PRINT November 1973

Nature as Artifact: Alan Sonfist

THE TRADITIONAL PICTORAL AND PLASTIC media all presume a certain range of free choice in the creation of an art object. Effects which are difficult to achieve are expressive and distinctive, those which are easy to achieve are inexpressive and mundane. The constraints are provided by the skill of the artist, the properties of his tools and materials, the strength of his desire to accomplish certain goals, and the achievements of other artists involved in similar work. In his efforts to be expressive or distinctive, the artist must challenge his constraints in some way. Today, the constraints are no longer material; they are mental. The means for reforming substance into whatever arrangements one can imagine are now at hand. The routine manufacture of solid-state electronics, chemical polymers, pharmaceuticals, structurally programmed alloys and composite materials, etc., are examples of this formidable physical control. The availability of such in-depth physical control has eroded, and will continue to erode the expressive significance of material macrovariables like shape, color, weight, etc. What is withheld is now equal in importance with positive performance: stance has replaced accomplishment. The traditional European media, with their impressed orderings and limited vocabularies, are not simply shopworn from use, they are in direct contradiction to our present commercial and technical experience. They evolved to fit a range of manipulative fluency we have far exceeded. Exceeding the limited conventions of art history, however, does not mean either an end to art, as some have feared, or even an end to conventions. John Cage is surely right in asserting that full creative extension converges upon our “contemporary awareness of nature’s manner of operation” at the limits of what is possible.

In the visual arts, the work of Alan Sonfist represents a particularly forthright statement of this ultimate convergence between esthetic form and material phenomena. By isolating a material so as to accentuate its distinctive infrastructure, he enables matter to “inform us of itself.” He is entrepreneur rather than performer and his work has utilized an encyclopedic range of substances, from minerals to water fleas, from human crowd-flows to forest debris. For the most part his pieces consist of literal presentations, but he has also shown documentary images of processes and systems not presentable in themselves either because of their scale or because they can only be seen through some mechanical extension of the senses.

Sonfist’s use of material that is “just material” and Cage’s use of sound that is “just sound” appear to be directed at similar ends:

Sonfist: My art presents nature. I isolate certain aspects of nature to gain emphasis, to make clear its power to affect us, to give the viewer an awareness that can be translated into a total unravelling of the cosmos.1

Cage: Hearing sounds which are just sounds immediately sets the theorizing mind to theorizing, and the emotions of human beings are continually aroused by encounters with nature . . . gradually or suddenly, one sees that humanity and nature, not separate, are in this world together: that nothing was lost when everything was given away. In fact, everything is gained.2

In making his transition out of the conventional methods of artifacture in 1967–68, Sonfist did a series of stretched canvases whose surfaces were painted with water. In time, mildew appeared. These Aging Canvases recycled the elements of painting into a novel, functional currency: the canvas provided both structural support and nutrient for the free expansion of the airborne microfungi. Since the grain of detail was infinitesimal (a clot of mildew might be a fraction of the width of a single thread), the weave of the canvas played an important visual role: its ultrafine lattice offset the chaotic growth patterns of the mildew, and the effect was so overwhelmingly pictorial that one hardly sensed the fact that the piece was rotting before one’s eyes.

Sonfist then began to explore a broad cross section of substances, many of them dynamic and most of them involved with the translation of energy from one form into another. At his first one-man show (Reese Palley Gallery, New York, 1970) he exhibited several Heat Drawings, metal plates whose surfaces had been seared with various sorts of heat. The application of the intense heat realigned the metal atoms into concentric domains about the points of contact with the flame, leaving iridescent rings fixed on the surface after the plates had cooled. A related series of Dye Reactions showed a drop of black ink spread across a specially coated paper filter, with the blue, pink, and yellow components visible at different distances from the drop. A Seismograph recorded the footsteps of visitors in the gallery and traffic passing by outside.

Among the pieces shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London, 1971) was a cubical aquarium that contained about a dozen brightly colored fish. The tank was on a pedestal and lit from all sides so that when a spectator came near the tank, the light was interrupted and fish altered their schooling pattern in response to the intrusion. A Snail Enclosure showed two dozen black snails moving around a square pen, leaving trails of gleaming mucus behind them that intersected and formed an increasingly tangled network of lines during the exhibition.

One of Sonfist’s contributions to the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s “Elements of Art” exhibition in 1971 was a slender square column (6” x 6” x 84”) containing a substance that vaporized and condensed into clear, needle-shaped crystals on the inside surfaces of the container as environmental conditions varied around it. The column was displayed in a manner similar to his fishtank in London: passing spectators put the system in thermal disequilibrium by interrupting the light from floodlights placed around the piece. Needles growing in from the sides eventually grew so long that they broke under their own weight and fell into a pile of similarly broken needles filling the bottom quarter of the column, where evaporation slowly returned them to the vapor state. In the same show, Sonfist displayed a Microorganism Enclosure, with bacteria and fungus growing in richly colored, crusty profusion, overlapping one another as the different species competed for dominance inside a clear, flat box. Droplets of water formed patterns on the inside top surface of the box, miniature weather, in response to the reflectivity and metabolic rate of the population immediately below. This microcosm called to mind our own sprawl across the surface of the earth as it might appear from the nearer regions of outer space.

Sonfist especially wishes to bring out those patterns of behavior which recur endlessly in nature: the transmutability of matter and energy, the hierarchical layering of forces, feedback and self-regulation, multiphase equilibrium, etc. He desires a maximum of visual disclosure with a minimum of arbitrary constraint; his goal in these early works was to make the unique morphology of a material visible without himself becoming the subject of viewer awareness. But he is no more able to eliminate himself from his work than is Cage and so the tactics he uses to make his influence less felt are worth some examination.

Most obviously there is the seduction by detail. Particularly in the Crystal and Microorganism Enclosures, the formal increments are far finer than the eye can discern. Therefore the local visual order within a given piece is convincingly nonhuman.

The containers of these microcosms are simple, assertive, geometrical solutions to the particular enclosure requirements of the given material, either purchased as a standard item from a supplier or constructed out of widely available materials with little fuss or toolwork. The use of blatantly artificial shapes emphasizes the boundedness of the microcosms. Since there is no way this trace of disruption can be eliminated, it is made so obvious that it is immediately taken for granted and ignored.

The most important device, though, is the use of dynamic, environmentally sensitive material subjects. This way, any influence that Sonfist may wish to exert over the details of the material can be channeled through indirect means, such as changing the humidity to speed up or slow down a biological growth rate.

These qualities—superabundant detail, geometrical enclosures that are assertive yet anonymous, and the indirect manipulation of otherwise self-organizing systems—act in concert to convince the viewer that an exhibited system is revealing “natural” behavior. However, the logical contradiction between careful staging and authentic realism eventually made itself felt. Sonfist’s role in binding systems into their most vividly visual conformations, initially hidden, became more explicit during 1972, following his climactic presentation of Army Ants.

Because they are their own habitation, army ants are unusually self-contained. This suggested to Son-fist that they could be resituated in an artificial environment without depriving them of the means for survival, but then when he contacted Howard Topoff, a leading authority on army ants, he discovered that no one had ever tried to maintain a colony in captivity. With the backing of the Architectural League of New York and the assistance of Topoff, he set off for Panama. They successfully captured two colonies and in February, 1972, one of them was exhibited on the sand-covered floor of a room at Automation House.

Sonfist placed a simple wooden construction in the center of the floor from which the ants hung their nest. A low barricade across the front of the room kept the ants in and the spectators out. Using their own bodies as living modules, they created shelter, bridges, and lines of forage that scoured the ground for food, producing patterns that articulated their social organization in numerous adaptive phases. Clearly defined rivers of ants flowed between the feeding stations (whose locations were changed every day) and the nest, which was held together by the collective adhesion of thousands of footholds and interconnections in the bristling swarm of workers. At the ends of their lines of march, the ants formed hypnotic spirals centered on their food. What one saw, essentially, was an entire society, living under the auspices of a yet larger society, and the nesting of one order inside another could not help but suggest a resonant identity between ourselves and the ants, a sense of our own dependency on the earth and on each other, refracted through an insectile lens.

During the search for the ants in Panama, Sonfist was impressed by the extent to which his own experience of the jungle differed from that of the ants. While the ants searched for food, Sonfist searched for ants, and the jungle presented a different ensemble of signs to each. The dense foliage became a network of clues structured by the needs and habits of beings who deciphered the landscape in differing ways. This incident challenged the clear-cut, impersonal realism to which he aspired in previous work and demanded a deeper consideration of his own role in the objectification of natural processes. The simultaneous superimposition of viewpoints demonstrated how appearance was affected by the mode of observation. This, plus a desire to explore systems with more ambiguous boundaries, led to an increasingly overt participation in the structure of subsequent pieces.

Rocks and Trees (shown at Paley & Lowe October, 1972) was a compound array of descriptive approaches applied to a small section of ground in the country, the sampling technique itself becoming the most apparent organizing force. Sonfist included handwritten notes, photographs, and a wall-filling diagram showing where he stopped to study different configurations of twigs, feathers, and ground cover. The actual objects themselves were arranged on the floor in the same relative positions as when he first encountered them. This type of surface litter is almost ideally ambiguous to objective, causal analysis. The scattering of such material forms patterns, but these patterns are the result of so many partial variables and contingencies that the order perceived is as much a construction of the viewer as it is a reflection of natural forces.

This coming April, Sonfist will have a show at the Finch College Art Museum tentatively entitled Time Landscape. He has formed a research team (Conditions, Inc.) made up of a biologist, a botanist, a geologist, an ecologist, a historian, an architect, and a class of students at the Parsons School of Design, to analyze the parcel of land behind the museum and to portray its evolving morphology from before human settlement to the present. The Gestalt in this piece is not specifically the land, though it is the focus of the effort; it is the cumulative pattern of probe and response chosen by Sonfist to resolve a visually mute entity into tangible, though symbolic, form.

A recent series of Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral Substances, 1972, is even more clearly organized by human projections. Groups of small packets were mailed to individuals around the world, each packet containing a fine, white powder. The powders, purchased from a chemical supply company, were indistinguishable from one another, even though they had been derived from wildly dissimilar sources: corn, rock, clam, cow, etc. They represented substance that had been utterly de-formed, reduced to the visual equivalent of white noise, so that the only remnant of the former identity was the written label on the packet. (One person who received a packet marked “This is horse” called Sonfist in a panic, fearing it was heroin.)

Sonfist has moved from the emphatically closed, self-organizing microcosms to more ambiguous, subjective, and composite systems whose formal qualities are partially the result of structured observation and inquiry. The problems he has increasingly focused on are akin to those encountered by the painter of landscapes: how to select an intelligible order from a wealth of physical appearances which cannot be fully grasped by either himself or those to whom he wishes to communicate. Decisions must be made on the basis of incomplete information about the meaningfulness of certain observables at the expense of others. These problems are also encountered in scientific research.

The development of sophisticated observational hardware and techniques has opened up previously inaccessible regions of nature to human exploration—as well as extending the degree to which appearances are artificially created by the means of observation. The problems are general, not peculiar to any given discipline or realm of investigation.

Sonfist is centrally concerned with this interdependence of perceiver and perceived. He wrote in a statement distributed with Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral Substances:

Interdependence in its ultimate meaning implies the breakdown of subject-object categories and the recognition of simultaneity, continuum, wholeness. Most of my pieces deal with this idea in an ecological sense in which I present the change in form caused by a change in another related form.

The essential unity of nature, affirmed by our increasingly detailed understanding of its manner of operation, however, also prevents the complete isolation of any physical portion of it. Thus the delineation of a physical system, the definition of object boundaries, is a metaphysical act and when applied to a specific instance, automatically creates an artifact.

The word “artifact” is used in laboratory jargon to denote an “extrinsic appearance” created by a method of observation, a form that would not have been observed if a specimen had been prepared differently. For example, microscopic analysis usually requires that an object be thin-sectioned to allow light to penetrate its thickness. But what may appear to be separate forms on a slide may actually have been connected in three dimensions, because thin-sectioning can lop off protrusions from a form too large to be seen whole within one slice. These apparently separate forms are artifacts, generated by the method of observation, and it would be a serious error to accept them as intrinsically disjunct and to then construct a circuitous theoretical explanation for the disjuncture.

If all observational isolations create artifacts, the essential similarity in the condition of an art object and the condition of a scientific experiment is immediately apparent: both are artifacts resulting from the containment of a physical entity within specialized contexts of observation.3

A definition of artifact so broad as to apply to even the most subtle act of sensual apprehension makes the word useless as an object category,4 but such a definition unites art and science, in fact, all experiential disciplines, in a shared epistemological dilemma: the observed qualities of any physical system are not truly innate. Rather, they are “called forth, or if one wishes to carry this view to the limit, emerge in the act of exposing the system to a designed set of circumstances.”5 Regardless of how unstressed the formal elements are that it contains, it is the design of the context into which an object is set that determines its informative character, and not simply its internal organization. Since no object is perceivable except in a context, its extrinsic appearance is called into being by its relationship with an observer.

With the formal knowledge and manipulative control we currently possess over the elements of nature, it can be said that we now coexist in a state of mutual containment: instead of an opposition between the natural and the man-made, we must speak of degrees of artificiality and types of artifacts. Discovering the imperatives of this new coexistence is a pressing problem, but the development of appropriate modes of expression must account for the convergence of form and substance, and this convergence subsumes what was previously only the medium, the carrier of an image, into the expression itself. If the material continuum, integrated in theory and in practice, is the modern “medium” of expression and awareness, distinguishing art from nonart becomes an insurmountable problem. The more general notion of “artifact,” however, can be used as a powerful analytical substitute.

The work of Alan Sonfist most clearly expresses the artifactual condition and one line of imagery stemming from it. Even though his pieces tend to be overtly specimenlike, the dominant spirit in them is one of ingenuous discovery or wonder, rather than clinical analysis. There is an almost Zen-like humility in his approach, something like the American Indian ethic of “walking lightly upon the earth.” Many of his pieces are actually derived from childhood discoveries and subjectively charged associations. His work is further distinguished from scientific inquiry by its accommodation to the theatricality of public display, its increasingly subjective determination of systemic boundaries, and its metaphorical content (which has not been explored in this article). By embracing the physical as content, actually making it his subject matter, Sonfist fuses substance with form in an art which is simultaneously literal and pictorial.

Robert Joseph Horvitz



1. Press release from Sonfist’s exhibition at The Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1971.

2. John Cage, “Experimental Music,” reprinted in Silence, Cambridge, 1961, p. 6.

3. Another definition of “artifact” suitable to the argument of this article, though slightly more configurational, is offered by Herbert A. Simon in The Sciences of the Artificial (Cambridge, 1969, pp. 6–7): “An artifact can be thought of as a meeting point—an ‘interface’ in today’s terms—between an ‘inner’ environment, the substance and organization of the artifact itself, and an ‘outer’ environment, the surrounds in which it operates.” He then extends his definition in a most interesting direction: “Notice that this way of viewing artifacts applies equally well to many things that are not man-made—to all things, in fact, that can be regarded as ‘adapted’ to some situation; and in particular, it applies to the living systems that have evolved through the forces of organic evolution” (p. 7).

4. A less expansive definition is used as an object category by George Kubler in The Shape of Time. In developing his idea of a unified “history of things.” Kubler notes that, “Today it is again apparent that the artist is an artisan, that he belongs to a distinct human grouping as homo faber, whose calling is to evoke a perpetual renewal of form in matter, and that scientists and artists are more like one another as artisans than they are like anyone else” (p. 10–11).

5. Henry Margenau, The Nature of Physical Reality, New York, 1950, p. 343.