metropolis m

Agnes Denes, Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule – 11,000 trees 11,000 People 400 Years (Triptych), 1992-1996, Courtesy of Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York

Talking to Sue Spaid about Ecovention Europe: Art to Transform Ecologies, 1957-2017 at De Domijnen in Sittard. Presenting the work and research of 40 artists, including Agnes Denes, Joseph Beuys, Marjetica Potrč and Nils Norman, it is the biggest museum show on ecological art in The Netherlands in many years.

Domeniek Ruyters: Ecovention – it sounds like a convention on ecology or something like that. Could you please explain the term and why it was necessary to create a new word for the presentation of the art you would like to present.

Sue Spaid: In 1999, Lance Fung asked me to propose an exhibition focused on “seventies art.” When I discussed this with my then flat mate Amy Lipton, she showed me a couple “land art” examples that really interested her. I immediately realized that they were a kind of “spin off” of Earthworks. They may have had the scale of Earthworks, but they were actually meant to “do something.” Each work seemed to propose an “inventive” strategy for tackling ecological issues; hence the word ecovention, a portmanteau of ecology and invention. Some prefer ecology and intervention, since they think the notion of artists’ inventing something is farfetched…but I could easily show how artists’ inventions have led to not only changed perceptions and views, but changed procedures for society, government and professional practices.

Domeniek Ruyters: The exhibition in Sittard is the second after Cincinnati fifteen years ago. Why is it necessary to do this follow-up? 

Sue Spaid: Ecovention Europe: Art to Transform Ecologies, 1957-2017 is not really a follow-up exhibition. Ecovention (2002) in Cincinnati included only six artists who were not based in the US (George Steinmann, Georg Dietzler, Joseph Beuys, Superflex, Henrik Håkansson, and Shai Zakai). The focus here is on Europe, so the works presented are by artists who have produced ecoventions in Europe, which includes a handful of US-based artists like Brandon Ballengée, Jackie Brookner, Agnes Denes, Harrison Studio, and Robert Smithson. Given that only eight from the forty plus artists were in the first iteration, it seems more like a “break-thru” than a “follow-up,” though we did keep five categories from the first show and added three new ones. Moreover, I am working with thirty artists for the first time, and many are exhibiting in NL for the first time in their lives. There’s even a bunch from Poland, including the amazing historical figure Teresa Murak.

George Steinmann, Symbioses of responsibility, Blues for the Glaciers,2015, Foto by Tabea Reusser KKK courtesy of the artist and registered for copyright at Pro Litteris Switzerland

Domeniek Ruyters: The work presented in Sittard is from 1957 until now. Why 1957?

Sue Spaid: Until I started to dig around, I had always dated ecoventions to Joseph Beuys’ 1962 Elbe River Action. By chance (surfing the Internet), I learned of two Willem Sandberg exhibitions Natuur en Kunst (1957) and Van Natuur tot Kunst (1960). I recently went to the Stedelijk’s digital archives and literally copied those exhibitions’ entire archives onto a thumb drive…they are priceless, as are the related photographs. I don’t have enough space to exhibit my entire cache, but I have chosen several key elements, such as photos of the first exhibition, a letter from Sandberg to herman de vries requesting two collages for his 1957 exhibition, and correspondence with Dubuffet and artists’ statements in Dutch about their relationship to nature. Of course, these early exhibitions are a long way from land art, let alone ecoventions, yet the museum’s requesting the public to regard nature on par with art is a seminal move….Before 1957 nature was dirty and left outside…suddenly it’s presented indoors and has “value” like art. Both exhibitions’ images are remarkable, even mind-boggling by today’s standards. The letters indicate that he too had a lot of community support…and people really seemed to appreciate his approach. He went out of his way to secure Germaine Richier’s sculpture, which he described as the “pearl” of his second exhibition. If viewers are expecting historical works in my show, they will be very disappointed. It is the history that is historical, while most works are quite new.

Domeniek Ruyters Under which terms are the artists brought together. What do they share? And why are there so many? 

Sue Spaid: In the book published during this exhibition I actually discuss works by over threehundred artists. There are loads of artists who occasionally do works that have ecological intent (most artists seem ecologically-minded) and there are tons of artists who work with nature (or in nature), yet their works totally lack ecological intent (working for nature). In the course of writing the accompanying book, I realized that I now consider ecoventions “practical actions with ecological intent.” I want to be clear that I don’t consider ecoventions the only way to make art, let alone the only way to work in nature… It just became my particular research focus (leading to five books and four exhibitions), partly because my first degree is in science and I am keen to understand the science underlying these artistic practices.

Agnes Denes, Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule – 11,000 trees 11,000 People 400 Years (Triptych), 1992-1996, Courtesy of Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York

Domeniek Ruyters Even while Agnes Denes is starring at the documenta 14, ecological art still has difficulty reaching the center stage. With all respect to the efforts of De Domijnen in Sittard and its longstanding commitment to the ecological case, it is not the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam while the subjects ask for a lot of attention to make a change. It seems that after land art and arte povera’s take on ecology, ecological art has difficulty reaching these bigger museums. Why do museums have difficulty in embracing this kind of art, maybe with the exception of Olafur Eliasson who is not a hardcore ecological artist of course? Is it too specific? Too scientific maybe?

Sue Spaid: I think you are asking three questions, one is art historical (museum curators), one that is pragmatic (commissioning living art for indoors or out), and one that is philosophical. Sandberg’s two shows anticipated three Biennale di Venezia exhibitions: Art and Environment, Participation and Cultural Structures (1976), From Nature to Art. From Art to Nature, Nature and Anti-Nature(1978) and Art and Science (1986), and then the topic dropped…The biennale has done more to promote living art than any other institution, perhaps because it takes place in a garden.

I think the first problem is primarily art historical. Most museum curators study to become art historians, and then go to work for a museum. Their foremost familiarity concerns their museum’s collection and whatever research they conducted while at university. So long as universities don’t have faculty members specialized in land art, art history grads won’t be encouraged to specialize in or research eco-art. And if they tell their advisers that they plan to get a museum job, their advisers will definitely not encourage eco-art!!! How can you get a museum job with that focus??? better to do Surrealism or Pop Art… I do know several art historians working in this field (land art/eco-art), but they work as academics, not curators. Several independent curators specialize in this field (not myself, even if it seems like my specialty).

Pragmatically speaking, this kind of art is a nightmare for institutions. They prefer the kind that comes in a box, comes out of a box and then gets returned in a box a few months later. If the artists decide to exhibit something living, the museums are responsible for keeping it alive! If it is living, it might generate insects, dust, vapor, etc. Then there is the issue of commissioning ecoventions, which is another thorny issue, since it demands artists working with politicians, scientists, community members, etc., not to mention securing permits to place the work.

Finally, I don’t think the artworld knows how to handle art that aims to be practical or has real-life applications. In the wake of “art for art’s sake,” art is supposed to glide above the world, not float amidst the world… Artists have always had forward-thinking ideas, but no one expected them to actually build the alpha model to test them out… and then finesse the beta model. Ecological art is the singular genre that should effect everyone equally, since we all share the same planet and are each partly responsible for its health and our well-being. And even crazier, ecological exhibitions tend to be wildly popular with the public, since its motives seem reasonable. Still, others find it elitist, perhaps because the artists who practice it seem to know things that are either counter-intuitive or are ahead of the curve (too scientific as you say). My job is to make their ideas seem really basic…

Cecylia Malik, Białka's Braids, 2013/2017, Recycled fabric, Dimensions variable. Photo credit: Mieszko Stanisławski

Domeniek Ruyters: Do you think Ecovention Europe will make a change and open our eyes and the eyes of other museums?

Sue Spaid: No, I don’t think Ecovention Europe will change the museum world, but I do hope that it gives younger artists in this field a greater confidence to continue related practices knowing that they are not alone. Most of these artists had no way to connect with their peers working in other countries, especially since this kind of work is rarely exhibited. My first book was online for free in its entirety for 15 years and was widely read, downloaded and translated into many languages. That led to change… several artists in this show were inspired to do what they do because of the artworks I described there…I can only hope that this effect continues to snowball.

This exhibition may rather convince museums that this kind of art is just too difficult to exhibit. Like most of Smithson’s works, the real stuff is outdoors, and often far away, though we do have several nearby demonstration ecoventions. Some artists are great at producing nonsites, while others just go for documentation. With the first show, we didn’t allow documentation, but with this show I had to give in to documentation. That said, the terrific news is that we just learned that we received Bank Giro Lotterij funding, so all fall, artists will be coming to Sittard to work directly with the people to implement ecoventions in schools, backyards, courtyards, etc… 

Ecovention Europe: Art to Transform Ecologies, 1957-2017, De Domijnen, Sittard, 4.9.2017 – 7.1.2018, including 431art, Lara Almarcegui, Emanuela Ascari, Brandon Ballengée, Joseph Beuys, Brett Bloom, Jackie Brookner, Federica di Carlo, Paul Chaney, Rebecca Chesney, Czekalska + Golec, Søren Dahlgaard, Agnes Denes, Georg Dietzler, Ecole Mondiale, les Fujak, Gruppo 9999, Harrison Studio, Kiełczyńska, AnneMarie Maes, Cecylia Malik, Daniela di Maro, Teresa Murak, N55, Nils Norman, Ooze, Jean-François Paquay, Ugo la Pietra, Marjetica Potrč, Moirika Reker, Robert Smithson, Debra Solomon, George Steinmann, Vera Thaens, Touchstones, Nicolás García Uriburu, Koen Vanmechelen, Hans de Vries en Lois Weinberger

Andere tentoonstellingen in musea en kunstinstituten om naar uit te kijken:

Carlos Motta, Zizi

David Bernstein, PAKT, Amsterdam, 10.9.2017 t/m 8.10.2017

Carlos Motta, The  Crossing, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 16.09 t/m 07.01.2018

Citizen, Extra City, Antwerpen, 07.09.2017 t/m 09.10.2017

Remy Jungermann, In Transit, 38CC, Delft, 09.09.2017 t/m 05.11.2017 

Dennis Tyfus, 1646, Den Haag, 16.09.2017 (opening)

Céline Condorelli: Proposals for a Qualitative Society (Spinning), Stroom, Den Haag, 09.09.2017 t/m 19.11.2017 LEES HET INTERVIEW IN METROPOLIS M NR 4-2016 DEGROWTH

belit sag & Merve Bedir, Hotel Mariakapel, Hoorn, 26.08 t/m 30.09.2017

The Materiality of the Invisible, Van Eyck ism Marres & Bureau Europa, Maastricht 30.08.2017 t/m 29.10.2017

Dinh Q. LêThe Colony, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 14.10.2017 t/m 14.01.2018

Peter Fengler, Rib, Rotterdam, 15.09.2017 (opening)

2 x gender: NoraGarage, Rotterdam, 01.09.2017 t/ 29.10.2017 en Among other things, I’ve taken up smoking, TENT, Rotterdam, 07.09.2017 t/m29.10.2017

WeerZien, 25 jaar De Pont: jubileumtentoonstelling, De PontTilburg, 16.09.2017 t/m 18.2.2018

Navid Nuur, Funnelflux, Be-Part, Waregem, 27.08.2017 t/m 26.11.2017

David Bernstein

Domeniek Ruyters is chief editor of Metropolis M; Sue Spaid is art historian and curator 


Domeniek Ruyters

is hoofdredacteur van Metropolis M

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