Hungarian/American Environmental Artist and Writer
Summary of Agnes Denes
Agnes Denes was ahead of her time, when, in the 1960s, she turned toward the natural world and our relationship with it as the primary medium for her artwork. A pioneer of Environmental Art before environmental concerns became de rigueur, she was difficult to categorize and, originally, largely confused the art world with her focus on investigating humanity's imprint on, and relationship with nature as a viable art form. Yet, her fastidious study and prodigious investigations into science, math, philosophy, and history alongside a devout passion for the land and its future concerns has informed a career studded with projects that have foretold many of the issues society currently deals with - those of preservation, ecological decline, global hunger, and the vast effects of our human footprints that are coming to light today.
- Denes' artistic practice remains distinctive in terms of its aesthetics and engagement with socio-political ideas. Using humanity's accumulated knowledge to validate her concepts continues to lend weight to the mirror her projects reflect back upon us as she elevates the concept of artist as ecological warrior to new heights.
- Denes' work goes further than merely emphasizing the relationship between humans and the natural world; it in fact, draws attention to the damage being caused while offering literal solutions in reversing said damage. Much of this work shows how the transformation of human interference can be gained by progressive human attention and forward-thinking interaction.
- Aside from her large-scale environmental projects, Denes is noted for her drawings that borrow from her multi-disciplinary knowledge rooted in science and math, resulting in a body of exquisitely precise renderings to document and accompany her work.
- Unlike many Earth artists, Denes makes a point not to disturb, or intrude, upon the naturally existent landscape. Instead, she proposes ways in which her work can illuminate ecological concerns and inform solutions simultaneously. Much of her art can be likened to seeds, ideas being planted for a fruitful, flourishing environmental future.
Biography of Agnes Denes
Denes said she "nearly died" working on her seminal work Wheatfield - A Confrontation (1982). Impoverished, relying on volunteers to help, and ensuring that the work came at no human cost, Denes put in 16-hour days before going home and making sandwiches for her helpers, ready for the next day’s work.
Important Art by Agnes Denes
This piece, first realized privately in 1968 and then performed on a larger scale in 1977-79, consisted of four events. First, Denes planted a rice field in the Niagara Gorge on the border between the United States and Canada. This symbolized beginnings and growth. Secondly, she chained the trees of a sacred Indian forest. This symbolized human interference with the natural world. Thirdly, she buried a time capsule consisting of her own haiku poetry, of which she kept no copies. This symbolized the abstract and humanity's power of thought and creation. Lastly, Denes ventured out onto a ledge above Niagara Falls where she lived and filmed alone for eight days. This was a statement of intent, an acknowledgment of the fact that her art would exist on the perilous edge with nature, and would be dedicated to environmental concerns.
During the burial process the land was managed, thanks to agricultural knowledge, to harness nature's life-giving properties, with the intention of producing further sustenance for the future rice. In a strange, unforeseen twist, however, the soil Denes used to fertilize the ground was contaminated with radioactive waste and the rice plants remained stunted in growth, producing beautiful, yet inedible, red rice. The site on which the rice was grown sat not only on a human territorial border but also on the original starting point of the life-giving Niagara River. The interplay between human knowledge and natural science remained continuous.
After chaining the trees, Denes described, "The texture of the forest, having been interrupted by the reordering of its elements, yielded unique structures of isolated or combined sculptural forms. The chains became additional limbs and blended into their surroundings to become visible only in certain lights, angles, and perspectives, conveying the conflicting and interdependent aspects of art and existence, illusion and reality, imagination and fact."
The burial represented a submission on the part of humanity, one of returning to the earth, which had equally provided the sustenance of the rice and the inspiration and opportunity of the trees. It became the ultimate resignation of human thought, bowing before nature.
The richness of interplay between these three aspects illustrated a sensitivity that pervaded all of Denes' work, separating her from the bullish nature of much of the Land Art that would follow.
Rice/Tree/Burial was so significant because it was the first piece of site-specific Environmental Art. It took Conceptual Art's use of metaphor and symbolism out into the far more delicate realm of nature. As with many of Denes' installations, there was a cyclical notion of balance at its heart; the earth produces life, we manipulate and control it, and ultimately the earth reclaims everything once again. The delicate nature of the interdependence of man and nature is constantly bought to the fore.
Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space - Map Projections Series (The Doughnut and The Hot Dog pictured) (1973 - 80)
This series consisted of many different drawings and a book of the same name. Though the exact materials vary between the different versions of the drawings, all depict the earth's globe manipulated into different mathematical shapes: cube, ovoid, torus, spiral etc. The drawings comprise of two layers. The first, often on graph paper, reflects different maps of the earth in Denes' transformed shapes. These are made by hand, often in watercolor, charcoal, or gouache. Above this sheet lies a sheet of mylar or similar material onto which the structural lines of the shape are drawn, again by hand, normally in ink.
The scientific theory behind this series is incredibly specialized and complex, taking Denes' work out of the realm of art and into abstract scientific philosophy. Each drawing is a correct rendering of how the geographical coordinates of the earth would sit on these different shapes. They are mathematically identical versions of the earth; the only thing that has changed is the formula for the shape.
Though the math behind these works is often not evident to the viewer, the way in which Denes represents complex philosophical and scientific ideas is significant. The delicate aesthetic to the precise layered drawings speaks to how theoretical reality and experienced reality intertwine. Philosophy Professor Mark Daniel Cohen suggests that the drawings encourage us to "explore the range of available protocols and to recognize that none is literally correct, or rather that literal accuracy is accidental and immaterial."
Despite being unrealizable these technical sketches are nonetheless still inherently sculptural in the same way that many of Denes' later large-scale installations were. They are inherently preoccupied with space and in her book of the series she explores how the physical properties of our home planet would, theoretically, change due to her manipulations: the effect these new forms would have on currents and gravity for example.
In 2009, drawings from this series were exhibited at The Whitney in New York. They sat alongside drawings from other site-specific artists from the 1960s and 70's. Most of the artists presented work that reflected preparatory exercises to large sculpture or land art but others such as Robert Morris showed drawing as a method to explore unrealizable ideas. Still others, such as the wall drawing Ghoster by Gary Simmons made in 1997, also dealt in the realm of the mind, collating different fragments of memories. Denes' Map Projections series dwells within a canon of artists that use drawing as a direct link to the more intangible areas of our communal thought processes, documenting the journey from thought to final artwork.
For Denes' most iconic work, she planted and harvested a field of wheat on two acres of New York City's Battery Park landfill, which sat mere blocks from Wall Street and the World Trade Center, facing the Statue of Liberty. Upon this land, which was worth 4.5 billion dollars, and with the help of a $10,000 grant from the Public Art Fund, Denes and her volunteers ploughed the cluttered dirt and sowed the seeds by hand. They then cared for and maintained the crop for four months before harvesting 1000 pounds of golden wheat on the 16th of August 1982. The wheat was then exhibited in The International Art Show to End World Hunger and travelled with the exhibition to 28 international cities. Visitors to the exhibition acquired the wheat seeds and planted them around the globe. Today, luxury offices and apartment complexes occupy the site of Wheatfield.
In this piece, the "confrontation" of the title is not, as per usual with Denes' work, between the differences and similarities of nature and humanity but rather directly between their opposing aspects with the goal of drawing attention to the damage being caused. This piece was altogether more strident in its activism than some of her other work. Originally commissioned to create a piece in the quieter area of Queens, Denes insisted upon the Battery Park Landfill. The immediate and dramatic metaphor of this alternative placement cut straight to the point: the wheat field referencing the forgotten fertility of the soil beneath New York and the potential nutrition it could create. Produced within a global environment, which was experiencing pockets of severe world hunger and rapidly depleting natural resources, Wheatfield stood in stark contrast to the excesses of the financial industry it neighbored.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Agnes Denes
- The Human Argument: The Writings of Agnes DenesBy Agnes Denes
- Six Years: The dematerialization of the art objectBy Lucy R. Lippard
- Radical NatureBy Jonathan Porritt, Francesco Manacorda, T.J. Demos
- Confessions of a Mountain ClimberBy Agnes Denes / 1980
- The Self-Intricating Art of the Mind, Agnes Denes: Uprooted & DeifiedBy Mark Daniel Cohen / Hyperion, Vol. 2, No. 1 / February 2007
- Sculptural Conceptualism: A New Reading of the Work of Agnes DenesBy Ricardo D. Barreto / Online Sculpture Magazine, Vol. 18, No. 4 / May 1999
- Agnes DenesBy Maika Pollack / Interview Magazine / May 18th, 2015