Newburgh, NY

Martin Roth, From 2017-2021 Martin Roth transformed a ruin into a garden for a plant concert (detail), 2017–21, soil, plants, speakers, sensors, hardware. Installation view.

Martin Roth, From 2017-2021 Martin Roth transformed a ruin into a garden for a plant concert (detail), 2017–21, soil, plants, speakers, sensors, hardware. Installation view.

Martin Roth

Strongroom

Austrian-born artist Martin Roth, who died in 2019 at the age of forty-one, created a string of memorable projects across his lamentably short career, building a poetic natural philosophy out of sly, deceptively simple collaborations with plants and animals. The archive of his practice preserved on his website serves as a reminder of his concerns and of his light conceptual touch: fish swimming across a gallery floor he had flooded; a shaggy lawn sprouting from a substrate of Persian carpets in a medieval castle; his studio transformed into a nursery for a brood of ducklings. But the site also retains documentation of the more darkly transgressive threads in his oeuvre, as when he smuggled building debris out of the ravaged border zone between Syria and Turkey and repurposed it as a rough habitat for a flock of rescued blue, green, and lemon-sherbet-yellow parakeets, or nicked a desert holly plant from the yard of Stephen Paddock—the mass murderer who killed sixty people and injured nearly nine hundred in a 2017 shooting in Las Vegas—and installed it in a vitrine set on an altered reproduction of the hallway carpet of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, from whose towers the gunman launched his attack.

At the time of this death, Roth had embarked on an ambitious public project inflected by both these sensibilities, combining a romantically melancholic take on ruination and a long-standing fascination with what might be thought of as, to borrow the title of the popular 1970s book, the secret life of plants. Working with the resourceful nonprofit organization Strongroom in Newburgh, sixty miles up the Hudson River from New York City, Roth got access to one of the town’s many derelict piles, a hulking 1850s structure designed by Andrew Jackson Downing and his then-partner, Calvert Vaux. Originally a grand home, the edifice served a number of functions (including a long run as the City Club, a meeting place for the burghers of the then-prosperous municipality) before being destroyed by fire in 1981. Like the better-remembered Vaux, who went on to create New York’s Central and Prospect Parks with Frederick Law Olmsted, Downing was a pioneering horticulturalist and landscape architect. Drawing on Downing’s convictions about the necessary interrelation of the home and the garden—and on some rather outré theories initially developed in the 1970s by the eccentric Damanhur commune in northern Italy about the ways in which botanical electromagnetism might be harnessed to give plants a “voice”—Roth designed a biofeedback system that connected the vegetation reclaiming the building’s empty shell to synthesizers in order to create what he called “a concert made by the trees.”

I visited Roth’s project on a Saturday afternoon in late August, just a few hours before Hurricane Henri made landfall on the East Coast. It was blazingly hot out, and the humidity being pushed ahead of the storm made the air along the river valley thick and soupy. The interior of the space was accessible through a makeshift back door, and the inside felt like a rain-forest conservatory styled for a goth-themed photo shoot. The place had been stabilized some years ago by the addition of large steel crossbeams, and dense foliage had grown up from its rubble-strewn dirt floor, along the crumbling brick walls, and into the network of supports toward its roofless top story. In our encounters with ruins, wrote sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel, we see the death of the work of art and the development of “other forces and forms, those of nature.” Amid the mingling growth and decay, the work’s intricately nested relationships between vitality and dissolution were only intensified by a sense of its creator’s conspicuous absence. I made one circuit and then another in silence around a rough path through hazy spots of shade and sunlight, and then suddenly caught the first quiet stirrings of a kind of melody welling up from seemingly everywhere and nowhere among the leaves. It continued for thirty seconds or so, ebbing and flowing to the unknowable rhythms of the plants’ energy fields. And then it faded away, replaced by the whir of late-summer cicadas.