works like this one force governments, foundations, benefactors, and the public to reconceive the role of art in our lives. Talk about civic engagement!
I am not proposing that all Earth art must produce a growing, living, green thing. Other famous works that I have examined in this series—such as Robert Smithson’s salt-encrusted jetty, Andy Goldsworthy’s curvy stone wall, or Michael Heizer’s massive rock—can bring our desensitized relationship to the land to fuller awareness. We need that, but maybe less so as the fate of the Earth becomes all too apparent. Earth art might commit itself to performing some of the actual remediation work, where ecological function complements aesthetic design.
Denes almost embraces a radical belief that, in our calamitous, postmodern world, art must be appropriately “malignant,” never “benign.” Quoting her again: “Beauty is the sure bearer of weakness, and usefulness is a killer. Art should be above all that, it should nauseate, disturb, arouse, and so on.”
But then, she reverses herself: “Okay, why not, but I feel that beauty can also be so brilliant and breathtaking that it disturbs. And art can be useful in an ailing world and natural, not artificial and still be great art.”
Denes offers a profound corrective, a new aesthetic for our time: a beauty that disturbs in its brilliance, and a natural usefulness that can help heal an ailing world. Tree Mountain does that. Its scale and its green reality—a new vast forest—can awe us with overwhelming beauty; this used to be called the “sublime.” The use of the forest not for products but in its natural state defines it as a healing resource for those who wander through it, reflect on it, sense it, watch it grow and evolve, and thereby receive a sort of convalescence.