Soil is an unlikely artistic material, a substance we dismiss, misunderstand or trample over. But the ground beneath us can also seed new ways of seeing.
Three acclaimed artists invite us to look at the earth we walk on more closely – and witness the world anew in the process.
For Nicole Foreshew, the earth is always speaking, whether or not we choose to hear. When the contemporary artist returns to her Wiradjuri Country, in New South Wales’ Central West, she stands among ‘red ground littered with fragments of grey, black dead timber and powdered grasses’.
Here, the landscape is inscribed with traces of violence. But, she says, it also tells a story of renewal and hope.
‘Aboriginal people fought to the death for land and water across the Central West up against the pastoral frontier,’ she says. ‘Awareness of this reality is at a higher point than in preceding centuries when Australia perpetrated a denial of colonisation’s collective crimes. [But] nothing is lost. You cannot take away spiritual connection and love of Country. It is something that lives inside you. The dry wind swims across scalded land like a distress signal. Earth acts as an indicator of change.’
Foreshew’s work explores the ways in which our bodies are rooted in place, inseparable from the landscapes we move through. In the 2016 video Cultural Drift, an object, wrapped in silver fabric, sits on a deserted beach, recalling a sleeping life form. The sand around it is marred with patterns, the push and pull of waves on the shore creating its own kind of skin.
To make her 2015-2017 work, ngayirr (sacred), she buried nine tree limbs, found on Country, on a site that was personally resonant. They grew a crystalline membrane, proof of a chemical reaction between wood and the earth that’s also a powerful metaphor for spiritual connections that are invisible and intangible.
‘ngayirr gives Country a voice – it reminds us of lore, spiritual existence and reclamation,’ says Foreshew, who is making a series of works for the National Indigenous Art Triennial due to open at Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia later this year. ‘It can teach us who the country belongs to, who is spiritually linked to that Country.’ She pauses. ‘And it has the ability to heal.’
The earth is wrongly considered passive, a domain to be plumbed, mastered and conquered. But for Agnes Denes, the ground beneath us is life-force, the source of creation itself. In 1968, the Hungarian-born American artist made a seminal work called Rice/Tree/Burial, that saw her plant rice in the soil in New York’s Sullivan County. She also chained trees and buried copies of her poems. It symbolised her lifelong commitment to revealing the invisible links between ecology and human existence.
Although Denes, 90, has been making profound art for over five decades, she’s best known for Wheatfield – A Confrontation (1982). To make the work, considered one of New York’s greatest public art projects, she worked 16-hour days planting two acres of wheat in a landfill near Wall Street and the World Trade Center. There’s an iconic photograph of Denes that shows the artist holding a staff, smiling triumphantly. Around her, skyscrapers, those markers of capitalist progress, fade into the background. They surrender their space to the power of nature. Progress and profit give way – if only for a moment – to the promise of golden shoots.
‘My work seeks the problems and tries to find benign solutions to solve them,’ says Agnes Denes. ‘Wheatfield – A Confrontation is about mismanagement of the land, world hunger, the mistakes we make with our resources. Humanity always tries to correct things in hindsight. Even when we see the problems we do little to correct them. During one work-filled summer in Wheatfield, we solved a hundred small problems.’
The male Land Artists of the 1970s were interested in using the landscape as a canvas. But Denes’ radically re-imagines our relationship with nature. Her art, which explores ideas across science, linguistics, poetry, history and music, dreams up new visual philosophies that change the way we see the world. Since 2014, she’s been working on A Forest and Peace Park for New York, a plan to plant 200,000 trees across a 120-acre landfill in Queens, New York.
‘I’d like to see my forest and peace park for New York realised before I die. The money is there, the land is waiting, why are people so blind?’
Our culture sees the artist as a singular figure. But for Asad Raza, making art is about nurturing connections. It’s also about inspiring moments of collaboration between human and non-human beings. Raza, the son of immigrants from Pakistan, grew up in Buffalo, New York. As a child, he says, he always thrived alongside other people.
‘All my life, I’ve always enlisted people in projects,’ he laughs, over Zoom, from his home in Berlin. ‘[When] I had to make decisions about [my path] I realised that I wanted to do something and do it together. My whole practice was born out of this impulse.’
Raza has produced exhibitions for the artist Tino Sehgal. He’s invited viewers into his SoHo apartment as part of 2015’s The Home Show. More recently, he’s become interested in our kinship with other life forms. During the 2017 Whitney Biennial he showed Root sequence. Mother tongue, which saw human caretakers look after a forest of 26 young trees.
Raza is best known for Absorption, which first showed in Sydney in 2019 as part of Kaldor Public Art Projects. The work saw Raza fill a former railway goods store at Carriageworks with 300 tonnes of soil. Over the course of 16 days, individuals who Raza refers to as ‘cultivators’ added industrial by-products – including cuttlefish bones, spent barley and coffee grounds – sourced from the Sydney area. Visitors were encouraged to take this ‘neosoil’ home.
‘The idea of making what I call “neosoil” is about taking all the waste products I found in Sydney and recombining them into an element of the landscape,’ says Raza, who collaborated with Australian soil scientist, Professor Alex McBratney, to realise the work.
Absorption featured performances and installations by nine Sydney artists, including Daniel Boyd, Chun Yin Rainbow Chan, Agatha Gothe-Snape and Khaled Sabsabi. Raza says that the work, which showed as part of Germany’s Ruhrtriennale earlier this year, is a reversal of the industrial process. It also became a living organism that connected viewers with their own roots.
‘The soil made the space much cooler and there was this experience of walking on uneven ground,’ he says. ‘People came up to me and said, “This is taking me back to where I grew up.” I was impressed by the sensory effects that flowed out of this very simple idea.’
Post cover image: Agnes Denes. Wheatfield – A Confrontation. Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan. With Agnes Denes Standing in the Field, 1982. Photo: John McGrail. Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.