LINCOLN — We’ve all seen flowers and vegetables in art – think of all those 17th-century Dutch paintings of food on a wooden table or Edouard Manet’s still lifes of flowers in a vase – but what about these things as art? A real tomato on a pedestal, for instance. It looks tasty now, but in a couple of weeks it will be rotting. The saying is, life is short and art is long, not the other way around. Artworks generally don’t carry a freshness date.
Something contrary to the norm is going on in the new exhibition titled “Work Out” at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. What we see is a display of actual flowers and vegetables and the gardens where they are being grown. One can already hear visitors asking, “Where’s the art?” Oh, you traditionalists who still believe that art is a kind of luxury object, a painting or sculpture, that we usually find displayed in museums. Nope, the art display here is the flowers and vegetables, as well as some ideas about what art is and how we live our lives.
Welcome to a very different sort of artwork: not some object to be bought and sold, not highlighting a branded artistic style, but instead a type of presentation that aims a spotlight on the environment and man’s relationship to it.
A number of artists are part of this summer-long display, including the Los Angeles-based Fritz Haeg, a landscape architect by training whose career over the past dozen or more years has been creating ecology-minded art and design projects at museums and other cultural institutions in the United States and Europe.
Haeg’s specific project at the deCordova, called “Domestic Integrities,” is planting a vegetable garden in a 20-foot-wide circle in the middle of the museum’s parking lot (the museum will be excavating the asphalt top and gravel underneath, filling it in with arable soil) that will be tended throughout the summer by the artist’s on-site assistant, Keith Clougherty.
“We had been planning to shrink the parking lot anyway for a while,” said Dina Deitsch, the deCordova’s curator of contemporary art. “For a sculpture park, it’s unseemly large.” She noted that for this new garden, “local farmers are donating seeds, and they will be growing corn, peas, squash, and tomatoes, New England staples.” As things grow and ripen, they will be picked and put on pedestals inside a deCordova gallery whose floor is to be covered by a circular 20-foot diameter rug, which was created from recycled apparel and where visitors (without their shoes) may sit. Over the course of the exhibition, this interior gallery will host talks by local organic farmers on sustainable agriculture, a conference on trees, and demonstrations of whittling and canning.
By placing the produce on pedestals “we will pay tribute to what they are and see the direct one-to-one relationship between what’s coming out of the garden” — the former parking lot or the area farms — “and what’s coming into the domesticated environment” — the gallery, Haeg said in a telephone interview.
The artist’s intention is political as well as ecological, to highlight connections that can get lost in modern life, which is “mediated through TV screens and commercials, and our isolation from what actually sustains us,” he said. “We need to develop an awareness of what’s happening in the world. I want to examine and explore the city we want, how we really want to live. I want to make art that addresses our relationship to our environment and how we live. That is historically what artists have done.”
Gardening as kinetic or reality art? “The traditional form of art is passive,” Haeg said. “Art comments on the world, on what has been, and it makes that past permanent.”
He claimed to have no interest in preserving the past. “I want to focus on what is happening right now and the changes that are taking place right in front of us.” As vegetables are harvested and brought into the gallery, they are fresh until they “start to rot and then are replaced by other things. Yesterday was different than today, and tomorrow will be different. This is a live broadcast of a particular place.”
Flowers and vegetables as anti-art? Deitsch likened Haeg’s concepts about art to those of dadaist Marcel Duchamp, who exhibited what he called “readymades,” such as a factory-produced bicycle wheel and a urinal. “He wanted us to contemplate the everyday.” Still, Duchamp’s objects were purchasable, which is not Haeg’s intention. “We want to show visitors outdoor work that is not object-based but experience-based.”
In some ways, Haeg’s work defies the art market. “There are so many antiquated ideas out there,” Haeg said. “Art has to be permanent, and it has to hold monetary value. If it doesn’t hold value, it is considered worthless. Gardening, textiles, cooking are all associated with women, and they are all considered of lower value. You can’t collect things that are grown in a garden, because they don’t hold their value over time, but I can’t think of anything better to look at than things that are grown in a garden.”
Don’t get too excited by the food on display. It is there to be looked at but not eaten, at least by visitors. Part of Keith Clougherty’s job at the museum will be to can the produce, preserving it. However, Fridays through Sundays, Keith plans to offer tea to visitors, made from the mint that is locally grown.
Haeg’s previous work has included the 2005 “Edible Estates” (replacing lawns with kitchen gardens) and his 2008 “Animal Estates” (creating homes for animals displaced by humans), which were sited at different locations around the country. The deCordova’s “Domestic Integrities” is actually subtitled Part A04, reflecting the fact that different versions of it were created already at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, and the Hammer Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Berkeley Art Museum at the University of California, Berkeley will be subtitled A05 and A06.
Local artists who focus on issues of the ecology and sustainability are also part of “Work Out.” They include Jane D. Marsching, associate professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, who is creating a field station from reclaimed materials in the dimensions of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, and Andi Sutton, a Boston-based artist who is installing numerous pink flamingo sculptures filled with native wildflower seeds from North and South Carolina that will be dispersed as the sculptures disintegrate over time.
Environmental sustainability as a focus of an artist’s work tends to upend the customary business model for fine artists; many of them don’t create objects that can be sold in an art gallery to a collector. This class of artists is sustained on project grants and other forms of funding. Haeg claimed to have only sold one object in his career, a large eagle’s nest he created for the 2008 Whitney Biennial (“There was this one collector who kept asking and asking, and eventually I said, ‘OK, I’ll sell it to you.’ ”), but otherwise his projects are supported by commissions from institutions, such as Tate Modern in London and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized artworks by Marsching and Sutton.