Gardening Between Hope and Doom, Walker Art Center Interview

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Gardening Between Hope and DoomWalker Art Center interview – with Paul Schmeltzer, November 12, 2012

When Los Angeles–based artist Fritz Haeg comes to Minneapolis in May, he’ll be planting a garden in an unlikely place, physically and psychically. Situated between “two simultaneous, equally valid points of doom and hope,” his Edible Estates garden will transform a lush suburban front lawn into a working vegetable garden. The artist sees the project, which he’ll undertake in a highly visible location in collaboration with a willing family, as a wildly hopeful, if possibly “ridiculous” endeavor. His aim is to explore the “fantastic, ideal notion of what the city I want to live in looks like”—while at the same time creating a confrontational work that challenges the symbol of the American front yard—and the American Dream.

Haeg has planted 12 Edible Estate gardens in cities as far-flung as Budapest and Baltimore, London and Lakewood, California. When he plants the thirteenth here during a six-month Walker residency in 2013, it’ll be a homecoming: a Minnesota native, he credits the Walker as pivotal in his decision to make art. He’ll also be building a geodesic dome structure in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which will serve as a hub for summer workshops and events, and he’ll be establishing Foraging Circle, an area newly seeded with native wild plants. His residency concludes with the exhibition Domestic Integrities, which features new work, including a 30-foot crocheted rug made by participants in the gallery that serves as the site for activities involving everything from pickling and baked bread to herbal arrangements and homemade remedies.

Continuing our series Lowercase P: Artists & Politics, Haeg recently discussed food politics, the “sad hollowness” of the contemporary art world, and his belief that creativity in the domestic realm should be celebrated as “culture at its highest levels.”

PS: I admit your Edible Estates project appealed to me immediately because of its guerrilla art feel. It’s a radical transformation both of space and of a powerful symbol—the prized suburban front lawn—that will definitely be noticed. As such, it seems to fit in with notions such as détournement, the Situationist idea of turning the symbols of capitalism back on themselves, and activist tactics like culture-jamming. But the more I read about it, I realize it’s not as confrontational as that. Can you talk about art for social change that’s confrontational versus art that’s communal and collaborative?

FH: Sure. I really want the gardens that I’m doing to be permanent to whatever extent a garden can be permanent—or very long-term, at least—so for that reason it’s very important that I spend a great deal of time determining the ideal location and family for the garden so that it has the best chance of continuing into the future. The more guerrilla it is and the more you’re doing it in a place where nobody wants it or it’s unwelcome, the less likely it is to last. But also, it’s key that the garden is in the most strategic location and has the greatest impact. So I work in partnership with a family in each city looking for the most strategic place to establish a garden where they can very visibly, very publicly grow their own food. Then we do it together. We plant it over a big weekend, and then I’m gone. It’s their garden and they take over and make decisions.

When you see a garden like this, of course you think, wow, what if everyone in the city did this? What would the whole city look like if everyone did this? Everyone could do it, because the gardens are so cheap and simple. That’s the point: I’m only doing gardens that anyone could do.

Then, maybe your mind snaps to the opposite extreme, “This is ridiculous, nobody can do this; nobody has time for it. The soil is too polluted, the air is too polluted, and nobody has time to grow food in this way.” You can list all the reasons why we can’t and shouldn’t and won’t do this.

For me, the garden exists between those two simultaneous, equally valid points of doom and hope. The projects I’m most interested in are the ones that exist in this fantastic, ideal notion of what the city I want to live in looks like—creating some small piece of that and putting it into the least likely part of the city to see that contrast between the city we want and the city we have. This project exists as an art project that has a slightly different agenda than a purely activist project or a purely advocacy-oriented project. It exists to explore and pick apart different cultural, social, and environmental realities that are only possible through art.

PS: The front lawn is one space that speaks to our desire as Americans to show that we’ve made it, that we can demonstrate our leisure status by having this totally unused, lush green grass in the front. Then, if we do have a garden, it’s in the backyard; the ornamental is highlighted, while the functional is obscured. You’re clearly trying to upend that?

FH: Of course. What surprised me when I started the project is that I didn’t properly anticipate the symbolism of the front lawn for Americans. I found that whatever you do in a front lawn is news. It’s evening news if you question a front lawn in a dramatic way or reimagine what it could be. It’s not just about the front lawn. It’s about what we all want, what we’re all working for. It questions the essence of what the American Dream is. Ultimately, the project is really way beyond lawn and way beyond food and gardens and the environment. It penetrates to the core of “How do you want to live?”

PS: You were born in St. Cloud, but grew up in the Twin Cities. Do you think a Midwestern sensibility, or your surroundings growing up here, shape your work today and your ideas about public space use, agriculture, or green space?

FH: Yeah. The Edible Estates project grew directly out of my childhood in suburban Hopkins/Edina, where front lawns are such a huge part of the culture. It’s inextricably linked—the work I’m doing and having grown up here—because of the environment and the city but also the Walker, in particular. I would imagine I’m an artist only because of the Walker, because this was my art Mecca when I was young. I came to everything here. It’s the highlight of my work so far to do a project at the Walker.

PS: What I like about Edible Estates, too, is that it’s an “art project” that happens where people live, instead of in a museum, so it reaches new audiences and sidesteps the trepidation some people might have about Art with a capital A.

FH: Yeah, the Edible Estate gardens exist out in neighborhoods where a lot of people maybe have never been to a museum before. They might not even be aware of the contemporary art world at all. I want to make work that goes there. I want to make work that penetrates into that. I also want to have work that is equally part of a dialogue in the museum and exists in the museum, too. I think that, in a lot of ways, we really want binary oppositions. We want mutually exclusive situations. We want black and white. We want to say either it’s a public engagement work, and it’s just about people, and it’s not about aesthetics; or it’s an object in a gallery, and it’s not about people engagement, and it’s about things looking pretty.

PS: Do you feel this project is “political” or “activist”? How do these ideas intersect with art in your work?

FH: “Political” is such a complicated word. It’s as complicated as “art,” in a way, and after awhile it doesn’t mean anything, I suppose. Then there’s the word, “activist,” and I think if something isn’t activist, then it’s just passive. So I’ll say this: I believe in work that’s alive and living. I believe in work that is confrontational. I believe in work that questions profoundly all of the assumptions we have about how we’re living today, what comfort is, what we want, how we want to make ourselves at home. I believe in work that inserts itself and communicates with contemporary broad mainstream society. I don’t want to limit the audience from my work to those people who feel comfortable walking into a contemporary art museum. I absolutely don’t, and that’s one of the reasons I have no interest in, and never have had, a show in a commercial gallery.

Now, I’m not against the idea of buying and selling work at all, but just because all the work involved with presenting a project on my part would be wasted on the limited gallery audience that would come in representing a very teeny bandwidth on the spectrum of humanity. I want to make work that is for more people than that.

I think for that reason it’s extremely important to have a foot very squarely, completely and entirely, outside of the art world. Also, whenever my projects seem most satisfying and most important is when I’m leaving my place. I’m leaving my neighborhood, my comfort zone, the museum, my territory in some way, and I’m going out into someone else’s space. But I’m doing it with their full, equal collaborative commitment. I’m never going into places and dictating a way of living for a desire that already doesn’t exist there. Usually the model for my work is identifying something that I’m passionate about or curious about, finding people that are equally passionate, and then doing it together publicly. If anyone else benefits from having that happen publicly, fine, but it never takes on anything more than that in terms of advocacy.

PS: This is a pretty rudimentary question, but what particular strength or quality do you feel art or artists have in helping spark social change?

FH: I think great artists have a very unique and particular relationship to time. Art exists outside of time, outside of the moment. With politics, however, there’s this tendency to lose yourself in the minutiae of what’s happening. We think about politics today as a daily trending topic—very short-term stories. Ironically, most of the challenges we’re facing globally are much longer term. We don’t see many headlines on the real issues today because they’re too gradual. Like gradual environmental clouds, gradual migration of slave conditions from local to global. These gradual issues don’t lend themselves well to headlines or to real political attention.

I also think artists have a unique ability to see themselves as a part of something but also outside of it; to see themselves as a participant and a part of the world they live in but also outside of it. What differentiates pure political activity from artistic political activity is that it can see itself outside of a short-term agenda. It can see itself as part of a larger story of a long chain of millennial artists and of culture.

PS: Years ago, when I was working for Adbusters magazine, I asked artists and curators the same question about art’s power in social change. When I asked curator Hou Hanru about his favorite “political” artwork, he named David Hammons’ Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983), in which the artist, who’s African American, put down a blanket on a New York sidewalk and started selling different sized snowballs for different prices. “Very often people who are interested in real change somehow have more distance from the popular signs of the social communication. Sometimes there are some very strong artists who use a very simple, very abstract kind of gesture to evoke this kind of agenda of social change, rather than simply appropriating the existing signs.” He noted that through a simple act, Hammons offered a complex critique of race, power, and consumerism. My takeaway is that art might have more power to plant seeds of doubt or present alternative ways of living than it does in sparking some seismic societal shift.

FH: Exactly. Art can take you outside of the smallness of the moment to see things as more connected and acknowledge their complexity. A lot of political activity and activism depends upon a certain us-versus-them, good-versus bad extremist rhetoric that doesn’t properly acknowledge the nuanced grayscale that’s reality. And that kind of thinking has only being ramped up recently. The work I’m doing goes against that. For the 2008 Whitney Biennial, I created an Animal Estates installation in front of the museum and the sculpture court featuring homes for 12 animals that used to live on the site 400 years ago. There were wood boxes and a beaver pond. It almost looked like a minimalist art installation, but it was also accommodations for this native urban wildlife.

For some people viewing the installation, it could have been seen as this save-the planet, up-with-animals piece—kind of Pollyanna or naïve. [laughs] But I think an equally appropriate opposite response would be one of just a feeling of real tragic sadness of looking at this landscape. This installation was a sad approximation of what was there before, and there was something pathetic about it. Neither response is entirely appropriate or acknowledges the entire reality, which is both at the same time. I love the idea of making work that can simultaneously evoke these equally opposing feelings of hope and doom, because if you’re 100 percent hopeful, you’re not properly paying attention. If you 100 percent have that sense of doom, that’s no way to proceed through life. But I think there’s something about feeling both that nothing but art can give you.

There’s no other part of culture in society, activism, politics that can properly acknowledge the poetry of the contradictions…

PS: What about spirituality? For your Domestic Integrities project—which seems to be a lot about ritual—you mention influences from the Shakers to “yoga studio altars” to Helen and Scott Nearing, who left New York in 1932 to live in rhythm with nature.

FH: Domestic Integrity is a new series of projects I’m doing focused on human interior spaces and how humans make themselves at home. How they use what they find, or harvest, or gather at home. In a way, it’s almost like an interior decoration project: a home ec class mashed up with some primal ceremony, I suppose. [laughs] At the center of each installation is a massive rug that expands as it goes from city to city, crocheted out of old textiles people bring in. It’s the stage upon which the project happens.

Already the rug is this special sacred space, I suppose. It’s a charged field with little pedestals upon which are set different things left each week by local residents, from honey and dried herbs to pickles and fresh vegetables. There is a ceremonial aspect of placing these things on these pedestals on the rug and then sitting down, smelling them, tasting them, drinking them, playing with them.

But, for me, the bigger story of that project takes activities happening in homes across the city that aren’t seen as important, that are easy to dismiss as peripheral and hidden, and puts them front and center. Literally, they’ll be in a gallery, on a pedestal, in a museum—treated as culture at its highest levels.

We live in a strange society today where so much of the contemporary art that’s being made exists in a speculative bubble of production, consumption, entertainment, and monetary value that is so outside of the reason most people become artists. When you get to the core of what drives most artists, it’s quite invisible in most of what you see on the surface of contemporary art world today. There’s a sad hollowness to the contemporary art world at its most superficial.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have people every day at home doing things thoughtfully, carefully, creatively, and resourcefully with what’s around them. If we were properly evolved beings, we’d consider this the highest form of culture that we have as human beings, culture that we should be saving, paying attention to, recording, and valuing.