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Nothing is ever finished: Article four

Only Time Will Tell

Here is the selection of projects as presented by Lisa Rosendahl.

Alan Sonfist

Alan Sonfist, ‘Time Landscape’, New York, 1978.

Alan Sonfists’ land art sculpture ‘Time Landscape’ in New York is an example of the turn in contemporary art towards processed-based, durational practice. Proposed in 1965 and finally executed in 1978, the project is a recreation of a precolonial forest on a plot of land in Greenwich Village. Sonfist searched through historical documents for accounts of the landscape to determine how it looked before it was inhabited by European settlers in the early 17th century, and recreated it as accurately as possible, using only plants that would have grown locally in the area before it was colonized.

The forest was intended as a site of commemoration, juxtaposing two different models of temporality: the urban and the natural. Although Sonfist aimed for historical accuracy, the project was not intended as a Time Capsule; he welcomed animals and winds that bring new plants and species into the plot over time.

Henrik Håkansson

Henrik Håkansson, ‘Reserve’ (001), 2009–2012–present, Wanås Konst.

A similar local initiative is Henrik Håkansson’s ‘Reserve (001)’ at Wanås Konst (a centre for art and learning, in Skåne, Sweden), where an area of 2,500 square meters of land has been fenced off to remain untouched for the foreseeable future. The land is inaccessible to human visitors (including the artist and the staff of Wanås Konst) as well as to larger animals such as wild boars and deer. Unlike Sonfist’s project, Håkansson’s idea is not to recreate a historical landscape, but to establish an autonomous zone in the midst of a sculpture park that will develop according to the specific conditions of that place without interference.

Both projects are a curious balancing act between artifice and authenticity. Sonfist’s ‘forest’ is man-made and as such completely artificial. The same could be said of Håkanssons ‘reserve’, whose man-made boundaries keep out animals that naturally would have interacted with and changed the environment. At the same time, both works provide a contrast to the human activities in their proximity, making us reflect on what COULD HAVE BEEN had we not been around.

Amy Balkin

Amy Balkin, ‘This is the Public Domain’, 2003–present, Tehacapi desert, California.

Another project that tickles the imagination with ideas of the possible is Amy Balkin’s ‘This is the Public Domain’. Balkin’s project is an exercise in trying to establish a permanent international commons free to everyone. Since purchasing the land in 2003, attempts have been made by the artist to find a legal solution for the hand-over of the ownership from her to the global public. So far, it has proved impossible. The thought of what the consequences of a handover would be, should the initiative succeed, is mindboggling. We can only imagine the effects it might have on all sorts of legal constructs, such as citizenship, land use and settlement rights, if we are all able to cite joint ownership of this piece of land in the Californian desert.

Bringing the discussion back to the way that the modern perception of time has changed how we live our daily lives, I would like to show you two projects that deal with the activity of making a living in relation to economic, social and environmental sustainability.

Fritz Haeg

A building in Salmon Creek Farm, Mendocino County, California, 1971–1914–present.

Salmon Creek Farm was initiated in 1971 by a group of young people as a place for communal living. The initiative, which was not conceived as an artwork, grew out of the student protests of that time and a discontent with society and the consumer culture that had taken hold of every aspect of life. The group learned how to build their own houses, grow their own food and survive from the land. The commune was functional for a couple of decades, but was gradually abandoned and became progressively derelict. In 2014, artist Fritz Haeg bought the land and started running the farm as a long-term art project, describing it as “a sort of commune-farm-homestead-sanctuary-school hybrid”. The farm continues as a place to take a step back from contemporary urban society, but instead of a fixed group of permanent residents, it is now comprised of an extended community of regulars including activists, carpenters, cooks, dancers, filmmakers, farmers and foragers.

The project is not open to the public but welcomes participants who would like to contribute to the activities. Haeg describes it as: “a free exchange where we take what we need and give what we can. (…) Each person on the land asks how their skills and interests meet the needs and resources of the farm. We try to surrender to the land, take care of ourselves and each other, give a little more than we take, and leave things better than we found them.”

Reactivating a built structure and way of life and fusing it with contemporary ideas of community and sustainability, Salmon Creek Farm is an example of a way of practicing culture in a more integrated way than the institutional separations between art and life, and between the private creative process and the public consumption of its results, that are usually applied in the sphere of art.

Fernando Garcia Dory

Fernando Gardia Dory, ‘Shepherd's School’, Urrielles Mountains, Spain, 2004.

Another initiative connected to this way of thinking is Fernando Garcia Dory’s ‘Shepherd’s School’ in the Urielles Mountains of northern Spain. The artist started the school after hearing about the difficulties of the mountain shepherds to secure the continuation of their trade, partly due to the transformation of their pastures into a national park catering for the tourist industry, at the same time as he came into contact with a growing number of young unemployed people who wanted to leave the urban centres in search of alternative ways of living. As an exercise in subverting the brutal shortsightedness of urban life style, the purpose of the project seems to be twofold: to acknowledge and build on the ancient way of life of the shepherds that has survived for over 6,000 years, and to educate a younger, urban, generation unable to find work, in how to be self-sufficient and live off the land.

Throughout June to November, the students live and work together with a shepherd, jointly herding flocks of sheep, goats and cows and following the daily routine of transforming milk into cheese. Over one hundred students have passed through the school to date. Should anyone of them want to stay on, there are hundreds of abandoned handmade stone huts that they are free to move into. The project has strengthened the resources of the resident shepherds, renovating huts and building cheese-making facilities as well as introducing new tools and technology.

Fritz’s and Fernando’s projects are both examples of artists’ approaches to cultural heritage that differ from those of traditional historians. Rather than keeping a neutral position of distance to preserve what is already there, these artists incorporate the past into the present as a way of acknowledging its active role in the building of a future.

One question that might arise in relation to these practices is of course “but is it art?”. And although this is a valid question, I think the way to answer it is to rather think of the artists as using tools, practices, resources and ways of thinking from the cultural field to generate situations and ways of life that there would be little room for otherwise. To call it ‘art’ is a way of making this transfer of resources and attention possible.

Alexandra Pirici

Alexandra Pirici, ‘Monument to Work’, Stockholm, 2015.

A very different artwork, but one which also invokes the past in the present whilst placing human activity at its centre, is Alexandra Pirici’s ‘Monument to Work’, which I curated for Public Art Agency Sweden in 2015. This project is the first performative artwork ever bought by Public Art Agency Sweden, with the possibility of being reactivated for as long as the Swedish state remains and maintains its public art collection.

Whilst carrying out research into Sweden’s industrial heritage, I was struck by the lack of human perspectives and representation in the industrial museums and cultural heritage sites, which were mainly about preserving the buildings and products characteristic of that time. Having just started my work as curator for Public Art Agency Sweden, which is the governmental agency for producing public artworks, I also wanted to explore how the enormous societal transformation taking place in Sweden from industrial to post-industrial society might be publicly commemorated.

The invitation of artist Alexandra Pirici resulted in the performative artwork ‘Monument to Work’, which has been installed in Göteborg and Stockholm. For the work, Pirici interviewed past and present workers at one of Sweden’s most famous industries: SKF ball bearings. She asked them to show her all the body movements they remembered having performed in their professional lives, which – as many of them had spent a large proportion of their lives performing repetitive tasks along a conveyor belt – turned out to be quite a few. Recording movements from as far back as the 1950s, the final work is a gentle transformation of the original gestures into a slow choreography moving back and forth between collective and individual movement. In this way, the work is itself an example of the transition from the productive, material labour of the past to the immaterial, performative and affective labour that characterizes today’s working environment. Not bound to a specific location, the itinerant monument highlights the processes of abstraction conditioning the present, moving us further and further away from the concrete and materially situated.

Pirici’s project is an example of how ‘duration’ can take many different forms within one project: each activation of the sculpture lasts only four hours – usually repeated over a few days – but as part of the state art collection it might be re-activated indefinitely into the future.

Katie Paterson

Katie Paterson, ‘Future Library’, Oslo, 2014–2114.

Finally, I’d like to speak of Katie Paterson’s poetic project ‘Future Library’ for the city of Oslo.

In 2014, Paterson arranged for a thousand Norwegian spruce trees to be planted in the Nordmarka forest, north of Oslo. The trees will grow for a hundred years, when they will be cut down and made into paper used to publish an anthology of books. Every year between 2014 and 2114, a writer is commissioned to write a text, which will remain unread and unpublished until the hundred-year period has come to an end. The writers commissioned so far are Margret Atwood, David Mitchell, Sjón and Elif Shafak.

The artist speaks about her work as a living, breathing, organic artwork, unfolding over a hundred years. She says: “I imagine the tree rings as chapters in a book. The unwritten words, year by year, activated, materialized. The visitors’ experience of being in the forest, changing over decades, being aware of the slow growth of the trees containing the writers’ ideas like an unseen energy.”

The unread manuscripts, and eventually the printed books, will be held in a special room, located on the top floor of the new city library in Oslo

The timescale of ‘Future Library’ exceeds the normal duration of a human life, yet it is not so long that it feels entirely removed from our time in history. It invites us to think in a longer perspective, to imagine the experience of generations to come and to realize that we are involved in shaping those experiences through the ways we act in the present.

How our contemporary actions will be perceived or come to use in the future is of course impossible to know. One telling example is the plantation in Sweden in the 1830s, as a direct response to the Napoleonic wars, of over three hundred thousand oak trees that were meant to secure the future building of war ships. But by the time the trees were ready to be harvested in the 1970s, technology had moved on and war ships were no longer built from wood.

What the status of the printed paper book will be in 2124 when Katie Paterson’s work comes to completion, only time can tell.