Herbert came to visit me in my loft at 93 Crosby Street, came in his black silk shirt, and spent half a day looking at my work and talking with me. This was way back around 1980. I think his interest in my work came from a realization that his work was earthwork and that mine was a departure from anything previous. In other words, earthworks are different from ecological works in intent, form and execution.
My first work in eco art, which I did in the late sixties, was Rice/Tree/Burial that questioned our relationship to the earth. We cover the globe with a meager layer less than 100 feet in height. This narrow strip circling the globe, like a thin skin, contains all of humanity: all our knowledge, accomplishments, life and death, everything. It’s quite humbling.
Rice/Tree/Burial involved the planting of a rice field, chaining the trees in a sacred Indian forest, and putting a time capsule in the ground to be opened a thousand years from now. After which I went to edge of Niagara Falls and lived on that edge, unprotected for 8 days and nights.
Herbert was interested in where his work ended and mine began, I guess. He was very kind and extremely complimentary.
Agnes Denes is an American artist/scholar of international renown. One of the originators of Conceptual art, Denes has investigated the physical and social sciences, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, art history, poetry and music and transformed her explorations into unique works of visual art. Denes was one of the first artists to be involved with the relationship of science to art, and was also a pioneer of ecological art. As one of the first artists to initiate the environmental art movement, her work involves ecological, cultural and social issues, and are often monumental in scale. Perhaps best known for Wheatfield—A Confrontation (1982), a two-acre wheat field she planted and harvested downtown Manhattan, a work that addresses human values and misplaced priorities.
In 1996 she completed Tree Mountain—A Living Time Capsule in Finland, a massive earthwork and reclamation project that reaches four hundred years into the future to benefit future generations with a meaningful legacy. In l998, she planted a forest of 6000 trees in Melbourne, Australia and is presently creating a 25-year Masterplan for a 85-km area in the center of the Netherlands.
Agnes Denes has had over 350 solo and group exhibitions on four continents, including Documenta VI in Kassel (1977), three Venice Biennales (1978, 1980,2001) and "Master of Drawing" Invitational, representing the U.S., at the Kunsthalle in Nürnberg (1982). She has shown at the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum in New York, and in 42 other museums on four continents. In l992, she had a major retrospective at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University, for which five art historians contributed catalogue essays.
An artist of enormous vision, Denes has written four books and holds a doctorate in fine arts. Among her numerous awards are the Watson Transdisciplinary Art Award from Carnegie Mellon University (l999); the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome (l998); the Eugene McDermott Achievement Award from M.I.T. "In Recognition of Major Contribution to the Arts" (l990); the American Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Award (l985); four National Endowment Fellowships and four NYSCA grants; and the DAAD Fellowship from Berlin. Denes is a Research Fellow at the Studio For Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University; the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at M.I.T. and the Courant Institute at N.Y.U. She lectures extensively at universities in the U.S. and abroad and participates in global conferences.
A 100-piece retrospective of her environmental art organized by the Samek Gallery at Bucknell University in 2003 has just completed its tour across the U.S.
Selected public collections include: Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA and Whitney Museum in New York; National Gallery of Art; National Museum of American Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.; Kunsthalle, Nürnberg,; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Honolulu Academy of Arts, Hawaii; Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University and many others.
From the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Artists, London, England, American Academy in Rome, Italy (catalogue)
1, 4. Tree Mountain—A Living Time Capsule—11,000 People, 11,000 Trees, 400 Years, 1992-1996. Ylöjärvi, Finland.
“A huge manmade mountain measuring 420 meters long, 270 meters wide, 28 meters high and elliptical in shape was planted with eleven thousand trees by eleven thousand people from all over the world at the Pinziö gravel pits near Ylöjärvi, Finland, as part of a massive earthwork and land reclamation project by environmental artist Agnes Denes. The project was officially announced by the Finnish government at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro on Earth Environment Day, June 5, l992, as Finland's contribution to help alleviate the world's ecological stress. Sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program and the Finnish Ministry of the Environment, Tree Mountain is protected land to be maintained for four centuries, eventually creating a virgin forest. The trees are planted in an intricate mathematical pattern derived from a combination of the golden section and the pineapple/sunflower system designed by the artist. Even though infinitely more complex, it is reminiscent of ancient earth patterns.
Tree Mountain is the largest monument on earth that is international in scope, unparalleled in duration, and not dedicated to the human ego, but to benefit future generations with a meaningful legacy. People who planted the trees received certificates acknowledging them as custodians of the trees. The certificate is an inheritable document valid for twenty or more generations in the future. The project is innovative nationally and worldwide—the first such undertaking in human history. This is the very first time in Finland and among the first ones in the world when an artist restores environmental damage with ecological art planned for this and future generations.
Tree Mountain, conceived in 1982, affirms humanity's commitment to the future well being of ecological, social and cultural life on the planet. It is designed to unite the human intellect with the majesty of nature. Tree Mountain was dedicated in June, 1996 by the President of Finland, other heads of state, and people from everywhere.”
Aira Kalela, Ministry of Environment, Finland.
2, 3. Wheatfield - A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill—with Statue of Liberty, summer, 1982. Two acres of wheat was planted and harvested by the artist downtown Manhattan on a landfill in Manhattan’s financial district, a block from Wall Street and the World Trade Center. Commissioned by the Public Art Fund, New York. Photos by Agnes Denes.
After months of preparations, in May l982, a 2-acre wheat field was planted on a landfill in lower Manhattan, two blocks from Wall Street and the World Trade Center, facing the Statue of Liberty. Two hundred truckloads of dirt were brought in and 285 furrows were dug by hand cleared of rocks and garbage. The seeds were sown by hand and the furrows covered with soil. The field was maintained for four months, cleared of wheat smut, weeded, fertilized and sprayed against mildew fungus, and an irrigation system set up. The crop was harvested on August 16 and yielded over 1000 pounds of healthy, golden wheat.
Planting and harvesting a field of wheat on land worth $4.5 billion in the hub of the Great City created a powerful paradox. It was a symbol, a universal concept that represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns. It called attention to our greed and misplaced priorities. The harvested grain traveled to 22 cities around the world in an exhibition called "The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger", organized my the Minnesota Museum of Art (l987-90). The seeds were carried away by people who planted them in many parts of the globe. I did this project in l982. The project gained added poignancy after the 9/11 disaster, just two blocks away from the Wheatfield site.