On ViewAustrian Cultural Forum
May 4 – June 21, 2017
Martin Roth, an artist who has often worked with nature—in 2009 one of his projects, I lived with sheep in Europe, consisted of living with a herd of sheep in Europe—excels at combining the outside world with sophisticated insights into politics and its relations with art and life. At his midtown exhibition at the Austrian Cultural Forum, In May 2017 I cultivated a piece of land in Midtown Manhattan nurtured by tweets, the pungent scent of more than two hundred lavender plants leads the viewer down two flights of stairs, into the basement of the Forum’s building on East 52nd Street near Fifth Avenue. Some eight tons of soil were brought in to serve as landfill for the flowers, whose pale purple color feels nearly luminescent under the artificial lights above them. On the walls on either side of the flowers, and on the far wall from the entrance to the exhibition, mural-size photographs of trees with sunlight filtering through them create a flat image of a forest. The environment is striking, almost surreal in its transformation of East 52nd Street into a small site of nature. In the wilds of New York City, the mere act of establishing a nicely scented garden in so urban an environment, full of the stench of city life, is by itself a small political coup commenting on the distance between urban and natural worlds. But Roth is after something more: a political reading of current times. By using tweets, which are never actually heard by the viewer, to intensify the light directed on the lavender, Roth is transforming the conservative, reactionary thoughts of the right wing in America into something beautiful.
Martin Roth, “In May 2017 I cultivated a piece of land in Midtown Manhattan nurtured by tweets.” (Photo © David Plakke/ACFNY)
Roth, of course, is Austrian, but he received his MFA from Hunter College in 2011 and is currently living in the East Village. For the moment, he has moved from Europe to America, although this project, along with other projects he did before he came to America, cannot be confidently sourced to either location. There is a history of conceptual projects and actions such as Roth’s that goes back to Joseph Beuys, who in 1982 famously proposed and began the planting of seven thousand oak trees in Kassel, Germany. Also, New York’s reputation as the center of the art world in the West remains, so, Roth’s lavender project furthers a recognized tradition in which art, nature, and politics are merged (many of the Land artists in America have worked in a similar way). The scent of lavender in a steel building in the middle of New York is a way of reestablishing some unity with nature, however small.
It is hard to describe how politics affect the landscape of America—or the cityscape of so powerful a metropolis as New York. But we remember that traditionally, lavender is used to treat anxiety and depression, as well as to promote sleep. Given that life in this city is profoundly skewed by an obsession with money, and by continuously rising costs in rent and food as well as by difficulties in work, many New Yorkers seek psychological treatment—for exactly the symptoms lavender has been employed for. Rather cunningly, Roth is commenting on the conflation of an increasingly controlling political climate led by Trump and his associates, and its effect on the lives of people, who may well need the calm now growing in Midtown. Indeed, Trump’s messianic pronouncements seem geared to throw us off balance, and damage whatever inner balance we have left in these times.
In the long run, perhaps the political element of Roth’s environment is the most important. So much contemporary art is biased toward political commentary, and American art has tended toward the deeply personal: identity art. But Roth’s piece is much more impartial and free of obvious connections with specific groups of people—except, perhaps, those psychically damaged by political life in the States. The politics of the show is established by hidden ties, linked together by an ecology that is based on something as aggressive as the offhand assertions of the right. But what makes the exhibition so compelling is how Roth transforms these Twitter outbursts of anger and ignorance into a positive purpose—the ongoing sustenance of the lavender plants. His transformations inform a deeper point of view than reaction, one in which lavender is enabled to grow even in those buildings forming the urban canyons of New York. This is a small revolt, but a necessary one.