Polemics and Poetry of Environmental Art
Aachen, Germany - In an uneven but provocative show at the Ludwig Forum, trough Oct. 3, 33 participants from nine countries have documented contemporary art's complex and multifaceted relationship to the natural world.
The range of media and themes can be vieved as an index of increased ecological concern, but also as a mirror of fin-desiècle pluralism in the arts. The idioms range from the lyric reductionism of the Chinese painter Qui Shi-Hua to the exuberant landscape-abstractions of the German-born Ulrike Arnold and the theory-laden environmental sculptures of the New York artist Alan Sonfist.
The late Robert Smithson and the German guru Joseph Beuys served as honorary godfathers for the Aachen presentation. The project Beuys pursued with messianic zeal in the last years of his lif, which would have transformed a toxic dump in the Hamburg harbor into a "social sculpure," is represented here in the form of drawings, photographs and manuscripts. For Smithson, one of the "earth artists" who closed their ateliers in the 1970s to work directly in nature, using art to beautify the scarred landscape was a hypocritical posture. On the contrary, landscape sculpture should highlight civilization's invasive practices.A modest but dramtic work by Smithson is placed before the entrance to the Ludwig Forum. First executed in 1969, "Dead Tree" is a metaphor of the interaction between nature and civilization that obsessed the artist.
A later generation of environmental artists has developed a broad range of stances: introspective or polemical, mystical, activist or analytical. The late Ana Mendieta burned the silhouette of her body into the earth, covered it with clay and feathers to merge with the ground, or reproduced its contours in grass.Such temorary works expressed the artist's own sense of her marginal existence as both a Cuban exile and a woman artist. Woman make some of the most resonant statements in the Aachen survey. "May be," a mandorla-shaped sculpture by Madeleine Dietz, communicates without recourse to the theoretical baggage that burdens much of the show.
Arnold also encourages the viewer'S direct, sensuous reception of her oeuvre. Since 1980 she has traveled the world,setting up her temporary atelier in remote, often hazardous locations. There she pulverizes stones to create pigments that she applies to the canvas with her hands: layric, gestural reprises that are at once landscape paintings, travel reports and journal entries. For Aachen she produced seven spectacular works in the desert of the Amercian Southwest and northern Mexico.
Such site-specific projects are documented within the exhibition, which theoretically provides a venue for the confrontation of artistic postions. But the Ludwig Forum is a problematical environment, a low-ceilinged, open-plan space where the permanent collection overlaps unidily with the temorary show. The resulting visual statics overwhelms many of the works on view.
Forunatly, the shows most subtle works are installed in one of the building`s few self-contained areas. Here the near-monochrome canvases of Qui Shi-Hua unfold their subliminal messages, counterpointed by the rosenraum (rose room) created by the Dutch artist Herman de Vries.
Nearby, an installation by Ursula Schulz-Dornburg offers extracts from the archive of the Vavilov Institute in St. Petersburg, where more than that 60,00 types of wheat are catalogued. Here, as in all of her work, Schulz-Dornburg embraces that modernist creed of "less is more." The credo might have been more effectively applied to this ambitous but flawed exploration of "Natural Reality."
David Galloway is an art critic and free-lance curator based in Wuppertal, Germany