Habitat for art, habitat for humanity, habitat for diversity
Radical Nature in East Ayrshire? Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969-2009 in Kilmarnock, Cumnock and Dalmellington? The blockbuster exhibition from last summer at the Barbican has travelled to Scotland before heading overseas (maybe it’s the cheap flights from Prestwick).
Spread across three venues (the Dick Institute, Kilmarnock; the Baird Institute Museum, Cumnock; and the Doon Valley Museum, Dalmellington) the exhibition includes works by major figures including Hans Haacke, Joseph Beuys, Robert Smithson, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Agnes Denes, Ant Farm, Buckminster Fuller and the Harrisons. Contemporary contributors include Simon Starling, Tomas Saraceno, Center for Land Use Interpretation, Tue Greenfort, Henrik Häkansson, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Luke Fowler and Anya Gallaccio.
Of course many of the major figures are still alive, well and making work, so the Harrisons’ piece Full Farm (1972) recreated for the exhibition indicated the roots of a practice which recently included a major new work Greenhouse Britain: Losing Ground, Gaining Wisdom (2006-2008).
Talking about two generations of radical practices is useful. There is a dialectic, a discussion, between the work of the older generation and that of the younger artists. The first thing to recognise is that the frame of the exhibition is art and architecture, but this is not the architecture of Main Street. Rather the common thread might be more focused on ‘innovation in habitats’. This framing encompasses the work in the exhibition more effectively; from the Harrisons’ urban farming projects, through Ant Farm’s The Dolphin Embassy (1976) to Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome, Saraceno’s Flying Garden (2006) or Starling’s Island for Weeds (Prototype) (2003).
From a historical point of view this relates to the evolution of public art. The earlier generation includes many artists who contributed key works to the history of public art: Beuys for 7000 Oaks (1982), Smithson for Spiral Jetty (1970), Ukeles for her long term residency in the New York City Sanitation Department, Denes for Wheatfield a Confrontation (1982), the Harrisons for their watershed works. For the younger generation of artists this has become a more normal situation, working between public art and gallery exhibitions. Whilst the regeneration agenda has driven a massive growth in public art, the works of Beuys, Smithson, Ukeles, Denes and the Harrisons remain landmarks in 20th century art, developed as critical responses to a range of issues and indicating alternative trajectories to mainstream culture.
But what distinguishes these artists is their concern with nature, and here we get into a very complex area. A number of words are used including environment, nature and ecology by different artists seeking to distinguish their practice from others (see for instance the definition of ecoart on Wikipedia). Fundamental to this is an argument about the relationship between humans and the rest of the world. Western society has evolved sophisticated techniques to protect ourselves from the vagaries of the world and to maximise our use of the resources that the world provides us with. This has distanced us from everyday contact with nature. We walk on surfaces we have made (how often do we touch soil?). We control our environment with heating and cooling (though we talk about the weather constantly, we do everything we can to buffer ourselves from it). We use stuff that is millions of years old and buried deep in the earth for energy (and the location of the exhibition in the heart of the Ayrshire coal field surrounded by a mostly post-industrial landscape brings us close to this issue in a very different way from the location at the Barbican in the City of London). Suddenly we are being challenged to use less, to diversify our energy sources, but the fundamental question remains: do we think of ourselves as users and consumers of the resources of the world, separate from it? Or do we think of ourselves as part of the diversity of the planet, with the responsibility of stewardship on what some have described as the spaceship? All the work in the exhibition addresses this complex set of issues.
If all the work addresses this fundamental question, there are a number of different approaches. Some generalisations can be drawn out. These seem to take a dialectical form (i.e. opposing positions in an argument which share some common ground). For example on the one hand there are the utilitarians who are willing to put their art in service, and on the other those whose position might be characterised as more critical and ironic.
The former can be exemplified by the Harrisons who have said that their work has developed,
“…from an initial decision, made in ’69-’70, to do no work that did not in some way look at ecosystemic well-being.” (From There to Here, Harrison Studio, 2001, p.1)
The idea that artists would focus their work not only on understanding ecosystems, but further on developing work which addressed healthy ecosystems as the overarching purpose, remains challenging.
Likewise Ukeles who developed her Manifesto of Maintenance Art (1969) in which she set out that care and maintenance are her art, went on to work with the Sanitation Department of New York City and create the work Touch Sanitation (1978-1980) which involved shaking hands with all 8,500 sanitation workers in the City and saying to them “Thank you for keeping NYC alive”.
But equally important is the artists’ criticality. Simon Starling’s Island for Weeds (Prototype) (2003) is described as a rejected proposal intended to be sited on Loch Lomond as a safe place for some Rhododendron Ponticum. Rhododendrons, originally from the Himalayas, were imported into Britain from Spain in the 18th Century. They are now increasingly interpreted as a threat to the native ecosystem. Starling’s work raises questions about human migration as well as natural migration. What is natural? What makes it natural?
Mark Dion’s Mobile Wilderness Unit – Wolf (2006), unfortunately not in the version of the show in East Ayrshire, captures some of the tensions. In the context of now daily coverage of ‘climate change’ (whatever that is on a day to day basis), common place greenwashing and the commercialisation of the prefix ‘eco’ what is the role of art? Dion’s work epitomises the commercialisation and representation of nature by placing a diorama of a wolf on a trailer: nature represented for convenient consumption.
In the catalogue essay T J Demos suggests that the younger artists are more critical and the older ones more utilitarian. This false dichotomy oversimplifies the situation: both characteristics are evident throughout the show, but the art world is uncomfortable with the utilitarian, and the gallery is a constructed environment suited to certain sorts of objects and experiences. Whilst the show at the Barbican had an off-site project by EXYZT, a radical architectural practice, in fact probably all of the work in the show could have, or actually has had, an off-site dimension, and in most cases this would have framed the argument differently.
Robert Smithson can help us here. He developed the idea of site and non-site in A Provisional Theory of Non-Sites (1968) and a series of work from that period. The non-site works are maps, plans, diagrams and vessels containing materials. These are gallery works and in the text he emphasises their abstract and representational nature. They are abstract, but they represent a reality,
“…one site can represent another site which does not resemble it…”.
(Flam, J. Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings. University of California Press. 1996. p.368.
He highlights the “fictitious trip” taken between non-site and site. Of course not many people seeing A Non-Site, Pine Barrens, New Jersey (1968) then travelled to visit the New Jersey Pine Barrens; the trip was taken in the imagination. But Smithson’s argument highlights the specific function of the gallery, conceptualised by O’Docherty in a series of essays entitled Inside the White Cube published in Artforum in 1976 (O’Docherty, B., Inside the White Cube: the Ideology of the Gallery Space, University of California Press, 2000), as a pure space outside time.
Smithson’s conceptualisation of the dual complementary roles, in his terms between site and non-site, between the space of the abstract representation and the lived reality, between what is now typically described as the gallery and the off-site project, is an echo of our problematic relationship with the world. The work in the gallery is interesting, but the work in the world is also interesting.
What you could argue is missing from this exhibition are a range of works such as Mel Chin’s Revival Field, Tim Collins and Reiko Goto‘s 3 Rivers 2nd Nature and PLATFORM‘s Carbonweb, amongst many examples of artists working with scientists, environmentalists and communities. Some of these are works which are fundamentally site-based, others are fundamentally political, but all use art as part of a process of promoting social and environmental justice. But this is another subject…