There is a long history of artistic interest in Nature and the earth, beginning with the most primal dependence upon the earth and the first paintings and objects made in religious devotion to the natural gods. Artists are again examining their relationship There is a long history of artistic interest in Nature and the earth, beginning with the most primal dependence upon the earth and the first paintings and objects made in religious devotion to the natural gods. Artists are again examining their relationship to the earth, but the difference is they are now applying a more critical eye to the technologies humans use to distance themselves from the brutal struggle of survival. Gardening, or other forms of an Earth Culture, have become the way in which many artists are dealing with life in the contemporary world. In working with the worlds resources, artists have a chance to collaborate in the act of creation.
Nature has always been used in the arts as a way to figuratively describe the human condition and, more often than not, its representation has been used as ideological propaganda. The late 19th century changed the way artists related to their society and to their physical world as well. Ralph Waldo Emerson declared, Natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, helping to fuel a return to spiritual values in an increasingly materialistic modern world.1 In his isolation from the cultural and industrial revolutions, Van Goghs landscapes and cut flowers were not just icons for the creeping dementia coursing through his brain, but were also metaphors for the agitation wrought upon the earth by industry. The Surrealists saw nature as the worldly manifestation of psychic disorder, and slowly, prehistoric signs and symbols meant to symbolize ancient religious feelings and prayers to nature made their way into the early work of artists such as Mark Rothko.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, earth works were alternately systems-based research into natural structures having little to do with spiritual revelation, or installations designed to mark the earth in non-useful ways in imitation of ancient practices but not very different from the destruction of land. A more rich vein of investigation was the feminist resuscitation of pre-historys goddesses and our fundamental relationship to nature and nurturing, something that started the examination of gender-typing through the physical body. This interest in gender continued into the 1980s, where cultural or mass media-produced images were targeted for their assumptions about role-playing based on biology. Nature became an important symbol for representative painting in the arts in the 1980s, while a concomitant group of artists such as Helen Meyer Harrison and Newton Harrison, Alan Sonfist, Betty Beaumont, and Mel Chin acted as intermediaries between science and nature.
Now, 25 years after the first Earth Day, a new group of artists is applying contemporary technology to the traditional knowledge of gardening. Beside the explosion of the gardening business, fueling how-to books as well as the seed and plant supply houses that tantalize with the prospect of shaping ones own environment, artists are taking an active position vis-á-vis their environment outside of activism. In a way, by integrating the natural with their work, they are literally fulfilling Rauschenbergs desire to fuse life and art.
Aside from the horticultural skills, these artists are scrambling various existing conceptual artistic idioms with research in new technologies and understanding the deeply personal implications. Through this body-oriented process art, the contingent, metaphorical, lyrical, practical, nutritious, and the fantastical coexist.
The artists contributing to Gardens have divergent experiences with gardens, but each has chosen both practical and lyrical ways of dealing with their own physical relation to the earth. Betty Beaumonts works of the 1970s were of the more recuperative style of earth work that culminated in her barrier reef project of 1980, whereby altered industrial waste was poured into the ocean to create a new barrier reef. She currently makes politicized works that examine man-made natural disasters. Originally from Southern California, her work reflects a concern for the physical and social environments in which we live.
In all of his different but interconnected activities, davidkremers proposes analyzing and reconfiguring the various elements of science and nature in the way that he does with art. kremers breaks down the hierarchies between hard and soft sciences (the way that he denies the hierarchy of upper- and lowercase letters in his writing). Perhaps it is his work as a landscape architect, combining the formal visual principles of the arts with the material knowledge of the soils makeup, that best synthesizes kremers social ambitions for artist-scientists.
Joseph Santarromana, known largely for his poignant and poetic video installations, has acted as the artist on a collaborative Tele-garden project currently housed at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. A miniature garden plot was set up in the USC robotics lab, and a robot stands over the garden with a small camera attached to its arm. A live image of the garden is fed via the camera into an Internet site where Net browsers can dial up the robot and plant seeds or water according to the robots abilities. The e-mail responses to this virtual garden range from astonishment at the interactive use of the Internet, a process still grossly underdeveloped, to blatant ignorance of how things grow. A microcosm, in fact, of the social world.
Laura Coopers contribution to this brief exploration of artists Gardens is the most prosaic. Here, she has integrated elements from her delicate installations of dolls, used nightgowns, swings, and stairs in a quasi-symbolist match between dreams and life. Her own garden in Los Angeles is a spectacular jungle of native and imported plants whose historical associations are capitalized on in their placements. This space acts as a protective moat from the reality of urban life below the garden. Like the circles of a mandala, one enters Coopers garden as if passing through the different levels of a medieval heaven: from the crumbled and rotten foliage just off the street, the visitor climbs up different levels of stairs into ever-increasing levels of garden prosperity, a soothing place where tensions unravel.
There have been many shows over the past five years dealing with artists interest in the earth, to the degree that one might name a new movement. From the larger issue of the earths governance, these artists are now applying many forms of artistic and scientific knowledge to the specific bits of earth beneath them.
1. Sherman, Paul. Emersons Angle of Vision: Man and Nature in American Experiences. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952), p. 97 - 98, quoted in The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890 - 1985. (Los Angeles & New York: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Abbeville Press Publishers, 1986), p. 42.
Strange Garden: The Invisible World That Feeds Us
Text and photographs by Betty Beaumont
It was more than a year ago now. I asked him to join me for a drive in the country, through rural Eastern Pennsylvania, to a remote farm with a grand old stone farmhouse and barn. He just laughed. No one had ever asked him on a date to shovel shit before. It was an expedition to mine black gold, that dark, loose, loamy, mushroom compost. Living soil. One pinch contains millions of life forms. n Last summer she and I talked in the tree house after strolling though the flower garden* and along the nature walk that stretches out from the shore across the cove. It was mid-morning. We watched hummingbirds feed. The blue herons were wading through water lilies now in full bloom. We paused on the dock to watch five cygnets swim by, huddled between their parents, those great white mute swans with whom I share the lake. She laughed, amazed at the thought that among the few books I keep there was a three-inch volume on composting: The health of our soil is based upon our giving back to the land more than we take from it.
Like good wine, compost is better when it is aged. When the new conservative government in France resumed nuclear testing in the French Polynesia, the 25 to 30 millionbottles of Beaujolais that usually go to foreign markets became a target of boycotts. The French have detonated six nuclear explosions in the South Pacific since September, leading to worldwide condemnation. n So what is our military industrial society composting? n In my downtown studio I read government reports to find: A by-product of our global nuclear industries is the accumulation of large quantities of radioactive materials from nuclear power plants (including decommissioned nuclear reactors and their spent fuel rods), medical and research institutions, and the largest environmental polluter, the military. This compost will emit radioactive particles for thousands of years, posing a global threat to humans and the environment. What is the distinction between high and low radioactive waste? Do we know where this lethal garbage is being composted?
At the corner café I sit and read the Wall Street Journal: Waste containers roam the sea. Indonesia is trying to trace the origin of dozens of containers filled with industrial waste that turned up in Jakarta months ago. In Thailand, containers of soil contaminated with toxic chemicals are neglected. Bangladesh is still trying to return 2,000 metric tons of tainted fertilizer imported from the U.S. in 1992. China, with its cheap labor, vast area, poverty, and officials willing to accept bribes, has become the industrialnations most favored dump. Since Africa and Latin America banned the trade, Asia is one of the few regions left where waste brokers can still unload. n Needing to rest after an international symposium and solo exhibition, I travel to the Lake District in England. There I visit the United Kingdoms Sellafield (formerly Windscale) plant, the largest single contributor of radioactive waste dumped into the ocean. It pumps 200,000 curies a year into the Irish Sea, causing it to become the most radioactive body of water on earth. n In a taxi at JFK the cab driver switches stations on the radio: the Environmental Protection Agency is scrapping three major enforcement actions in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania due to lack of funds. The three major corporations to get off the hook are a petrochemical, a pharmaceutical and a hazardous chemical company.
Back in New York I make an appointment with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and learn the EPAs testimony before Congress did not tell the whole story about the history of an underwater nuclear waste compost heap. The ruptured and leaking drums of radioactive waste lie in the Atlantic Ocean just 120 miles southeast of New York Harbor. That a significant amount of radioactive waste was dumped at the site and has caused 20 species of unknown mutant fish to evolve was ignored. This information contained in a 1974 report, was left out of the 1980 report upon which the EPA testimony was based. Consequently in 1988, New York City gained approval to dump sludge at these underwater toxic gardens. Though this practice is now banned, toxic and radioactive wastes have been introduced into the food chain through fish and other sea life that live and feed in the area of the dump site.
Out at the lake, as I put my research gardens* to bed for the winter in this 50th year after the A-Bombs birth and the year of the termination of Godzilla (that radiation breathing monster born out of concern about the Cold War and nuclear testing in the Pacific), Clinton commits troops to the Balkans. The image of the area known as Teuful, the devil, comes to mind: those vast, bleak, almost geometric, grass-covered earthworks in the former American sector of West Berlin. There the rubble of World War II was bulldozed into huge compost heaps of brick and mortar and tanks and spent munitions. I think of my mother, who, in her late 70s, during the Gulf War, went to her garden and planted a rose called Peace.** n *At Longwood Lake in New Jersey, I am developing an art project that involves garden experimentation and historical research. n **The Peace rose, named the day Berlin fell, became an international symbol at the close of World War II.
the carrot is an artificial life form genetically engineered from queen anns lace by centuries of selective breeding. dna is more than just software. it is software that grows the wetware in which it lives.
just as digital technology is a primitive form of synthetic life, so gardens are an advanced form of immersive reality. a homeopathic garden is hypermedia employing all five senses with links to history and medicine.
replacing an existing 19th-century english garden with seasonal plantings naturalized into the lawn turns an island property into an immersive wyeth painting.
the natoosi moonscape resulted from scorched earth policies during the trailer camp tenancy of the site by the jimmy swaggart church. i provided a master plan for biological regeneration of the site to its early 20th-century appearance by a ninth generation land grant family. art now starts at the level of microorganisms.
i recently applied this gardening outlook to painting. i grew suites of paintings from e-coli bacteria which i genetically altered to produce colored enzymes. the work was completely transparent whe painted, a sensation rather like trying to paint on ice with melted snow. after a period of 16-18 hrs, the growth was arrested by the removal of moisture from the plate. air was sealed out with a synthetic resin. the work lives in a state of suspended animation.
some believe we do not inherit land from our ancestors, but borrow it from our children. artists no longer make models of the world so much as we assemble life.
About The Tele-Garden...
Ken Goldberg and Joseph Santarromana
The Tele-Garden is a tele-robotic installation that allows WWW users to remotely view and tend a living garden. Located at the University of Southern California, the garden officially opened in mid-August and will continue to evolve over a period of months.
Anyone can view the garden. Members help plant and water. Member activity is recorded in a log that permits members to note progress of the community and share ideas.
The Mercury Project, completed in April 95 by some members of this team and others, used an industrial robot to permit remote excavation of a sand-filled archaelogical site. Such hunting and gathering is characteristic of existing Internet protocols.
The Tele-Garden explores a post-nomadic motif where planting and agri-culture require spatial and temporal continuity. Our objective is to explore what Neil Postman calls the ecological effects of media (Technopoly, 1994).
The Tele-Garden was created by
Co-Directors: Ken Goldberg and Joseph Santarromana (UC Irvine)Project Team: George Bekey, Steven Gentner, Rosemary Morris, Carl Sutter, Jeff Wiegley
The Tele-Garden has no technology to independently plant and care for its garden, but relies on the collaboration of the cybercommunity to take action to define it.
Date: Wed Jun 14 09:07:16
Date: Fri Sep 22 01:06:25 1995
After approx. 4 days I come back and
my plant at x=2.19, y=7.08 sector B8 is gone !! What happened ?? Did somebody
harvest it or destroy it ? It was the only plant that came out of my three
seeds !! Is there a blackboard where all harvested or removed plants are
noticed with x,y and sector numbers ? Important : do I get another seed
?? Worried and somehow disappointed
Opening the garden gate and moving from asphalt and sidewalk to the garden steps; moving up through shade and sunlight, shade and sunlight, fluttering.
Sunlight illuminating eyes. Hummingbirds hovering in the spray of the hose, wind playing with tall grass, and the smell of freesia rising in the warmth of the late afternoon sun. The feel of velvety leaves between my thumb and forefinger, and the scent left behind, as I cup my hand to my face.
I name these things now, but the beauty of the garden is that I experience them, if only for a few seconds, namelessly, directly, with awe and wonder. This is where the garden becomes paradise, that place we long for and remember, where we are whole. There experience defeats language, and no translations are necessary.
IN THE BEGINNING: Pickaxes, wheelbarrows, rocks and hard clay. Dirt everywhere, area to be covered. Dirt under my nails, in the cuff of my jeans, in my hair (twigs and leaves too), on my face, coming out when I blow my nose. Beating the ground into submission, trying to make it soft. Scratches, all over. Rashes. Spider bites. Blisters.
TAKING OUT AND PUTTING BACK: Bags of compost and manure. Homemade compost too, with nice worms. Big stones, brought up from the ground, now lining the soft dirt beds. Many things die, but many more are put in, and finally the garden responds, as I respond to it.
THE GARDEN IS NEVER DONE: Salvias of every type I can find, matillija poppies, California poppies, opium poppies (smuggled from a 15th-century English garden), pennisetum, bougainvillea, climbing roses (Lady Banks, Cecille Brunner, Gloire de Dijon, Queen Elizabeth), climbing cereus, purple trumpet vine, hardenbergia, honeysuckle, morning glory (try and get rid of it), daturas (pink and yellow, if youve got a double white send me a cutting), artemisiasall kinds but lots of Powis Castle, euphorbias, kangaroo paws, abutilons, plumbago, night blooming jasmine, century plants, yuccas, rosemary, rue, thyme, hen and chicks, sedums, lemon verbena, purple verbena, heliotrope, sweet peas, alyssum, columbine, clarkia, gaillardia, aloes, stipas, freesia, calla lilies, narcissus, lilies of the Nile, naked ladies, iris, allium, muscari, Peruvian scilla, grapefruit, figs (purple and green), mulberry, apricots, avocado, loquat, sapote, jacaranda, eucalyptus, pepper, floss silk, palo verde. . .
PLACEMENT: Red together with orange and yellow. Purple with chartreuse. Lavender with gray. Pink, white, separately, in a quiet place. And now, the moon garden begins.
I am in the garden, my favorite garden, in my favorite hidden spotdown a walkway, with a chain across it that says no entry, which I always ignore. Through the pathway (completely overgrown, a tunnel) to the small clearing, a square brick patio with an edge for sitting. Calla lilies are six feet tall, bananas and king palms have self-sown into a jungle, hydrangeas planted 70 years ago still bloom, and all the seeds, berries and leaves have been left to fall. From this clearing I feel a breeze. I rise and feel it rise, starting on the outer edge of the king palm forest and it/we move together through the palms, the bananas, the cannas and me, and the wind is our breath, one breath.
The phone ringsin the real world and in the dream simultaneouslyand I realize I cant answer it because I am the garden. There is no body, just this unity; no skin, no division, just being.
Laura Cooper Los Angeles November 1995