PRINT April 1991


I'll send an SOS to the world
I'll send an SOS to the world

I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my

I hope that someone gets my
Message in a bottle

We’ve got the message. The bitter fruit of the technological age is ecological disaster. It has been a speedy and global collapse. And, as many would have it, it has become art’s new moral content. The green approach pulls the plug on the cool reflective screen of culture crit and takes us “back to nature” in a big way. Designed to reveal our folly and our fate, the belated homecoming is bittersweet. Forget theory. Green art’s nature is neither commodity nor code nor concept. Get this: it is (gulp) real—and the real is on the verge of extinction.1 Assuming the missionary position, green art preaches to the infidel and the converted alike. As the voice of (our) conscience, its moral imperative is to save the soul of the planet—and that means you and me too.

Not since the ’70s have we seen so much “nature” in art. Gardens sprout, sculptures grow, organic materials decay, insects eat, fish swim, waters flow. Contaminated soil and nondisposable waste and chemical sumps are romanced under the spotlights, and we’re flooded with statistics on everything from animal rights to oil spills. Exhibitions such as “The (Un)Making of Nature,” “A Natural Order,” and “About Nature—A Romantic Impulse” proliferate.2 The art press bubbles with articles on “Eco-Logic” and “The Greening of Art,” and even the academic Art Journal, published by the College Art Association, will devote an upcoming number to the issue of “Art and Ecology.”

The problem with this is that not all nature is “green.” The stampede to board the green bus threatens to crush into conformity all work that takes nature as its referent (either directly or indirectly), to hustle it into one hunky paradigm of just causes and didacticism. First of all, we might ask, dispassionately, what it means in the ’90s to bring nature into the gallery; quite separately, it’s time to take off the gloves and to ask hard questions about turning just causes into art, and art into a just cause.

Early returns suggest that nature in the ’90s is of the natura naturata variety, as opposed to its previous incarnation in the ’60s and ’70s as natura naturans. The basic distinction is that between a passive object and an active force, between that which is created and that which creates. The difference is easily illustrated by contrasting, for example, Robert Gero’s indoor Energeia, 1990–91, with Agnes Denes’ outdoor two-acre Wheatfield for Manhattan, which rippled luxuriantly and defiantly on the banks of what is now Battery Park City throughout the summer of 1982.3 Gero recently installed 200 copper poles at Artists Space, each mounted with cubes containing corn seed and soil, that were supposed to sprout and grow into an indoor cornfield. Despite the desperate attempts of the staff, who climbed ladders daily to douse the cubes with Miracle-Gro and water, Gero’s stillborn Energeia (from the Greek, meaning “actuation of life”) remained a field of dreams.

To feel the presence of natura naturans is at the heart of Romantic nature worship. In the early 19th century, American artists perceived nature as a wild, majestic, uncontrollable, even apocalyptic entity, which they worshipped in the votive act of landscape painting. Paradoxically, the development of this sublime landscape tradition coincided with the relentless destruction of the wilderness: intense reverence for nature came only with the realization that it could be lost, and the predations of nature wrought by man were, in fact, a repeated concern in artists’ writings of the time.

In the late 1960s, the widespread reengagement with landscape—not the depiction of it, but the entering into it—reopened the question of the meaning of nature, coinciding, yet again, with a wave of unprecedented environmental assault. A nascent awareness of the crisis was fostered by ecological theory, which, until the ’60s, had an extremely limited influence in the United States. Although ecological nostalgia for a lost Eden was not far away, the impulse to make earthworks was not itself specifically ecological but was imbued with a transcendent intention to reconcile humankind (otherwise known as “viewers”) with the natural environment and its implicitly sacrosanct character.4

The earthwork revealed nature anew and resurrected the 19th-century tradition of natura naturans. Michael Heizer found in the immense scale and emptiness of the Western landscape “that kind of unraped, peaceful, religious space artists have always tried to put in their work.”5 As though he were on the threshold of paradise regained, Robert Smithson extolled the virtue of the landscape at Rozel Point:

As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake. . . . No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures, no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that phenomenological evidence.6

He valued the power and strength of the Great Salt Lake, which “had successfully resisted any and all attempts by man to put it to any constructive use whatsoever,”7 and once chided Richard Serra, who was “tearing his hair out” because of difficulties with a site in Missouri, that “every time you thought you found your place in a site, the site kicked you out of it.”8

With the demise of the earthwork esthetic, the door shut, perhaps forever, on the fantasy of an omnipotent, epiphanous nature, and the Romantic notion of natura naturans succumbed to hard times. In its current repressed state as natura naturata, nature has become an indoor “site machine,” to use Denis Diderot’s term, a fragile environment at the mercy of human needs and systems, a spectacle of objects and imitations, with the accent on loss. “In the U.S. we no longer engage in a dialogue of how nature constructs us,” Ashley Bickerton has noted, “but rather how we construct nature.”9 The ’90s version is fraught with anxiety and accompanied by a chorus of voices from those environmentally concerned with every pathetic patch of earth plopped on a gallery floor and who see salvation in every blade of grass that sprouts under artificial light. Consider current installations of “ecosystems” that struggle to survive the duration of the exhibition, or “techno-sublime” fetishes that deliver the inanimate body of nature on a stick or in a box, or “eco-agitprop” that charts the steady destruction of the environment, and we consistently find a nature that, no matter how “real” it is supposed to be, is dead on arrival.

I. Ecosystems: Dreams of the Garden
The concept of nature is rather slippery, but one of the ways we translate its complexity into language and meaning is through metaphor, and the age-old metaphor for nature is the garden. A second cut discriminates between the primitive garden (God’s creation) and the pastoral garden (man’s creation). If, after the fall, mankind had lost the original paradise, there still existed the possibility, despite the deformations of culture, of paradise regained. These options were as available to earthwork artists as they were to the 19th-century Romantics. It’s debatable, however, whether the option exists today, even though the great green hope lathers over the indoor gardens, often capriciously touted as “ecosystems,” of Meg Webster, Amy Hauft, Michael Paha, and David Nyzio. Ecosystem art aspires to reconcile the arcadian dream of the garden with the materialism of natural history but falls short of recuperative synthesis; more plausibly, it manages a liaison between corporate atrium greenhouses and museological displays of natural habitats. The discourse surrounding ecosystem art is highly inflected with the hope of “thinking ourselves back into the overall scheme of nature,”10 yet avoids the subliminal “nature is now a myth” message of these earthwork afterimages.

Webster’s gardens, such as Lifted Wetlands, 1989, exhibited at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, and Glass Spiral, 1990, installed at the Milwaukee Museum of Art, have been praised for their “concern for environmental themes” and seen to function as a form of ecological and moral instruction.11 Lifted Wetlands was composed of earth, rocks, and flora planted on a structural armature of plywood and fed with a circulating water system. A considerable esthetic leap of faith is required to accept this work as representative of the marshes, swamps, and estuaries of real wetlands, but, presumably, its “ecological consciousness” is designed to draw attention to their existence and, because of what we already know, their present endangerment. Ironically, at the time the work was installed, in the summer of 1989, a severe drought necessitated water rationing in New York City, and because the installation depended upon circulating water, a special variance had to be obtained. Posted next to it, the notice became an element of the artwork.12

Artificially hooked up to the life-support systems of the city, the value of Lifted Wetlands is less ecological than phantasmagoric. A wet dream of the Garden of Eden as commodity-on-display, a makeshift place to plunge into pleasure disguised in an edifying pedagogic form, this is a nature coded “look but don’t touch.” Articulated by negation, it signifies a land of oblivion (not the comparatively vast wetlands “out there” but, in contrast, a less-than-convincing work of art that imitates “out there”) that is constantly remembered and constantly repressed. Designated as a place of environmental significance, this is the place where meaning collapses.

Strategically cultivating what Walter Benjamin has described as a “collective wish-image,” a mythical mode of thinking that seizes the glittering prize of nature as the emblem of a desire for redemption,13 Hauft takes a more savvy route down the garden path than Webster. Hauft’s Ploughing the Sea, 1988, installed for one month at BACA Downtown in New York, was an installation of fairy-tale purity that was quite too beautiful to be believed. The illusion was one of a resplendent bed of grass curtained by perfect, perpetual, glistening lines of rain. But what was seductive on the surface was a nightmare to maintain. A large rectangular tray had been planted with grass sod and bracketed with gutter systems. Clear motor oil dripped down monofilaments, stretched from top to bottom of the framework, collecting in a pan beneath the tray where it was recirculated by a concealed pump. Over the duration of the exhibition, the grass became limp and yellow and fell over, and bugs got into the oil and clogged the pump system. Eventually, the work itself became fetid. Hauft here reveals our reconciliation with the natural world as a pathetic illusion, a project as doomed to failure as “ploughing the sea.”14

In A Reasonable Facsimile, 1990, installed at the Ezra and Cezile Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan University, Hauft made the fallacy of the “return” to nature even more apparent. Unfinished Sheetrock, which eventually became soiled with a pattern of footprints, covered the floors of the cavernous space. The large gallery was itself left empty, with the exception of piles of numbered rocks, fresh limes, and plaster casts of limes that occupied each corner. The entrance to a smaller gallery at the rear of the center, however, was blocked by a stack of Sheetrock, and it was here, on the far wall, that Hauft installed a reproduction of Frederic Church’s El Khasne, Petra, 1874, a view of the ancient city seen through an aperture carved into the canyon wall surrounding it. The implication was not only that nature is remote—we can’t even get close to its surrogate—but that what we see as “natural” is always culturally formed.

A more sinister dream of the garden is provided by Paha in his “arsariums,” as he calls them, from the Latin “ars” (art) and “arium” (place or housing). These are engineering marvels that approximate various ecological sites and are populated with wildlife indigenous to such habitats. The scheme of As We Sleep, 1987, for example, is nocturnal nature, charmingly alive with resident finches, leeches and catfish that transit an internal aquatic system constructed from terrariums and glass tubing, and mice that scurry along a network of wire-mesh tunnels. One of the trademarks of Paha’s adroitly fashioned environments is predatory conflict: snakes eat crickets in Mission, and chameleons feed on larvae in House Unattended, both 1989. Paha incubates the active and predatory aspects of nature for our amusement, but significantly keeps it under glass, thus preventing it from taking its revenge on humankind. If this plays inadvertently into a myth of human omnipotence, it also allows for a pleasurable and romantically nostalgic response to nature. As one critic writes, “Paha evokes a nostalgia for an escape into ‘nature,’ a relief of moral responsibility in an acquiescence to larger powers.”15

A recurrent theme in the critical response to “art that deals with nature” calls for a “sense of genuine connection between the processes of nature and. . . those of human life.”16 Just as Paha’s living environments seem to satisfy the need for a safe version of “the many different ways in which human and natural systems interact,”17 Nyzio has been praised as “a real naturalist”18 and his art credited by many for its concern with humankind’s relationship to nature, one of the favorite preoccupations of the green approach. Nyzio has made his reputation with works that fall into two familiar “natural” categories: living and dead. His water gardens are planted with varieties of algae that, over time, transform their host structures with oozing skins of slime. Perfect Progression of Random Spacing, 1988, for example, is a hanging water-fed column of cruddy golf balls clustered on a steel armature that supports a thriving colony of algae and becomes ever more grotesque with each cycle of growth and decay. Nyzio also likes to make things out of carefully preserved bug bodies. We miss the kill, but the rich remains are all ours. Form, 1989, is a dazzling mosaic of iridescent butterfly wings, carefully cut into squares and regimentally tacked into grid formation, and Morphology, 1988, is a funereal mound of thousands of dead milkweed bugs, grown and harvested by Nyzio, and lovingly enshrined under Plexiglas. Reworking the fetishistic concept of nature as souvenir, an impulse at the heart of ecosystem art, Nyzio’s mortuary emblems, like Charles Baudelaire’s poetic of “holding onto the ruins,” memorialize the world of petrified nature, a world sinking into rigor mortis, a world where nothing happens. Mingling the terror of privation with pleasure and emptiness with morbid beauty, “the sublime is kindled by the threat of nothing further happening.”19

II. The Techno-Sublime: Waiting for the End of the World
Vincent Shine’s synthetic specimens of tender new plants kindle the smoldering terror of the sublime by colliding nature fetishes with the shock of a science-fiction future. Even though his faux flora are clearly labeled as the stuff of neoprene, ethylene vinyl acetate, acetate, acrylic paint, and cyanoacrylate esther, it is difficult to see the amazingly delicate duckweed, papyrus, and mulberry-branch sprouts as anything other than the real thing. Profoundly sinister for what they are—and for what they are not—Shine’s plant-droids set the standard for the “techno-sublime,” betraying the logic of our senses and seducing us into believing what we know cannot be. Their reality is the cinemascape of Blade Runner and Total Recall, and their counterparts the android and the living dead, yet Shine goads an ecological reading of these works in his less-than-random selection of species. Duckweed, for example, is praised by environmentalists for its potential in solving urban water-treatment problems, and papyrus (paper) and mulberry (food for silkworms) are plants with long-standing economic histories. As one reviewer comments, this work “makes you think hard about issues of ‘usefulness,’ deforestation and the objectification of nature.”20 But if we really think hard about the “objectification of nature” in Shine’s work, it’s less about a green content than it is a trope for the catastrophic collapse of the “old” and the “new” orders of nature. When this struggle is staged against the backdrop of sci-fi futurism (the cue comes from his high-tech seedling clones), the terrifying and sinister come into play. We know that we humans, too, belong to the “old” natural order and, like those little seedlings, may be subject to chemical modification.

Like Shine, Bickerton ploughs the ghoulish dimension of the techno-sublime. His industrial enshrinement capsules, built to remain viable well into a barren, brutal future when the death of nature is nothing more than a cool memory, hold samples of earth, its fruits and its contaminants, as collateral evidence of past crimes against nature. For the most part, critical response to this work has been mesmerized by Bickerton’s references to monoculture, waste management, and other ecoworthy themes and, not surprisingly, has debated his effectiveness in raising questions about the “destruction of the environment.” Bickerton has been praised because his work is about “ecology, not merely conservation”21 and commended for introducing a “strange new vocabulary” into art, chiefly that of “Man’s uneasy relationship to nature and an artist’s responsibility to ecology.”22 He has also been criticized for conflating ecology, art, and the marketplace by engaging the “mechanisms of culture and financial greed [which are] analogous to those that have led to the gradual destruction of our environment.”23 Another writer offers a mixed assessment, giving a thumbs up for “effectively demonstrat[ing] the intermingling of nature and culture,” and a thumbs down for offering “no way out of the destructive cycles [the works] chronicle.”24 Whether or not Bickerton’s work is actually “green art” remains, as it should, up for grabs. There is, however, no mistaking that much of the critical reception that designates it as such requires that its content be a moral one.

Politically correct moralism, otherwise known as turning art into a just cause, is sticky business. It has been suggested that green art signifies an enlightened turn away from the corrupt politics of the art world (read: multinational corporate world; read: ecology, not nature, as the new religion for a still willfully secular world) “toward a more socially and ecologically minded consciousness.”25 The moral position makes a plea and a demand. First the plea. Remind us how sweet and fragile (or how virile and powerful) nature can be and how we are all in this together. Make us long for those clear blue skies and endless silky plains. Tell us how good it could be. Then terrify us with how bad it’s gonna be.

The demand is concealed in the plea. Built into the altruistic “we’re all in this together” idea is a promise to rehabilitate art, to make art (and artists) useful. The bad faith underlying the green approach is not located in the acts of displacement that seek to shield frustrated desires behind the cloak of environmentalism (after all, we’re brought up to conceal desire), but rather in the demand and expectation that art should not only function as the repository of unconscious or unacknowledged desire (which is a scrambled text from the outset), but should also exercise the conscience and the morality that we lack. When issues become sacred (e.g., ecology and environmentalism), it becomes much easier to preach against the “evil orthodoxy” of art that takes a less-than-clear-cut moral position vis-à-vis those issues than it is to acknowledge our own culpability. This admittedly pop-psychological reading has a much tidier materialist version, via Theodor Adorno. “What is social about art is not its political stance,” he writes, “but its immanent dynamic in opposition to society. . . . If any social function can be ascribed to art at all, it is the function to have no function.”26 Adorno’s observation becomes more radical by the minute.

III. Eco-Agitprop: Art as Information as Information Art
Let’s say that the chief subtext, if not the most evident agenda, of the green approach, as one concerned historian puts it, is to envision that art can create practical solutions to environmental problems and function to revise the relationship between ourselves and the environment.27 To facilitate this awakening, it would seem that green art, or what we might call “eco-agitprop,” is asked to be equally informative and sincere, for its credibility and legitimacy are judged in direct proportion to its didactic value and the degree to which, by its own example, it galvanizes social awareness, either stimulating our consciousness or reaffirming our political correctness (a.k.a. massaging our conscience).

Kirsten Mosher’s installations address ecological issues from a political perspective, and while they are often clever, their informational value is fairly low level. Ten Largest Spills in American Waters, 1990, is comprised of 13 rearview mirrors aligned on the wall at knee height (or “water level,” as Mosher suggests), 10 of which are sandblasted with the names of the tankers that have caused the biggest U.S. oil spills—Exxon Valdez, Olympic Glory, Chevron Hawaii, among them. Leaving the last three mirrors blank, themselves an ironic commentary on the oil dependency of our mobile society, Mosher dryly makes the point that oil spills have become an American way of life. “Branded Barriers,” 1990, is the title of two ensemble works, each a branded wooden police barricade missing supports at one end. In one of the pieces, Tourette’s Syndrome Rhinoceros Barrier, the disabled barricade is branded with the image of a rhinoceros who spews obscenities (one of the symptoms of Tourette’s Syndrome is involuntary swearing), cursing us for endangering his species. The other piece, Wrapped Earth Barrier, is an oblique-view projection map of the earth that has been burned into the barricade’s wooden surface. Broken barricades and global maps are recurrent features in Mosher’s work, and with them she advocates the dismantling of political boundaries in favor of global thinking and demands that we regard the earth not as a free resource but as valuable property.

Like many younger artists addressing environmental and political issues, Mosher is stronger on imagery than on content. Youthful enthusiasm is not to be faulted, but, unhappily, we are already inundated with politically correct catchphrases used to sell everything from corporate identity to cornflakes. It can easily be argued that the glut is the best way to kill the cause by sending us into the deep, deep sleep of complacency. It can easily be argued that slick packaging wrapped around crises is not edifying or even entertaining. Rather, it is the process whereby culture spectacularizes horror and transforms it into the object(s) of our desire.

But even when eco-agitprop gets down to strong information, this ground is no less difficult to negotiate. Hans Haacke’s canceled 1971 Guggenheim show taught us the value of investigative art, and revealed the strength of the institutions that manage its display.28 Yet activism needn’t be certifiably effective to be legitimate. The problem is not whether art can be an instrument for social change, or whether the institution “out there” thwarts that process. The problem is the institutionalizing power of art itself. Sufficiently estheticized, even the hardest information goes soft. The potential success or failure, shall we say the “moral” dimension, of eco-agitprop doesn’t lie in the righteousness of the cause, or the best of its intentions, but is determined in the juxtaposition of conceptual and material referents, each of which has the semantic strength to set the other in question. Make an image of any of the worst crimes of environmental terrorism, or of the exploitation of nontechnological cultures, reproduce it as a radiantly illuminated Duratrans, and then ask what wounds are being healed and where the real war is being fought. This is the limitation of such elegant works as Alfredo Jaar’s La Géographie ça sert, d’abord, à faire la guerre (Geography = war, 1989), which documents toxic waste exported from Europe and dumped in the small Nigerian village of Koko, near Lagos. Morality becomes an issue because the violence that reified representation commits is denied. “Interred” in sepulchral light boxes as sacred images, the horror and pain of the villagers of Koko become our horror and our pleasure—our experience of the sublime.

Mark Dion and William Schefferine seek a way around this moral impasse by denouncing spectacular display in installations that ambulate between hard information, as in Under the Verdant Carpet: The Dreams of Mount Koch and Biodiversity, and eco-bites, which seems more the case in “Wheelbarrows of Progress,” all 1990. Their collaborative projects consistently address the conspiratorial politics of environmental pollution and congenially remind viewers, through the inclusion of data specific to the locales in which their works are presented, that imperialism begins at home. Under the Verdant Carpet, an unruly assembly of refuse and garbage bins and commercial tropical plants, all squirreled away in a corner of the downtown branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art, was replete with scribbled and printed texts that mapped the common ground of the Staten Island Fresh Kills landfill (dubbed “Mount Koch” by the media), soon to be the highest peak on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, and the vanishing rain forests of the Amazon basin. Biodiversity, a project for the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, that consisted of a wealth of viewer-friendly graphics and charts and some potted palms, was designed to illustrate, among other things, Ohio’s contributions to the destruction of the environment. The uncomfortable fusion of sophisticated investigative practices and intentionally unsophisticated means of presentation reflects what Dion has characterized as his interest in the “tension between the museum’s position as an educational forum and as an entertainment forum.”29

Environmentalism is clearly endorsed yet playfully administered in “Wheelbarrows of Progress,” an arrangement of five wheelbarrows loaded up with various eco-significant or symbolic items ranging from stuffed animals—the one titled Survival of the Cutest (Who Gets On the Ark?) meant to show that we care more about adorable baby seals, for example, than about less adorable grown ones—to a mobile version of a tropical rain forest, a pun on the mistaken idea that rain forests are as renewable a commodity as hothouse plants. The amateur-hour esthetics and straight didacticism of Dion and Schefferine may indeed constitute an interventionist strategy to “subvert the dominant paradigm” (a slogan sported on another of the wheelbarrows) in both the artistic and pedagogic realms. It is also quite possible that the “merciless violations of normal signs”30—the frustrated art object, the game of environmentalism—may redirect our attention to the more important nonvisual concerns that surround art production. In whatever manner we choose to arrange (or to reject) the constellation of interpretive options made available, it is important to acknowledge that Dion and Schefferine have maneuvered green art out of its allegorical closet. They depart from the Romantic tradition of the sublime and from simple sloganeering (the roots of which derive from Pop art), instead claiming for their information art the ground inhabited by Conceptualism’s art as information.

Hard information doesn’t come close to describing what Peter Fend delivers. Pushing the boundaries between fact, fiction, and vision, Fend makes information itself the conceptual issue. His work is nothing short of a radical inquest into the Ur-source of architecture, earthworks, environmentalism, global-information networking—and global conspiracies. The maps, models, satellite images, and voluminous supporting documentation that he deposits in the gallery (he is getting better at presentation) are geo-politico-bio-eco-logistic compatibility studies or integrative manifestos (Fend calls it “dangerous pragmatism”) and, in the final analysis, proposals for a new world order (forget Bush) built upon Leon Battista Alberti’s maxim for the good life: clean air, clean water, and a good view. “Giant quantities of biomass accumulating in the Sea,” Fend writes, “when harvested and fermented according to paradigms from conceptual art, produce enough clean-burning gas to replace all present mineral fuels, fossil or nuclear.31 The project for sea-gas production was but one aspect of his installation City of the Dead, 1990, which dealt extensively with ecological programs designed for changing the power balance in the Persian Gulf (inspired, in part, by the earthworks of Dennis Oppenheim, and developed prior to the Gulf War), that area of the world generally believed to be the site of the Garden of Eden. But, as Fend points out, ”Whether it can be paradise is another matter."32

And that finally is the question—Can there be paradise on earth?—that must be posed to the passionate ecclesiastics of the green approach, fervently sowing the seeds of their faith in hopes that a renewed reverence for nature, sprouting in the consecrated body of art, might pave the way for the mutual salvation of humankind and the planet. We can understand the impulse behind this messianism. The shortsightedness of the green approach lies in its failure to appreciate the irreconcilable dichotomy between what is and what should be in the expectation that art can and should neutralize contradictions when, if anything, art hyper-realizes them. As Vincent Scully has eloquently pointed out, “We are what we imagine. . . except that we are also where we are placed.”33 The practitioners of green art seek to legislate a specific content, such as environmentalism or ecological awareness, by promoting a kind of selective seeing that screens out significations that fall outside the desired paradigm. This technique, which amounts to a form of absolutism, tries to disguise itself as a kind of natural law and its prejudice as a kind of moral imperative. Able to understand referents to nature as applying only outside rather than inside the work of art, the green approach is color-blind to the function of environmentalism within art. In the Lévi-Straussian sense of a device that mediates between nature and culture, its foremost function is that of mythologizing. Claims that “ecological” art can enable us to “rethink” our way back into nature represent, in fact, present-day reformulations of very old myths that seek to naturalize culture. And, as Jack Burnham once noted, “One of the characteristics of myths is that they seem to promise rules of order but never deliver them.”34

Jan Avgikos is an art historian and critic who lives in New York.


1. The concept of “real” nature corresponds to that of the old, organic nature as opposed to the inorganic “new” nature that was the product of industrialism. See Susan Buck-Morss’ discussion of these terms, as they are applied in Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Georg Lukács, in The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, Cambridge, Mass., and London: MIT Press, 1989.
2. “The (Un)Making of Nature” was at two branches of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Downtown at Federal Reserve Plaza and Philip Morris, from 31 May–27 July 1990. “A Natural Order” was at the Hudson River Museum of Westchester, Yonkers, N.Y., 27 May–12 August 1990; and “About Nature—A Romantic Impulse” was at the Barbara Toll Gallery, New York, 20 January–10 February 1990.
3. In 1978 the Public Art Fund developed the “Urban Environmental Site Sculpture Project.” Agnes Denes’ project was the second of the two realized, and consisted of 60 bushels of red spring wheat and 30 truckloads of top soil. Planting began 1 May 1982, and the wheat was harvested in August–September 1982.
4. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Hill and Broken Circle, both 1971, demonstrated an environmental concern and constituted his first projects to reclaim an industrially devastated landscape through art. He later wrote to several mining companies, including, in 1972, the Hanna Coal Company and, in 1973, the Minerals Engineering Company of Denver, offering his services to enhance the visual qualities of their reclamation activities. Both projects failed to be produced because of the artist’s death in a plane crash in 1973. “Art can become a physical resource,” he wrote, “that mediates between the ecologist and the industrialist.” Quoted in John Beardsley, Earthworks and Beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape, New York: Abbeville Press, 1989, p. 23.
5. Michael Heizer, quoted in ibid., p. 13.
6. Robert Smithson, “The Spiral Jetty,” unpublished manuscript. Quoted in Rosalind E. Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981, p. 282.
7. Philip Leider, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation or, Art and Politics in Nevada, Berkeley, San Francisco and Utah,” Artforum IX no. 1, September 1970, p. 45.
8. Ibid., p. 48.
9. Ashley Bickerton, in conversation with Mark Dion, Galeries Magazine no. 33, Paris, October–November 1989, p. 149.
10. Eleanor Heartney, “Eco-Logic,” Sculpture 9 no. 2, March–April 1990, p. 41.
11. Speaking of work by Meg Webster and other artists who address ecological issues, Heartney suggests that “the art world. . . has turned away from the self-aggrandizing individualism of the 1980s toward a more socially and ecologically minded consciousness.” Ibid.
12. Before the variance was obtained, the option to irrigate Lifted Wetlands with bottled water rather than city water was considered, and Evian Waters of France, Inc., was contacted. The proposal was still under consideration, although there was some fear that the image of Evian water circulating through soil would be bad PR for the company, when the variance came through.
13. See Buck-Morss’ discussion of Benjamin’s concept of the collective wish-image, in Buck-Morss, p. 116.
14. The installation’s title comes from Joseph Conrad’s novel Nostromo, in which Simon de Bolivar comments that trying to govern “primitive” countries is like “ploughing the sea.” New York: Modern Library, 1951.
15. Kathryn Hixson, “Chicago in Review,” Arts Magazine no. 643, November 1989, pp. 110-11.
16. Heartney, p. 38.
17. James Marcovitz and Helen Molesworth, “Controlled Environments,” The (Un)Making of Nature: Installations by Michael Paha, brochure, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris, 1990, n.p.
18, Laura Cottingham, “David Nyzio,” Flash Art no. 152, May–June 1990, p. 156.
19. In a discussion of Edmund Burke’s 18th-century treatise on the sublime, Jean-François Lyotard considers “the threat of nothing further happening” to be the major point in Burke’s definition of the sublime. The fundamental task of the sublime is to bear pictorial or otherwise expressive witness to the inexpressible. Rather than actually having “nothing,” we have works of art that suggest “the sublime is like this,” and that, he suggests, is what is truly sublime. See “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” in The Lyotard Reader, ed. Andrew Benjamin, Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1989, pp. 199-204.
20. Susan Geer, “Weeds on the Wall,” Los Angeles Times, 13 November 1990, p. F3.
21. Richard Kalina, “Ashley Bickerton at Sonnabend,” Art in America 78 no. 2, February 1990, p. 166.
22. Katharine Harrison, “Ashley Bickerton: Tapping into a Generation’s Collective Guilty Conscience,” Flash Art no. 151, March–April 1990, p. 141.
23. Lois E. Nesbitt, “Ashley Bickerton: Sonnabend Gallery,” Artscribe no. 80, March–April 1990, p. 76.
24. Heartney, p. 39.
25. Ibid., p. 41.
26. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt, London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, paperback ed., 1986, p. 322.
27. Published in a recent issue of CAA News was a call for articles for an upcoming “Art and Ecology” issue of Art Journal that will focus on “the possibilities of art in the revisioning of the relationship between ourselves and the environment, and on how the need for new intellectual and spiritual paradigms challenges our assumptions about the functions and limitations of art.” Jackie Brookner, guest editor. See CAA News 15 no. 6, November–December 1990, p. 13.
28. Hans Haacke’s one-man show was scheduled to open at the Guggenheim Museum on 30 April 1971. On 1 April, he received a letter from Thomas Messer, the director, notifying him that the exhibition had been canceled. Correspondence from Messer indicates that the cancellation was finally due to the perceived inappropriateness of Haacke’s “social systems,” which documented the real-estate holdings (many of which were slum buildings) of a group of people related by family and business ties, to the museum’s “esthetic and educational objectives.” See Jack Burnham, “Hans Haacke’s Cancelled Show at the Guggenheim,” Artforum IX no. 10, June 1971, pp. 67-71.
29. Mark Dion, in conversation with Michel von Praet, in “Renovating Nature,” Flash Art no. 155, November–December 1990, p. 133.
30. Nicolas Bourriaud, “The Signature Game,” ibid., p. 128.
31. Peter Fend, “Administration of the Adriatic,” Flash Art no. 155, November–December 1990, p. 130.
32. Fend, artist’s statement, from City of the Dead, September 1990.
33. Vincent Scully, in correspondence with Fend, 10 April 1990.
34. Jack Burnham, The Structure of Art, New York: George Braziller, 1973, p. 13.