Interview conducted by John Grande Montreal, Canada, October, 2008
Public nature: public art
Alan Sonfist is a visionary figure whose 40-year carrer in art has explored the relationship between natural history and human history. His works are driven by a sense of the past existing within the present. In the US, his most recognised piece of work is Time Landscape, situated on Houston Street in Manhattan. Here in the UK he's been working most recently with the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World in Devon. Curator and art writer John Grande caught up with Alan Sonfist recently in Montreal, Canada.
A pioneer of public art that celebrates our links to the land, Alan Sonfist is an artist who has sought to bridge the great gap between humanity and nature by making us aware of the ancient 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. 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.
Here we are in Montreal after a visit to the Laurentians and we have just heard of Barack Obama’s victory. How are you Alan? Great. It’s a beautiful day and I am looking forward to the United States future president Barack Obama taking office. He is a visionary of change in our society and has addressed in numerous speeches that we are entering into global warming because of our complete dependence on fossil fuels. In Köln, Germany I am creating a sculpture about global warming and the rhythms of our planet. The sculpture will visualize, for the viewer, the fragility of our planet.
Water has also become a major environmental issue in our society. Are you working on any projects concerning water? I proposed in New York City to create a park where the original water source of the city would be flowing. The sculpture would filter the ancient water and allow the public to engage in the historic streams of the city. I first proposed to expose the natural springs of New York in 1971 for Earth Day. The early land artists there was nothing ecological at all about their situational events. It was basically after Minimalism, it was getting out of the galleries. Actual nature had not much to do with it… Landscape as real estate perhaps.
Exactly. The essence of my art began in my childhood when I witnessed the destruction of the forest, walking in the Bronx. I was and still am captivated by the magic of the ancient forest. People in the community set fires and destroyed the forest. I realized at that moment that my life would be dedicated to educating people about the value of natural areas within urban environments. My art is consistently about the environment and calling attention to natural events that occur in urban and suburban environments. I see my art as a social discourse within a community. All great public art creates conversation within the community. We have to make a decision about how we create public art. Is public art going to just be a decoration that has very little meaning for the community or will it engage in a dialogue with that community? That is the important difference between my projects and those of the early land artists… I have always interacted with city residents while other artists were involved in creating remote land interventions in places where there was no connection with the community. A flight of geese could be celebrated instead of a war as a public event, and hence a living monument… We should celebrate natural events as opposed to wars. I propose to create within every community public art that celebrates its unique natural history. An early quote of mine stated, “We have landmark buildings, we should create landmark nature within urban and suburban areas.” Since we are actively destroying the world’s natural heritage, I propose that public art be created to celebrate the lost natural environments of our communities.
Public art need not only reference architecture and the urban site, but it can also reference nature. In that sense you were ahead of the landscape architects.
Yes, I was invited to MIT as an artist by the architectural program to set up a dialogue with the architects on how nature could be brought into architecture. Collaboration with the community, architects and landscape architects, is a crucial element of my work and it always has been. And what evolved from the MIT experience?
I found at MIT an enthusiastic forum of scientists and architects who all wanted to work together with me to create large-scale civic projects. We all worked together on an ecological project for the Charles River.
So the crossover is very important especially in the realm of art at this stage isn’t it? Over the years I have collaborated with experts throughout the world. I am currently working with scientists and architects in creating a new section for the city of Florence, Italy. We are creating a large environmental sculpture that will bring back the ancient vegetation of Tuscany. The park will be surrounded by the evolution of the city’s human history. Thus the collaboration will bridge the contemporary buildings with their ancient past, The Time Landscape you created in New York City near Washington Square in New York… How did it all start? How did the project get going? I approached the community and said I had an idea to create a historical landscape within the historic boundaries of Greenwich Village which is one of the earlier settlements in New York City. Immediately I got a very strong endorsement from the local residents. Within that community there were two very strong advocates of creating green spaces - Jane Jacobs and Ruth Wittenborn. They had not thought about the idea of history but they wanted to create more green spaces. To me both were pioneers. They were the ones who literally stopped Robert Moses massive highway system from going through Greenwich Village, and they substituted my Time Landscape for what would have been the Moses Highway. The Time Landscape is a historical natural landscape showing the juxtaposition of the indigenous people, and the colonials – how they interacted in the land using the context of a natural flora. Is there some reference to the early Dutch settlers in your plantings? The Dutch and English colonial diaries provided me insight into the native vegetation on the island in the earliest European period of settlement. In more recent projects such as the Florida Natural Cultural landscape in Tampa you literally create living landscapes that reference different geological and natural historical eras by planting the various living species from those eras. It all becomes a composite and multi-layered natural history that spans centuries and reflects changes from human intervention in a landscape. The city of Tampa invited me to collaborate with a landscape architect and architect to develop a public waterfront area for the city. We had numerous meetings discussing with the community and the government about how the area could be made into a unique public space. My contribution was to create an environmental sculpture with a relief mural carved into the concrete sidewalk reflecting the historical evolution of the city. I juxtaposed the original natural landscape with the contemporary skyscrapers. It started with a traditional Spanish garden leading to an ice age landscape. The crucial element is that each one is self-sustaining. Was that in the Spanish colonial historical area of the city? Yes it is connected to the Spanish colonial areas. I paid homage to the early settlers by using the traditional Spanish columns and then creating living versions of them. The sculptural columns were living systems with ancient and Spanish vegetation growing on them thereby becoming a living testament to natural history. And the walkways are in the forms of leaf shapes… Is that right? Everything echoes the historical evolution. Each leaf form represents a different forest, or type of vegetation that existed in Tampa. It starts with contemporary and then goes to a prehistoric waterfront landscape where I planted trees that would have grown there several thousand years ago. So each little niche in the leaf, creates another form of the historical landscape… The walkways themselves are not just walkways. They mimic the movement of the trains through the area. They mimic the footprints of the indigenous peoples of the area, the movements of the colonial people. It has multiple layers, and impressions on the land. Is there a link to the shoreline with the walkways? It connects directly to the shoreline so that people can walk from the street to the water. And in at Ludwig Forum in Aachen, Germany you presented a natural history installation in the park area. I was paying homage to Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor. I was inspired by the original fortification of Aachen, which I miniaturized and placed in the forest that would have existed during Charlemagne’s time. Thus the fortification becomes the protector of the forest. In the art gallery shows you often reference your natural historical approach as well. You did core samples under the city of Köln, I believe, for instance. In Köln I was invited to do a commission for the opening of the new Ludwig Museum. I was commissioned by the museum to uncover the geological history of the city. It was a living history, covered by concrete. By drilling in different strategic locations of Köln, I was able to expose this living geological history. Then I laid the corings out like a tablet, revealing the geologic secrets of the city. Journey to the Centre of the Earth with apologies to Jules Verne… And your Circles of Time project in Italy, is one of your most innovative and fascinating. Very often in landscape architecture natural features or topography is referenced, but very seldom do they build a narrative out of the intertwining of natural and human history as you have there. Can you comment? The Circles of Time was an echo of the rings of a tree. It became a metaphor to show the ages of the earth, each ring or circle represents a different time frame. It starts out at the central core with the original forest that existed in Tuscany, then moves to the Etruscan use of the land, where they would plant various herbs and forms of vegetation for their own food sources. The environmental sculpture then continues through the eras of the place. Each stone was laid into the site as if this were a geological history of the area, and the layout mimics the hills of Tuscany. The last ring was in an agricultural area, containing olive trees and wheat fields. The local farmers actually would collect the harvest, thus it became a truly public sculpture. So these last elements have a function. The olive trees and wheat fields establish a significant role, by linking with the agriculture and the local community. Exactly. So that is the crucial element for all my projects, that they do not disconnect from or impose on the community. The public art integrates with the city. I was pleased that the workers and community on the Italian project had a picnic party afterwards to celebrate the public art, as they did after my project in Denmark. Yes, Let's get to Denmark, At Tickon on the island of Langeland in Denmark which has a number of major works by Andy Goldsworthy, David Nash and many others artist who work with nature, you made a work that reference that bio-region of the world. Tell me about that… I spent several months observing the topography of Denmark. I observed ancient burial grounds that contained stone ships. I thought “Why don’t I create a stone ship and instead of paying homage to the humans again, pay homage to the oaks that created the ships.” Again, as with so many human events, the Danes overcut the timber for the ships, so this particular oak used for the Viking ships was almost extinct. The lands became deforested. So here I am, again, within this stone ship planting over one thousand oaks of this endangered species, so now the stone ship instead of protecting a burial ground, becomes a life force, and a protector of the forest of the future of Denmark.
And Alan, did Joseph Beuys influence your work? I was always a great admirer of his work. I will never forget, we were in Documenta 7 together. I shared a space next to him. Beuys was exhibiting his classic, wonderful Fat Machine and I had my presentation of my Time Landscape that I had just completed construction of in New York. My space in Documenta was a series of cubist photographs representing the ancient forests of New York. He spent much time in my exhibit discussing the ancient trees of New York. I feel we had a very common bond in our understanding of the environment. We also talked about our childhoods and our connection to nature. I think if he had lived we would have had a collaboration. As the landscape is becoming increasingly transformed, imposed upon, and so on, by human intervention, do you believe the role of the artist, and the public artist, in particular, could be to reinvigorate an idea of nature, as much as the nature itself, within the public art project? Nature is all around us, transformed, but often doesn’t look like nature. Do you think it should look like nature? I agree with you. That is why I called my work a Time Landscape, because nature is constantly changing. We are going into global warming now, and we had various ice ages. Nature is not a fixed object, its in transformation, existing in a continuum. I select different elements of time in these natural cultural landscapes. I am now working with the City of Florence. The team and I are creating a Time Landscape, visualizing the ancient olive tree. What does the word “integration” mean to you? It means that I am working with the community, the landscape architect, and the architect. Furthermore the art piece itself interacts with the people. I am very excited about the la Quinta, California nature trail you created in 1992. You are actually designing and creating the walking paths and routes in the landscape at la Quinta, as well as reintroducing indigenous species. The waterworks part of the government had built a one hundred year trench that was intended to prevent flooding on the community. The trench was simply dumped on the desert. The community was up in arms because they could see this dump area from their windows. So they demanded all this material be removed. I was invited to work with the Waterworks people and the community, so this is where the integration comes in. Immediately the Waterworks people said it would cost us over million to remove the rubble. They said, “We can’t do it. Can you come up with a solution?” I came up with using indigenous plants, which needed minimal care. It cost less to do my project and it created a beautiful nature walk. The public schools as well as nature groups are now utilizing the park.
I think of those early bronze tree forms you made that were assemblages of various trees species spliced to form one tree. Again it was about endangered trees. Similar to my original statements saying we have to create nature monuments, I thought who are the heroes of our society but trees. So trees are monuments we should pay homage to. The bronze sculptures were all relics of trees that I collaged together. They are exact replicas of fallen limbs, paying homage to the endangered trees of the earth. At an exhibition in the Ludwig Museum in Aachen, I created a series of natural and the bronzed copies or limbs. They were displayed together, the original natural limb or branch was worth 3,000 dollars and the bronze was worth 3 dollars. We must place more value on our natural heritage. How important is the visual in these assembled public art landscapes? I am an artist first, so the visual is important but the message is equally important. It has to be beautiful. A review of my art at the Albright-Knox Museum said that my work is quite beautiful and people enjoy it. So I wrote to the critic who wrote that, and I said “Thank you”. He called me up and said that he meant that as a criticism. And I said, “To me it is not a criticism. Art should bring a sense of life and a positive force in the community.” And so a work made at Three Mile Island, Pool of Virgin Earth made at Lewiston, New York…
That was done in the early 1970s, before they understood the technology of how they could seal a toxic area. I worked with scientists on that project. They actually expanded it, and it became a whole landscape. They then grew a forest on the land… The motor car seems to be part of the problem. There is no accounting for the transport and resource costs for these new developments and no future vision. I think these are some of the causes that need to be addressed by artists. Walking and observing is one of the crucial elements that I use in my work. My original proposal for the city of New York in 1965 was to create a series of integrated historical landscapes in every community throughout the city, and the would be connected by a path represented by the ancient pathways of pre-European Manhattan. And I believe there was a forest that played a major role in your work. I grew up in the south central Bronx where there was a hemlock forest, which has been totally destroyed. The city is actively trying to restore it. The forest and nature influenced you positively. Nature can be something that can move us in a positive direction and pubic art projects using nature as well. Swedish sociologists did a study on urban nature, and they asked the citizens what they liked. And an overwhelming percentage of respondents said, “We want more trees.” This became the essence of my planning projects for Sweden. Your photo collage works exhibited in art galleries are so different from the works of Hamish Fulton or Richard Long. They aren’t concept-based but are like multiple moments in a walk through a landscape. These are not individual views of a forest interior, but multiple time sequenced views that exist together, like a metaphor for the continuum nature exists in. That is what I am trying to do. Each one of these collages is not formulated. It is more my body movement in relation to the photograph, my body as it moves through the forest. The photographs are an active element, and present the way I observe the forest. The photographs become cubist photograph of time. There is a strong link between performance art, with artists like Allan Kaprow, yourself and many others, and an art that embraces ecology. Performance art was very much was one of the keystones for an art working with nature and the pubic earth art that came in the future. I agree with you. Kaprow to me was a very important artist because he tried to integrate art back into the community in a performance manner. In some ways, you could say these photo collage landscapes, open the door for people to walk into them. So you believe in a social or cultural context for art. There has to be a social commitment. People have lost the idea that public art means public and that is the crucial element. For my projects to be successful they have to involve the enjoyment of the public, not just the art community. One of the most important comments that was said of my first public project, was a local baker who came from across the street to see my Time Landscape. He said, “I don’t know if this is art, but I like it!” A lot of your art moves us away from the idea of art as object, even from the idea of image as object in an electronic era of data communication. The image as object does not go much further than the physical object really. Integration in a living community of art and nature, and people in a society could be the real art. I think for art to function in the 21st century it has to be involved in the community. I call it the markers of time, or markers of understanding one’s environment. The Time Landscape was not conceived as just one element. I wanted it to be integrated throughout the entire city. I wanted it to be a balance between historical nature and vegetation and contemporary architecture – a dialogue and this is what the function of public art is. C.P. Snow talked about the links between science and art, and their creative connectivity. Do you agree with this?
Absolutely. One of the crucial elements of our society is trying to understand ourselves. Science, like art, is one of the measures of how we become aware of who we are. I utilize that in my work all the time.
I am thinking of the survival of civilizations as Jared Diamond describes in his book Collapse. Don’t we have to consider the relation between nature and society, in the way we build, invent, design our lives.
One of the classical examples, was Ephesus, a city and one of the eight wonders of the world. They had a choice, whether to build more sculptural and religious icons or to clean their harbour. They didn’t clean their harbour. All they did was build more and more religious icons and sculptures. And now historically the city is abandoned and its twenty miles away from the ocean. That is where you have to take time into consideration as you are creating your environmental public artworks. That is why is my recent landscape projects I have been taking into consideration global warming on how I create these landscapes.
With a view to where things will be in the future, and climate, and water.
Water becomes a crucial element in these landscapes as well as the climate change and how it affects the vegetation. I am currently working on a global warming sculpture for the city of Koln Germany. The sculpture captures the past present and future rhythms of our planet.
Can you tell me about your project in Devon at the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World enacted this past summer?
The sculpture involves the head forester of the community as well as the cultural committee. The issue is that they now have a contemporary exotic forest and they want to bring back the ancient indigenous forest. Because my art is about integration I am currently collaborating with a local architect and historian to create an island connecting the ancient human population to the vegetation that exited in that time. I am creating a Celtic icon that will protect and provide space to regenerate the ancient indigenous forest of England. The chief forester is so enthusiastic about the proposal that he wants to integrate into other forest areas as well as into the community schools.
Do you think there is a cultural specificity to the way cultural landscapes are designed, as for instance with the Japanese Garden, which is severely orchestrated and has its own aesthetic. Do you think there is a particular aesthetic with North American land art and landscaping?
I admire the Japanese landscapers. It has a very absolute view of a landscape. I find it to be challenging and magical as it equally would be looking at the French or English landscape, which is very much what the American landscape is about. It is an offshoot of that. In that sense what I do is totally not referential to either Japanese or to the European landscape. What I am using is scientific knowledge to create these landscapes. Science is what dictates the actual landscape and not formal or aesthetic of landscape design. Formal design comes secondary to the actual scientific understanding of the land. So you would recommend as a strategy for young land and earth artists involved in the public sphere, to try venues outside the art world, natural history museums, botanical gardens and so on and so forth? All my art involves a clear understanding of environmental issues and their unique relationship with the local community. Within the 21st century we have to redefine the role of the artist as an individual who is actively seeking solutions to improve our world.
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..
The curator of Earth Artshows at the Royal Botanical Gardens (www.rbg.ca) this past summer and autumn, John Grande has contributed to many publications over the years including Artforum, Art Papers, Art on Paper, Vie des Arts, Canadian Art, Border Crossings, la Revue Espace, Arts Review (UK), British Journal of Photography and Photoicon (UK), John Grande’s recent publications include Art Nature Dialogues (SUNY Press, New York, 2004 www.sunypress.edu), Dialogues in Diversity: Art from Marginal to Mainstream (Pari Publishing, Italy, 2007 www.paripublishing.com), and Art Allsorts: Writing on Art & Artists (2008 available at www.lulu.com). Visit his website www.grandescritique.com.
Original post: http://www.artsandecology.org.uk/magazine/features/alan-sonfist