AGNES DENES: Philosophy in the Land II

Leslie Tonkonow Gallery
October 29, 2009 – January 23, 2010

There’s been a resurgence of late 60s and early 70s era performance art on the New York gallery scene these past few months. From Joan Jonas’s installation, “Performance 7: Mirage” (1976/2005), at the MoMA to Hans Breder’s early video work at Whitebox, the vestigial medium of black-and-white is making a comeback. At the dawn of a new decade, this might seem anomalous but perhaps a little self-reflection is exactly what the doctor ordered. At Leslie Tonkonow, a survey of Land Art icon Agnes Denes fits this contemplative criterion with over 100 photographs documenting the individual performances and earthwork interventions made by the artist from the late 60s onward, as well as chronicling, via meticulously rendered drawings and prints, her scientifically-based research into the essence of human nature and the paradoxical dialectic of philosophical thought.

Denes’s early drawings are the point of entry into the exhibition. Graphed radials, modal systems, and theoretical calculus comprise the bulk of the artist’s triangulated imagery, aimed, in Denes’s words, at “charting the contradiction between logic and human practices.” Five prints, executed in mediums ranging from India ink on graph paper to a hand pulled and dusted lithograph in gold leaf (1969-2009) take on subjects as scientifically controversial (and analytically immeasurable) as the mapping of time, evolution, and abstract reasoning. For example, one charted diagram suggests that illusion can lead to anything from “ultimate reality” to “dasein” to “truth,” elucidating the notion that, mathematical precision aside, the universe does not conform to one singular reality.  

Dealing with similar concerns are the suite of six vintage gelatin-silver prints from “Human Dust” (1969), black-and-white photographs depicting a calcified mound of cremated human remains. While the images themselves are striking, what is most provocative about the work is the textual component that accompanies it. Logarithmic sentences such as, “He consumed 4800 lbs. of bread, 3000 gallons of water, 140 gallons of wine, and 360 quarts of whiskey [...] had 4 friends at various times and was loved by 17 people,” reduce the subject’s human existence to the quantitative analysis of a lifetime’s in/outtake—its accretion and dispersal of particle mass.

While these early works no doubt helped to spark Denes’s career, the artist is best known for her seminal Land Art pieces, “Rice/Tree/Burial” (1977-79) and “Wheatfield—A Confrontation” (1982), the visual records of which are featured here for the first time. Photographic documentation of “Rice/Tree/Burial” hearkens back to the beginning of the eco-conscious grass roots effort begun in the late 60s; images of Denes working the soil, planting seeds by hand, and burying objects in sepia-toned earth recall scenes from the Neolithic Era, prior to the irreparable schism of man and machine. In monochromatic tones of grey and black, the artist and her cohorts repeat a ritualistic series of steps: preparing the fields for irrigation and planting; chaining the trees of the forest to bend towards each other (literally constructing an environmental equivalent of Pascal’s Pyramid, an integral and recurrent symbol in Denes’s work);   and planting a time capsule—thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The exhibition chronicles the repetition of these acts at three different sites, first at the edge of a gorge at Niagara Falls, next at a nearby Indian burial ground, and finally at the site of the time capsule, scheduled to be opened in 1000 years (2979 A.D.).

For “Wheatfield—A Confrontation” (1982), one of Denes’s most famous Land Art interventions, the artist turned a 4.5 billion dollar piece of Wall Street property, a refuse site left over from vestiges of the World Trade Towers construction, into a 2-acre wheat field which later harvested over 1000 lbs. of healthy grain. Such Demetrian acts recall other famous earthworks such as Robert Smithson’s “Mangrove Ring” (1971), Alan Sonfist’s “Seed Catcher” (1973), and Mel Chin’s “Revival Field: Projection and Procedure,” created almost two decades later. Denes is arguably the pioneer of this sort of ecologically driven work, having coined the term “eco-logic” as early as 1968 to define her individual brand of terra firma performance practice.

What is affecting about “Wheatfield,” however, has nothing to do with formulated terms or agricultural allegory. It is the vibrantly colored images of the landscape that bring a contemporaneous focus to the work—lush, golden grain juxtaposed against the ghostly silhouette of the Trade Towers, stolid and imposing in the distance. More than 20 years after its original conception, the piece  continues to serve as metaphor for the polarization of nature and industry, of ecology and economy. Moreover its philosophical implications have become glaringly clear: when confronted with the inherent chaos of being, order is a mirage. As Marshall McLuhan so eloquently states, “We look at the present through a rearview mirror. We march backwards into the future.”* Historical perspective can be a trippy thing, indeed.

* Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage (Bantam Books, 1967), 70.


Kara L. Rooney