New York

Conrad Ventur, barbara 2, 2020, digital C-print, 30 × 20".

Conrad Ventur, barbara 2, 2020, digital C-print, 30 × 20".

Conrad Ventur

“This is a tough town. And if you’re not standing on something solid, you’re gonna get pushed over.” Thus spake the photographer and filmmaker Conrad Ventur on his decision to become a gardener in The Internship, 2018–19, a forty-four-minute video that was the fulcrum of his show, “A Green New Deal,” at Participant Inc. After fifteen years of being on what he calls “the artist roller coaster . . . lots of money and then no money, and then more no money. And then more more no money”—and working as an archivist and editor to support his artmaking—Ventur began taking night classes in horticulture at the Brooklyn Bot-anic Garden. He went on to land an internship in the Bronx at Wave Hill, a grand, twenty-eight-acre estate that was converted to a public garden in the mid-1960s. The video, edited by the artist Ying Liu, was recorded on a pair of eyeglasses equipped with an HD camera eye. Ventur takes us through a POV journey, grabbing a deli coffee, enjoying a slice of thickly frosted chocolate cake, and acquainting himself with new colleagues as he sweeps leaves and climbs ladders. He also talks about various friends who have passed away. “A lot has happened in ten years,” Ventur explains in an even-keeled tone that’s maintained throughout the piece. “I’ve had a couple of relationships, and people in my life have died.”

“She was buried in a basket,” he goes on to say of his mentor, the late Carolee Schneemann, while gently nudging a lifeless goldfish in a pond, which eventually gets laid to rest in a bed of roses. “You don’t fill the body with formaldehyde or prepare it in a way that would prevent it from decomposing. So the body and the basket decompose together and become part of the earth.” He recalls visiting the artist’s home in upstate New York, where her beloved cat still roams freely, after her death last March. A sprawling patch of mugwort had taken over the entrance to the house. When Ventur pulled some of the weeds out, he said, it was like yanking Schneemann’s hair out of the ground.

In another scene, Ventur is burying a little brown bird that looks like it could startle at any moment, fluff its feathers, and hop away. He sniffles and thinks back to another friend, the drag performer and Warhol superstar Mario Montez, with whom Ventur had collaborated on restaging scenes from the Pop artist’s early Screen Tests. (Montez died in 2013, just a month before the pair’s work was to be exhibited.) He also twirls around with the filmmaker Barbara Hammer in the churchyard of Saint Luke in the Fields, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, shortly before her death from ovarian cancer in 2019. Her smile is radiant. “At the center of the garden,” Ventur remembers, “there’s a sick tree. . . . I think we both knew that Barbara was a bit like that tree.” In the gallery hung a pair of double portraits: one of Hammer in a red Patagonia jacket, leaning back into a bush (barbara 1 and 2, both 2020); and another of Ventur, sporting a Canadian tuxedo, with a pair of clippers at his hip and a watering can behind him (garden gnome 1 and 2, both 2020). Elsewhere was carolee (before and after), 2020, a collage that includes pictures of Schneemann’s home, and lia 1 and 2 (both 2020), photographs of Participant’s proprietor, Lia Gangitano, walking toward a greenhouse under construction. The nursery depicted in the work had been installed at the gallery’s heart and was filled with vegetation borrowed from Ventur’s friends. Plants make us “more generous and more desirous of connections with others,” according to research by the National Recreation and Park Association. The NRPA also finds that greenery helps build “stronger neighborhood social ties and [a] greater sense of community,” along with “more mutual trust and [a] willingness to help others.” Plants have evolved as members of vast social networks and are indeed communal entities, like us. Ventur revealed his roots in this show, nodding to the relational and immaterial qualities of art, which can grow well beyond the confines of the gallery and bind you to the rest of the world. After leaving the exhibition, I went home and looked into classes at the city’s botanical gardens, in search of solid ground.