Where do we find ourselves when we follow the weed trail that leads from the museum into the world?

Museum II 2017English
Museum II, Gent: Museumcultuur Strombeek/Gent en MER Paper Kunsthalle, 2017, pp. 225-228

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Contextual note
This text was written for CC Strombeek to accompany their exhibition 'Art Eco. 1: Attitudes' (9 Jan.-12 Febr. 2015). Translated from Dutch by Dirk Verbiest.

On the invitation card for Art Eco – A Triptych about Ecology and the World there is a photograph of large, long rocks that occupy a whole city square and prevent us from seeing what is behind it. There is no caption. Not because the image speaks for itself, but probably because it refers to a relatively well-known artistic intervention. The image namely features the 7,000 locally collected blocks of basalt the artist Joseph Beuys had delivered at the Fridericianum in Kassel in the summer of 1982 for his action 7000 Oaks at the Documenta 7. In a symbolic reforestation of Kassel, the blocks of basalt were put up upright next to 7,000 oaks, which were planted over a period of five years by the artist with the help of students, inhabitants and spectators – all united as participating citizens. Beuys had something rather ambitious in mind at the time, as he referred to 7000 Oaks as “a symbolic start for my enterprise of regenerating the life of humankind within the body of society and to prepare a positive future in this context.”(1)

         In the rear on the left a treetop towers over the rocks, but what we cannot see on the photograph is the shape of the whole – which for that matter the Documenta visitors could only see from above. The blocks of basalt were namely arrayed like a giant wedge – a shape that, as the Austrian sculptor Hans Schabus observes, is linked to the sculptural tradition since it reminds us of the metal wigs that are used to cleave tree trunks, the small wooden supports that keep a large block of stone in place, or even the wedge that is used to keep a door open, for example the door of a museum, so that every now and then it can be aired thoroughly.(2) In many books 7000 Oaks is presented as a turning point where expanded sculpture, ecological preoccupations and new forms of participation meet.

These elements help us on our way to reflect on some of the recurrent strategies in what is called for convenience’s sake ‘ecological art’, though this particular term has many meanings and ‘ecological art’ has rarely acquired a canonical place. The words Beuys spoke at the start of the 7000 Oaks project help us out: “I wish to go more and more outside, to be among the problems of nature and problems of human beings in their working places.”(3) What exactly does it mean to go outside? Where will we find ourselves then?


Ecological art: on the way outside

Within the broad range of ‘ecological art’ and its predecessors in the 1960s and 70s, we find both artistic interventions in nature and works that introduce ecological processes or patches of green into the museum. Take for example Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (1963-65), a Perspex cube that makes evaporation and condensation visible; by means of concepts such as processes, environment and temporality the work widens the idea of sculpture that prevailed at the time to include ‘systems’ that elude human control. Interference and biological growth are other processes of transformation Haacke uses. For Grass Grows (1969) he put a heap of earth in the museum and sowed it with grass. About the work he stated: “I use the word ‘systems’ exclusively for things that are not systems in terms of perception, but are physical, biological or social entities which, I believe, are more real than perceptual titillation.”(4)

            Starting from a similar interest in entropy, Robert Smithson literally went outdoors for his land art interventions, much like Richard Long started to make long walks in nature inspired by sculptural concerns. Robert Morris’ land reclamation art contributed to the cleaning up and redevelopment of heavily polluted industrial areas, though he was in first instance inspired by aesthetic preoccupations. Ecology seemed above all a metaphorical issue that made it possible to view sculpture from a different angle. Furthermore, documentation often guaranteed the work a place within the familiar institutions of the museum and the history of art, even though the artists developed critical practices in this respect.

            When artists such as Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison, or Mel Chin start to take an active interest in the restoration of ecosystems and to this end work together with biologists and scientists, landscape architects and engineers, local authorities and citizens, the confusion increases. This sort of ‘ecoventions’ embraces activism, the redevelopment of brownfield sites, paying attention to biodiversity and urban ecology, and more recently also sustainable development and ecological justice within a global perspective.(5) Today, owing to the increased awareness of anthropogenic climate change and the socioeconomic crisis that stems from it, the simple reduction of ecology to nature and bucolic green has become impossible. Conversely, a question arises with regard to the status of ecoventions: are these in fact art? Perhaps the ambiguity of the image and the critical artistic gesture are defeated by an instrumental conception of art as design? Is art in this case perhaps above all an aesthetic packaging of scientific and social projects?

            In Ecological Aesthetics (2004) these developments and questions are discussed, but the book also argues that ecological art contributes to society as a whole. Ecological art is not the umpteenth artistic movement, but another manner of defining art: “Ecoartists are working in a collaborative process with nature, practising a socially relevant art. Focusing on the inter-relationships between the biological, cultural, political or historical aspects of ecosystems, these artists are working to extend environmental principles and practices directly into the community.”(6) Ecological art does not seek to fuel a bad conscience; instead, what is at stake is the positive dynamics of a symbolic and actual reactivation of an ecological consciousness. Yet, linking this directly with an “aesthetics of mutual solidarity, social responsibility and ecological harmony” is a step too far for me. Doing so would overrate the intrinsic ecological and political value of participation and reduce the ambiguity and imagination, as well as the discursive struggle that all make ‘ecological art’ an interesting phenomenon. For is it not the case that we also live in mental spaces and cultural ecologies?

            Perhaps naive associations with green are necessary to recognize not just nature as such, but altogether the all too complex issues of ecology. And by extension: perhaps today, at a time of ecological crisis, we long more than ever for familiar, i.e. reassuring, images of green? Compare this to John Constable’s pastoral landscape painting in the nineteenth century, which was accompanied by tourism and flight from the countryside in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Can we conceive of nature other than in romantic terms, or as an apolitical “aesthetics of mutual solidarity, social responsibility and ecological harmony”?

            In travelling to faraway places or working in situ, a certain exoticism lurks around the corner. Faced with the late modern authenticity aspirations of land art, the French artist Pierre Huyghe wonders what it means to go outside: “The movement that brings you outside is as important as the outside itself. It’s a question of displacement. (…) I’m less concerned about place than the production of situations and complex, heterogeneous territories.”(7) How much strangeness and confusion are we prepared to confront?

            The need for recognition, which makes it possible to communicate through language or images, also plays when contemporary art moves outside. Now that artists go out into the world like field anthropologists and start to work interdisciplinary as geographers, social workers, activists or experimental architects, in what way do their actions differ from political and social practices? When the museum and the modern contract with the spectator – ‘This Is Art’ – cease to exist, how do we recognize the artistic gesture amidst the daily stream of images? How does art differ from journalism? Do we simply revert to a premodern fascination with the image? Or is it impossible for art to do without a specific imagination and the space of conversation that it opens?


Art as a space of conversation

In De zaak van de kunst (The Case of Art) cultural philosopher Bart Verschaffel writes: “Increasingly it is less about making special things and more about showing something or bringing up some subject. Who makes art, speaks up. The importance and the meaning of a work or an artistic oeuvre reside in what it brings up or proposes in this subdepartment of the Conversation of Mankind.”(8) Verschaffel sees the artist as a field anthropologist who experiments with the meaning, images and stories society lives by, but which are shifting rapidly. Our relationship with nature indisputable belongs to these. Where should we actually situate this space of conversation?

            In works such as 7000 Oaks and in various ecoventions the idea of a dialogue can be understood rather literally: in the planning stage there is deliberation between scientists, the authorities and local communities – a culture of dialogue, which leaves its traces afterwards in the participation of the spectators, who are prompted to engage in artistic and ecological citizenship. Ecological art may be relatively invisible in museums and history books, but rather than looking for a canonical discourse it precisely aspires to have an impact in local communities. What contributes to a narrative fabric or a cultural ecology, are artistic attitudes and practices.

            Considered from an ecological point of view, the ‘conversation of mankind’ is an all too humanist concept. Another interesting problem arises in this context: can nature actually speak for itself? As nature is a silent partner – it cannot answer or protest in the linguistic public sphere – it is mobilized for a variety of issues and thus a political ecology remains tricky. But this does not imply that nature does not exist or that it is simply a cultural construct. How can we involve other, non-human members of the community – animals, plants, minerals and their ecocultures, actants – in our political consciousness and actions? What exactly makes an ecosystem different from a political system? What constitutes a community or polis?

            In Vibrant Matter (2010) philosopher Jane Bennett points laconically to a practical obstacle with regard to the ‘parliament of things’: in what language the members are supposed to communicate?(9) The fact that Bennett’s book is widely read in art circles should not surprise: the work of art cannot speak for itself either. In the museum there are plinths and all sort of frames for presentation: all of these have to compensate for the silent nature of the work of art as thing – much like art itself needs a space of conversation. But what happens outside the museum, when the usual frames vanish and the significance of art resides in attitudes and practices that have to do with the realm of the social?

Bart Verschaffel not only advocates art as a public dialogue that vaunts the institutionalized spaces of the museum and art history: he also argues that personal appropriation is an equally important purpose of the work of art. For it is at this level that imagination and experience are an embodied practice of the production of meaning; it is furthermore at this level that spectators can become field anthropologists in their own cultural ecology. Indeed, also this is going outside, literally and figuratively, because in the end our cultural ecosystems cannot survive without link to their natural heritage.


Cultivating gardens

Can ecological art elucidate and strengthen the media character of natural and cultural ecosystems? In his reflections on the anthropological function of cultural immune systems philosopher Peter Sloterdijk dwells on the aesthetics of the installation, a medium that has radically changed the way we relate to art. A detached, contemplative relationship to the image finds its counterpart in the active participation in the image – a way of relating to it that is reminiscent of the act of dwelling and touches upon “the radical layer of the human territorialization in situations, habits and conventions.”(10) Whereas in everyday life the home relieves us from excess representation, the installation does not defer observational behaviour. The installation places “embedding situations as a whole in the observational space” and thus it presents “at the same time the embedded and the embedding: the object and its place are shown in one single movement.”(11)

            This double gaze, with a particular attention to locality, embeddedness and embodiment, also seems to be at the heart of ecological art. Both indoors and outdoors the installation retains its media function, but as a model it can probably be extended. Thus a lot of artists invoke the age-old tradition of gardens and parks, which can be recognized as cultural immune systems that comprise an obvious ecological component. The garden is a place where we shape our relation with nature and where we care for history. Cultivating the land involves the creation of a world within a world that starts at our own feet.

            Plants and animals remind us what the environment means for us, humans – for we are part of an ecosystem that envelops us and supports us. In its original expressivity this environment also supports the oral and embodied sources on which our current language and culture thrive. With this analysis in Becoming Animal (2010) philosopher David Abram does not seek to cast aside writing and the digital culture – his aim is to raise the question whether it is possible to embrace such an ecological phenomenology in order to achieve a richer understanding of culture: “How, then, to renew our visceral experience of a world that exceeds us – of a world that is wider than ourselves and our own creations? (...) Can we renew in ourselves an implicit sense of the land’s meaning, of its own many-voiced eloquence? Not without renewing the sensory craft of listening, and the sensuous art of storytelling. (...) Can we begin to restore the health and integrity of the local earth? Not without restorying the local earth.”(12) Abram’s postmodern shamanism demonstrates anyway that the ecological consciousness cannot do without a critical relationship to representation, and thus he attributes a fundamental place to art in this matter.


For Quadra Medicinale, Jef Geys’s contribution to the 2009 Venice Biennale, the artist had ruderal plants (‘weeds’) collected in four cities and subsequently he had them catalogued according to arbitrary principles. In the accompanying newspaper Kempens Informatieblad, Geys traces in laconic comments various ecological influences in his oeuvre over the past forty years. These include driving around with Brussels sprouts in his Citroën 2CV to show them the world, or asking the Middelheim Museum to dig up part of the domain and spread manure. With regard to a large photograph of a young, dandyish Geys, who shows a cabbage in his garden, he writes about gardening: “Dealing with that garden occurrence was pure sentimentality. If you are working in your garden, you are occupied in your garden! Nothing more but certainly nothing less. But if you are going to ask yourself too many questions then you are missing the point. You must just go into your garden, digging, planting and harvesting there.”

            The question whether this sort of embedding activities can be art, and according to whom, is a recurrent leitmotif in Geys’ oeuvre. Perhaps the garden cannot bear representation? Geys found out that the photographs on seed packets promise an image that will never result in a similar reality, but above all that the garden in first instance requires a different attitude, namely a attentive handling of the soil and the environment, and consequently also of the promise of strangeness that we find in our own everyday world. Geys takes the saying that we have to cultivate our own garden therefore literally: “I am therefore going to do everything that is necessary to get good results from sowing: working, digging and fertilizing the ground. I have conceived that literarily with sentiment: everything I possess of memories and old letters I have burned and with the ash I have fertilized: with genuine tears in the eyes, for I was burying my youth for the umpteenth time.”


For Brennen und gehen (Burning and Walking) (1992) the Austrian artist Lois Weinberger broke up a pavement in Salzburg to grow two ruderal plants that have burning and walking in their name: Urtica (stinging nettle, in German ‘burning nettle’) and Chenopodium (goosefoot). Not only did pedestrians have to go out of their way to pass them, but in a symbolical manner the weeds also drew their attention to the soil on which they were walking. Weinberger often moves plants from one region to another (a metaphor for migration) or he works with spontaneous vegetation – interventions that sometimes keep growing after the exhibition and continue an autonomous existence in public space for years. The Wild Cube (1998) in the public district of St. Pölten is a metal grid measuring 4 x 3.7 x 40 meters in which nature is allowed to take its course. In the meantime birches and bushes grow through the cage, and bikes are parked against it. “The plant society is the virtual sculpture – it grows whatever wants to grow.”

            If Weinberger proposes a relationship of care, it is a paradoxical one: it puts the lack of attention at the center, precisely in order not to domesticate the strangeness of nature right away. Weinberger therefore is not into gardening and he calls his interventions “perfectly provisional areas” that can hardly survive, yet they are in search of their ecological equilibrium. “The garden for me was my mother’s vegetable garden, I use the term garden more as a disturbance, as something that could not take place this way elsewhere. I called my plantings areas from the very beginning; they are poetic locations that have reached a point where it’s possible neither to speak of beginning nor of ending or stopping, a realm of possibilities that marks a point of intersection.”(13)


For over ten years now the Greek-Dutch artist Maria Ikonomopoulou has been documenting the way the inhabitants of various cities (Athens, Rotterdam, Brussels, Mexico City) organize public space with flower tubs, plants against walls and seed bombardments on pavement beds. Her project is named Growing Care. Everywhere both cultural practices and personal accents are different. “Each individual who cares for green in public spaces, gives something to others, but also literally takes or occupies common space. In the best case you have to make your way around a few flower pots, in the worst case it becomes impossible to use the pavement because a smart publican has marked his territory with huge plants.” Why do some people care for plants, and others do not, Ikonomopoulou wonders. “Has it something to do with a sense of being at ‘home’”?

            This anthropologically biased curiosity also nurtures Ikonomopoulou’s impulse to shape the reality she finds through artistic practices of care.  In Wallpapers (since 2010) she draws bunches of flowers on the correspondence pages of the Greek quality newspaper I Kathimerini. On these pages there are for that matter no adds or photographs, but they do feature works of art as illustrations – and now the comments and attempts to understand the crisis mix with Ikonomopoulou’s flowers that grow rampant and cover complete surfaces. Crisis Transformation (2013) is the name of a work for which Ikonomopoulou cut up entire newspapers, turning them into flowers and then into curtains by threading them – equally poetic and precarious attempts to get the public space to talk through ‘plantings’.


Today we live more and more in a ‘gardenless world’ in which the visible is eclipsed by the virtual and phenomena that unfold in time are curtailed through their representation. The catastrophic exploitation of the natural heritage makes it clear that we no longer understand that the soil also hosts and enables multifaceted human stories, and that we even do not recognize the riches of the few gardens left. Is it possible that gardens are places where we learn to see again?(14) The recalcitrant ‘gardens’ of ‘ecological art’ flourish best as installations in which a critical involvement with representation, history and human actions is stimulated, in which a confrontation with often foreign nature inspires modesty, but also becomes humus for the imagination, inviting us to engage in a caring relationship with the environment – a relationship that can only be a fundamentally heterogeneous experience of ‘becoming worldly’. Where do we find ourselves when we go outside and follow the weed trail that leads from the museum into the world?



(1) Joseph Beuys, ‘7000 Oaks: Conversation with Richard Demarco / 1982’, in Jeffrey Kastner (ed.), Nature. Documents of Contemporary Art, London/Cambridge MA, 2012, p. 167.

(2) Cf. Hans Schabus, Vertikale Anstrengung, Vienna, 2012, pp. 42-56.

(3) Beuys, ibid.

(4) Hans Haacke, ‘Systems Aesthetics: Conversation with Jeanne Siegel / 1971’, in Jeffrey Kastner (ed.), Nature. Documents of Contemporary Art, London/Cambridge MA, 2012, p. 29.

(5) Cf. Sue Spaid, Ecovention. Current Art to Transform Ecologies, Cincinnati, 2002

(6) Amy Lipton and Patricia Watts, ‘Ecoart: ecological art’, in Heike Strelow (ed.), Ecological Aesthetics. Art in Environmental Design: Theory and Practice, Basel/Berlin/Boston, 2004, p. 94.

(7) Pierre Huyghe et al., ‘Remote Possibilities: Land Art’s Changing Terrain’, in Jeffrey Kastner (ed.), Nature. Documents of Contemporary Art, London/Cambridge MA, 2012, p. 109.

(8) Bart Verschaffel, De zaak van de kunst. Over kennis, kritiek en schoonheid, Ghent, 2011, p. 7.

(9) Cf. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things, Durham/London, 2010, pp. 94-109.

(10) Translated from the Dutch edition of Peter Sloterdijk, Sferen. Band 2. III Schuim: plurale sferologie, Amsterdam, 2009, p. 364. (Peter Sloterdijk, Foams: Spheres Volume III: Plural Spherology, Cambridge MA, 2016)

(11) Ibid. p. 368

(12) David Abram, Becoming Animal. An Earthly Cosmology, New York, 2010, pp. 288-9.

(13) Weinberger in Philippe van Cauteren (ed.), Lois Weinberger, Ostfildern, 2013, p. 56.

(14) Cf. Robert Pogue Harrison, Gardens. An Essay on the Human Condition, Chicago/London, 2008, pp. 114-124.