With “Living Pyramid” (2015), Agnes Denes’s first large-scale public sculpture in New York City since she planted and harvested an amber field in the Battery Park Landfill (“Wheatfield – A Confrontation,” 1982), the artist merges botanicals with her interest in mathematics. In the artist’s hands, numbers produce living forms.
The monumental scale of the 30-foot-high symmetrical pyramid at Socrates Sculpture Park refers more to growing a mountain than to the history of the monument. Its primordial shape can be grasped in its entirety from any angle, as much a mental construct as a physical one.
During her long career, the artist has honed sculpture as thought, form as idea. Denes has described a similar work, “Tree Mountain” (1982–96), in which 11,000 silver fir trees were planted in a spiraling design that begins at the tip of a mountain in Ylojarvi, Finland, and spools out symmetrically down the slopes, as “unit[ing] the human intellect and the majesty of nature.”
A springboard for philosophical musings, the quietly massive form of “Living Pyramid” will be gradually altered by the time-bound growing cycle of the layers of plantings that line the perimeter. The simple form demands more open space, nevertheless, it rises sublimely against the background of the Manhattan skyline.
Denes’s current proposal, to build “mega dunes” off the Rockaways to stabilize the shore, is a mega idea, as most of her work is, and one the artist began to formulate in the 1970s through her early involvement in conferences on ecological change.
Gabriela Albergaria’s “Two Trees in Balance” (2015) presents an aesthetically formal conflict between a garden wall and two improvised elements of nature. Neither enclosure nor sanctuary, as gardens have historically been, the two composite trees, made from salvaged pieces of wood, are suspended in perpetual tension as they pull against either side of a 10 foot concrete block wall, an evocation of the forces of gravity and organic growth that tend to pull down the structures humans erect.
The artist propagates her idea from found branches and trunks gathered throughout the city and reconstructed into the semblance of trees with the aid of bolts and metal straps. Grafting, a common horticultural technique of cutting and fusing to reproduce multiple plants from a single rootstock, is evoked by Albergaria’s construction methods. The reconstituted trees recall the long tradition of gardening that in consort with architecture, served the psycho-socio-political need to define and demarcate nature into domesticated and wild zones.
Based on a photograph of a massive sinkhole that opened up in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China, Heidi Fasnacht’s “Suspect Terrain” (2015) is constructed out of plywood plates atop exposed 2 x 4 struts, into which a peaked-roofed house, shaded with raster dots, appears to sink. As the jagged forms slope centrifugally toward the center, irregularly placed painted cracks announce the illusion of a stage set.
Fasnacht poses plate tectonics (her title refers to the book, In Suspect Terrain, by John McPhee) to explain the nature of the world in geological terms. Here spectators can traverse a reenactment of a natural disaster without any danger of sinking into a dark hole in the earth. The day I visited, children and a few adults immediately took to running up and down the staggered planes and leaping the cracks, treating the sculpture like a low-tech playground.
The casual construction methods and multiple vantage points of Suspect Terrain disrupt the inert space that, paradoxically, has numbed the expressive power of the human made explosions and natural disasters in many of the artist’s drawings and sculptures of the near past. When I entered the central zone of this sculpture to view the half-sunken house, there was a thrilling moment of stepping through the illusion of the picture plane while also seeing the constructs of that experience. Furthermore, irregular gaps and sloping planes invite a visceral instability that questions the reliability of appearances. At the same time viewer perambulation introduces duration as an element and activates the structure to become a site of unprescribed experience.
Monumental, human and stage set scale, respectively, these new outdoor sculptures at Socrates Sculpture Park source nature to provide three distinct points of view. Agnes Denes uses growth processes as a medium to animate a mathematically imagined pyramid built out of wood and soil, soulful in its affect. Gabriela Albergaria borrows gardening methods to consider the cultural constructs of nature, the natural and the human made. Heide Fasnacht restages a document of the earth giving way to investigate phenomena and perception.
Agnes Denes: Living Pyramid; Gabriela Albergaria: Two Trees in Balance; and Heide Fasnacht: Suspect Terrain will be on view at Socrates Sculpture Park (32-01 Vernon Blvd, Long Island City, Queens) through August 30.