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Agnes Denes

The wild origins of land art.

Text — Mark Mann

The word “pioneer” gets used a lot to describe Agnes Denes. The Hungarian-born artist helped launch several important artistic movements in the 1960s and 1970s, including environmental art and land art. She was one of the first to create large-scale ecological artworks, which she describes as “philosophy in the land.”

Photo: Rice/Tree/Burial: Chaining the Forest, 1969/1977
Photo: Rice/Tree/Burial: Chaining the Forest, 1969/1977

In one of her early works, titled “Rice/Tree/Burial” (1968), Denes explored the limits and possibilities of communing with nature. The work had three parts: she planted rice seeds in a field in upstate New York, wrapped nearby trees with chains, and buried a capsule containing haiku she had composed. A decade later, she made another version of the same work, this time on an industrial dumping ground. The toxins turned the rice a mutant red.

Photo: Rice/Tree/Burial: Chaining the Forest, 1969/1977

Denes made her most famous work in 1982, when she planted a two-acre wheatfield on top of a landfill in Lower Manhattan, with New York’s Financial District serving as backdrop. Two hundred truckloads of dirt were shipped in to make “Wheatfield — A Confrontation,” on property that, despite being a dump, was valued at $4.5 billion. (Today the site is home to Battery Park City, an expensive waterfront neighbourhood full of parks.) Denes and volunteers dug 285 furrows and sowed the seeds by hand. In the end, the field produced more than a thousand pounds of wheat and provided a stunning visual reminder of our need for balance with nature.

“I wanted to make a powerful statement for a powerful city,” Denes said of the work.

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Photo: Wheatfield - A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan - With Agnes Denes Standing in the Field, 1982
 Photo credit: John McGrail
 courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York
Photo: Wheatfield - A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan - With New York Financial Center, 1982
Photo: Wheatfield - A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan - Blue Sky, World Trade Center, 1982
Photo: Wheatfield - A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan - With Statue of Liberty Across the Hudson, 1982

After “Wheatfield,” Denes became interested in even larger scale works. In 1996 she created “Tree Mountain – a living time capsule,” planting 11,000 trees in a geometric formation on an artificial hill in Finland. Two years later for “A forest for Australia” she planted 6,000 trees from an endangered species in five spirals. Many of her works have been too ambitious to realize, however. Her catalogue includes multiple master plans for major public artworks that will likely never be built.

Denes continues to envision large-scale environmental artworks today; her project “A Forest for New York” would see 100,000 trees planted in Queens. As she sees it, Denes is using her art “to give people a chance to stay in touch with nature, allowing it to speak its own special language, articulated through human intelligence.”

Photo: Wheatfield - A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan - The Harvest, 1982

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