Saturday, January 12, 2008

Interview with Alan Sonfist, John K. Grande


Considered a pioneer of public art that celebrates our links to the land, to permaculture, Alan Sonfist is an artist who has sought to bridge the great gap between humanity and nature by making us aware of the ancient, historic and contemporary nature, geology, landforms and living species that are part of "living history". With a reawakening of public awareness of environmental issues and of a need to regenerate our living planet Sonfist brings a much needed awareness of nature's parallel and often unrecorded history and present in contemporary life and art. As early as 1965 Sonfist advocated the building of monuments dedicated to the history of unpolluted air, and suggested the migration of animals should be reported as public events.

Alan Sonfist, "Time Landscape of New York City", outdoor installation, 1965- present.
In an essay published in 1968 titled Natural Phenomena as Public Monuments, Sonfist emancipated public art from focussing exclusively on human history stating: "As in war monuments that record the life and death of soldiers, the life and death of natural phenomena such as rivers, springs, and natural outcroppings need to be remembered. Public art can be a reminder that the city was once a forest or a marsh." Alan Sonfist continues to advocate, in his urban and rural artworks, projects that heighten our awareness of the historical geology or terrain of a place, earth cores become a symbol of the deeper history or geology of the land. His art emphasizes the layered and complex intertwining of human and natural history. He has bequeathed his body as an artwork to the Museum of Modern Art. Its decay is seen as an ongoing part of the natural life cycle process.

Sonfist's art has been exhibited internationally at Dokumenta VI (1977), Tickon in Denmark (1993), and in shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1975), the Museum of Modern Art, N.Y. (1978), the Los Angeles County Museum (1985), the Osaka World's Fair (1988), Santa Fe Contemporary Art Center (1990), the Museum of Natural History in Dallas, Texas (1994). Best known for his Natural/Cultural Landscape Commissions which began in 1965 with Time Landscape in Greenwich Village, and include Pool of Virgin Earth, Lewiston, N.Y. (1973), Hemlock Forest, Bronx, N.Y. (1978), Ten Acre Project, Wave Hill, N.Y. (1979), Geological Timeline, Duisburg, Germany (1986), the Rising Earth Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. (1990), Natural/Cultural Landscape, Trento, Italy (1993), a 7-mile Sculpture Nature Trail in La Quinta, California (1998), as well as Natural/Cultural Landscapes created for the Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa in Florida (1995) and Aachen, Germany (1999). Sonfist is currently working on a three and a half-mile sculptural nature walk in LaQuinta, California, an Environmental Island outside of Berlin, and The Great Bay Fountain for architect Richard Meier in Islip N.Y..

JG: From the mid-1960s you established a name as one of the first environmental artists who, unlike land artists Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, did not emphasize a minimalist aesthetic in the creation of artworks and monuments. What do you feel brought you to environmental art?

AS: My art began in the street fires of the South Bronx, late 1950�s, when I was a child. Gangs and packs of wild dogs were roaming the streets where I was growing up. The neighborhood was a landscape of concrete, no trees. The Bronx River divided the two major gangs, and the river protected a primal forest. It was my sanctuary as a child. The human violence didn�t enter the forest - it was my magical cathedral. I would skip school to spend every moment I could in this forest and replenish my energy, my life. The forest became my life, and my art.

JG: When you first turned your attention to art making, what inspiration did you draw from the art world? Were there certain artists or teachers who drew you in the direction you wanted or was it self-learning?

AS: It was self-directed. I have always been tuned to collecting and gathering fragments of the forest. Labelling it as "art" or "not art" was never an issue. It was more the uniqueness of these elements that attracted me. Even when I went to school in the mid-west, later, I brought with me some of the seedlings of my Bronx forest after it was destroyed by an intentional fire.

JG: As early as 1965 you produced a work called Time Landscape� involving actual living growth in art. Indigenous animals were reintroduced into an urban setting.

AS: The reconstructed forest was a way of going back into my childhood forest in New York as it would have been, initiated in Greenwich Village. I transplanted living tree species such as beech, oak and maple and over 200 different plant species native to New York, selected from a pre-Colonial contact period in New York. These are still there on site. Besides experiencing the indigenous trees of New York City, Time Landscape� allowed me to experience and interact with foxes, deer, snakes, eagles and this was part of my experience.

JG: "Interactive" is a word that has been appropriated by many artists who are simply working with images on a screen. When you worked on the nature theater as early as 1971, the interactions were real involving nature and sound orchestration in the forest.

AS: The "Nature Theater" idea was to construct a physical fragment of a forest (I have done several including one at Goethe University) and then allowing the nature itself to be the sound, for instance, as opposed to constructing noises of a forest. And allowing the animals themselves to become the performers - the migration of the birds becomes a special event.

JG: And animals for you have souls just like we do?

AS: Exactly. Trees do too. They definitely do communicate with each other and they also communicate with humans if they are willing to listen.

JG: And your photo work is related to this and various other projects. I know your photographic works have inspired other artists. How are they presented in galleries?

AS: I showed photographs in my early exhibits in the 1970s. The photos are more observations of nature, trying to understand how we see and relate to the environment. My first art dealer didn�t; even want to exhibit my photographs because he did not consider them art. Now, there are several artists who have creating works similar to these early photographs. Each photographic event is an exploration of human interaction with nature. For instance, From the Earth to the Sky� and Sky to the Earth� , is more about walks through the forest and how we see the forest, how the movement of the landscape shifts as we relate to it and the light quality. Examining nature�s interaction with urban life was a radical concept at the time.

JG: In a way, every environment is unique. We talk about bio-regionalism and the global culture, for instance. The irony is that quite often there is this idea that elsewhere is exotic and where we live is not. New York City vegetation is actually as exotic as South American.

Alan Sonfist, "Time Landscape of New York City", (detail) outdoor installation, 1965- present.
AS: Exactly. It is always easy for one to look at another environment and say that is special. The clich� goes the grass is always greener on the other side of the hill, instead of looking at one's own environment. I have always been concerned about the particular location I am working with, because each is unique and has fascinating vegetation to be discovered. The forest I witnessed as a child ended up being bulldozed and set in concrete. That was the end of my forest, and the beginning of my art.

JG: The idea of the continuity of time has almost been erased in this culture. Yet there is this ever present physical continuity between the various elements in the environments that surround us. We are not often aware of this. By presenting nature as a presence in your work you are allowing us to see how integration of our culture with nature will become one the keys to development in the 21st century in technology, science and the arts. Technologists will have to develop new forms of transport, products which use less and renewable resources, which emphasize a cyclical resource system rather than an exploitative, one-way non-renewable system. Your work is less that of an ideologist than that of a bio-historian who works with the culture/nature cross-over.

AS: Bio-history, as in the Circles of Time� is the layering of nature in time. Each area of the project represents an unique event in the continuum of Tuscan History. We look at each fragment of time and begin to realize this layering is a continuum. It's not one fixed moment. The photographs I take, for instance, emphasize that it is not an absolute. Within this continuum one can select out different unique events. The Tuscan landscape had been so radically changed over the centuries that the original forest�s history had been virtually erased.

JG: Isn't that one of the problems with parks and nature sites in many cities? Planners bring in so many foreign plant and tree species that are not native to the land in an effort to make their parks and public places exotic. In Oslo, Norway, interestingly, the tree and shrub species replicate the nature that surrounds the city of Oslo. You see large fir trees, nesting places for birds, that mirror the natural landscape of the region in Oslo. There is a kind of relief in that idea that the nature of the city reaffirms the landscape which surrounds the city.

AS: One of the earlier artworks I created for the New York City Parks Department was a landscape with natural flowers and artificial flowers. This was for the first Earth Day at Union Square Park in 1970. The question was which is real and which is artificial. My project in the Mojave Desert is similar to what you mentioned. Most landscapes there use plants taken from lush environments that need continuous watering, such as a grass lawn. One of the issues that came up when I said I was only going to introduce indigenous plants in this desert environment was that some of the local people said, "That's ugly! How could anyone respond to that!" When I started to select out and go back into the historical plants native to the region, people were shocked and amazed how beautiful the spectrum of flowers. There was such a diversity that it became a visual laboratory of understanding of the environment.

JG: Undoubtedly, the work stimulated thought and controversy as well as providing a cathartic living environment for the people who live there. Your Rock Monument of Manhattan (1975-2000) recently exhibited at the Dorsky Gallery (2000) in New York in a group environmental show involves cross-section samples, what we do not see; the hidden landscape the geology under New York City.

AS: These samples were taken from the underlying strata of New York City geology. Over the years, I have created similar artworks throughout the world, but predominantly in Europe and North America. They are cylindrical cross-sections of the Earth, now in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. I have been commissioned to do similar projects, such as the one for the opening of the Ludwig Museum in Koln.

JG: This idea that there is a permanent culture that exists underneath the man-made culture or environment is an interesting one. It undoubtedly will persist for much of this new millennium and plays an important role in providing us with a sense of permacultural geological time. Understanding this permacultural context can help us to design our urban environments with a sensitivity to the brief history of our civilization vis-a-vis natural history.

AS: Exactly. A key to our understanding of the environment we live in is literally locked into the rock formations under our cities and the evolution of our solar system above us.

JG: I was going to ask you about the less well known crystal works you did in the 1960s and 1970s. These growing crystal projects seem to be fascinating.

AS: I created a series of what I would call Micro-Macro Landscapes. The crystal structures were to illustrate the fact that within everything there are the micro-structures of an element. From a practical point of view, by taking elements that are very unstable, I was able to put them in a vacuum and allow them to inter-exchange so that they transformed from dense solids back to this crystalline form. When exhibited, the viewer could see this interaction occurring within the structures, themselves.

JG: The effect was always constant. You could actually see it occurring?

AS: It was continuous. Again, it was occurring in relationship to the environment. If the sun was hitting the structure it would heat it up and therefore it would create more pressure inside. Therefore the crystals would dissipate and then, as they cooled, they would condense onto the surface. At the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (1977), I created a window for them which was on display for many years. The window itself would move as the sun moved during the daytime. It would gravitate to the movement of light. This is something that occurs in the natural world, and yet many people have never seen it. My intention was to integrate these things directly into the path of human interaction.

JG: Your Heat Paintings from the late 1960s again involve the volatility of internal structures. As the metal transforms, the alloys change color.

AS: The Heat Paintings parallel the crystalline pieces, so you see the internal molecular structure of the metal.

JG: Heat circles transform the alloy into color variations. The physics of nature actually transforms the artworks, kind of like Andy Goldsworthy's pigment and snow drawings...

AS: This is a real time event. The artwork allows you to see the composition of the material. I created a series of different artworks, decoding the process of the materials.

JG: Your series of micro-macro landscapes titled Elements Selection� from the 1960s to the early 70�s, are structural changes that are part of a natural physical cycle. This natural entropy became a reading of the environment. Did you select the elements that would cause these changes or was it left up to nature to decide the course of these works?

AS: I unrolled the canvas, and as the process began, I selected the elements as exactly as they existed. The canvas was then left in the natural surroundings, so that the twigs and leaves that were selected as well as the canvas would go back to its natural state in nature. I also created a series of paintings, where I selected a series of slices of the earth such as fall leaves, which was titled, Leaves Frozen in Time. These artworks have ended up in numerous museum collections.

JG: The Pool of Virgin Earth created in the early seventies at the Lewiston Art Park, in upstate New York regenerated a section of what was, and still is, a chemical wasteland...

AS: The area was a toxic waste dump for several years before it was given over as an art park. The area was a desert of toxicity. Through the consultation of specialist, I was determined to create a pool of virgin earth that would show the rebirth of the toxic dump. The pool was so successful that eventually they used my method to create the entire site.

JG: The plants would help purify this area of earth?

AS: Yes. The plants were selected to help heal the earth.

JG: Natural/Cultural Landscape created for the Curtis-Hixon Park in Tampa, Florida in 1995 is a more recent cross-over work. I know you have created many commissions through out the world concerning the natural evolution of the land, as you said in your early writings that was published in 1969, that with in Landmark cities that you plan to create "Landmark Nature Monuments." Do you feel your more recent Natural Cultural Landscape project involves a compromise in working with landscape or city architects?

AS: No, all my public projects involve the community. I always have public meetings to discuss my ideas. I invite the local artist as well as architects and landscape architects. They became part of the process of creating the artwork.

JG: Why were four classical columns integrated into your Natural/Cultural Landscape in Tampa, Florida? It seems curious as you are often working with natural, as opposed to human history.

AS: The columns correspond to the human history of the site. The first Europeans there were Spanish, and they built colonnade buildings. The columns represent the human past and were planted with plants that represent the natural history from early human intervention to contemporary landscape.

Alan Sonfist, "Circles of Time", aach ring represents the narrative natural and cultural history of Tuscany, 3 acres, Villa Celle, Tuscany, Italy 1989.
JG: What sort of species of plants and what kind of configuration did you finally arrive at for this living landscape work?

AS: All the plants in the site represented different historical events from human to natural history and how they both intersect. The pathway represents these intersections.

JG: So did it become a kind of community exchange, a point of encounter and learning for the local citizens?

AS: Yes. I think when one involves the community there is a kind of inter exchange of ideas. The park becomes the community. For me that is what determines the ultimate success of a public sculptures. When I create private commissions I am responding to the corporate structure.

JG: There is always this problem of designers moving into an area where they don't know the history of a community. They will place the benches in the wrong place; people don't walk in that area or whatever. Involving a community helps to create a kind of ensouling or consecration of a place.

AS: Exactly. Everything from the seating areas to the walkways will all correspond to community needs.

JG: So the process was quite democratic.

AS: It was democratic, and from my point of view as an artist, it was almost like a palette. In other words, I had a palette maybe several hundred images that could be utilized for the project and had to select out which ones would be most effectively integrated into the project, visually and culturally.

JG: And these pathways you designed going through the grassy landscape are non-linear in shape-like motifs.

AS: The pathways were designed to correspond to the natural history from the ice age to the present.

JG: A kind of histology, a history of nature and culture brought into a living dynamic. There is a patchwork design to it, using colored brickwork and slabs, various grass species and walkways. It becomes a nature/culture quilt that references various eras and epochs.

AS: A quilt where each section is interconnected by its own uniqueness in history. Seen from the air, the leaf structures in the pathways are most evident. If you knew the leaves you would know that each leaf represents a different time frame within the ecology of that region. The pathways are a 21st century view of the land not a typical landscape concept that parks are being created at this time. Walking through the park, the entrance becomes an echo of our understanding of the history of the community. The park progresses to the water where we see a reflection of the ice age.

JG: When you exhibited at Documenta VI in Kassel, Germany (1977) you created a series of photographic essays which were like a composite of a forest, with relics of a forest underneath the photographs. Can you tell me about this.

AS: The photographs became the forest. Each photographic artwork exposed multi layers of the forest. Through each one of these artworks, one viewed a special moment within the forest. Some of the more significant artworks of the 1970�s is where I created 180 and 360 degree "Gene Banks", with real time fragments of the forest.

JG: We are the Gods of our own consumption and we are now eating ourselves. There is also this confusion between technology and experimental science. The two are fusing. You are getting an involvement of new technologies with experimental science. Sometimes the blurring of these two disciplines means there is a further manipulation of science. The technologies are forming the processes whereby the scientists are working. In other words the lenses, the ways that science is evolving are technologically controlled which may not allow more creative solutions to be arrived at. In other words we may not be seeing as much as we think when we involve ourselves in pure science.

AS: There are two levels of reality, we want to create an alternative fuels but the same time we are also consumers of fossil fuel. Through my art, we have to understand our relationship to our community, our world and our universe.

JG: Which would be much better for the environment and for us.

AS: Exactly.

Writer and art critic John Grande's interviews, reviews and feature articles have been published extensively in numerous publications and books. This interview is an excerpt from Art Nature Dialogues: Interviews with Environmental Artists ( by John K. Grande (

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