Rob Carter, “Campo Rico” (2013), from the series “Sweetness and Light,” c-print mounted on dibond, 55 x 30 cm

CHICAGO — Before centuries of modernization and industry settled in, Gentofte, Denmark, was a simple farming town under the vision of a single lord with 42 serfs. Over the past 200 years, Gentofte has evolved into what is rightly considered a suburb. In the exhibition New Garden City, curator Aukje Lepoutre Ravn seeks to connect the agricultural history of Gentofte with its rapidly modernizing technology and vision.

Agriculture used to be the dominant industry in Gentofte, but that was more than a century ago. What happened and why? New Garden City seeks to cast a new light on local history through an exhibition at contemporary art space Traneudstillingen and public projects designed around the themes of food production, communities, and rituals. The show features work by artists Kenneth Balfelt, Rob Carter, Søren Dahlgaard, Jette Ellgaard, Emil Westman Hertz, Learning Site, Allan Otte, and Troels Sandegaard. Gentofte Mayor Hans Toft opened it earlier this month.

We got in touch with Ravn and Carter, whose work considers the relationship between plant life and humanity, to learn more about the exhibition’s purpose and context within both the evolving international world of agriculture and Gentofte’s local story.

Jette Ellgaard, "The Eternal Hunting Grounds," video, 6 mins (2009)

Jette Ellgaard, “The Eternal Hunting Grounds” (2009), video, 6 min

Alicia Eler: How did New Garden City come about? Why now? 

Aukje Lepoutre Ravn: New Garden City is a new and first-time collaboration between Traneudstillingen and an external partner — the company Art+Innovation Hub, run by Pernille Skov and Majken Overgaard. We have worked on the project for more than a year and wanted from the beginning to connect the agricultural history of Gentofte with today’s modern technology, thoughts of innovation in the field of food production, and explore various types of community-based collaborations. It was of course essential that these all involved artists’ work or collaboration in one way or the other.

AE: In the statement for New Garden City, you talk about a former agricultural city that has changed a lot over the past century. Can you give me a condensed version of that history?

ALR: Gentofte, like so many other suburbs in Denmark, has within the last 180–200 years gone through a complete transition from agricultural farm land to suburban housing. In the 18th century almost all farmland in Gentofte was jointly cultivated by 42 serfs (Danish: fæstebønder) working for the lord of the manor at Bernstorff Castle. The implementation of the Danish agrarian reforms in 1765 brought about a number of changes and resulted, among other things, in the abolishment of the existing village community, the relocation of the serf farms to new plots of land, and the transition from traditional serfs to independent farmers. Over a period of time the independent farmers continued getting wealthier, not only because of improved production methods, but also due to the rise of industrialization around 1900, which in turn led to a lot of land being parceled out and sold for housing. As such, the history of Gentofte captures the development from historical village, characterized by food production for private use and distribution in the society, to the suburb of today, dominated by housing enclaves, public institutions, and commercial buildings.

Troels Sandegaard,  "Respiration Wall Piece" (2013)

Troels Sandegaard, “Respiration Wall Piece” (2013)

AE: The digital catalogue essay for the exhibition got me thinking about commercial food production versus self-sufficient food co-ops in rural and urban spaces. What do you see as the tension between these two poles of the food system? Should they co-exist in the New Garden City

ALR: There are many different perspectives on this. One, of course, is the gigantic amount of CO2 that globally is being exhausted every day to transport food around the globe. The commercial food production is a tremendously polluting industry, starting from the breeding of animals. But it is important to mention that the project is not trying to play these two systems of food production out against each other. We believe that in the New Garden City, as much as possible of the food consumed should be produced locally. At the same time, we also recognize that a complete self-sufficient local food production is not an actual alternative within the existing infrastructure in the suburb. It is also important to mention that we consider knowledge and communities as equally important elements in New Garden City — as expressed, for example, in the projects “Civic Garden” and “The Monument” as well as in the mediation/workshop program.

Emil Westman Hertz, "The New Face," glass display cabinet with beeswax, pollen, dust, polystyrene, 71 x 36 x 36 cm, (2013)

Emil Westman Hertz, “The New Face” (2013), glass display cabinet with beeswax, pollen, dust, polystyrene, 71 x 36 x 36 cm

AE: Is the garden city a version of utopia? Why or why not?

ALR: In the catalogue we reference the texts and thoughts of the British urban planner Ebenezer Howard. His ideas about garden cities were quite radical at the time, and for many perceived as utopian. Only parts of his visions about garden city communities were realized. But these ideas of Howard’s are very much alive today and being explored and challenged in both smaller and larger scales — in cities, suburbia, and more rural areas. It is not only a trend but a discourse of new ecological awareness.

New Garden City is not a version of utopia. New Garden City is merely pointing out and trying to engage people — especially the local community in Gentofte — in participating and helping develop new ways of producing and acting around food in the suburb. To be honest, we have not thought about utopia at all, probably because we do not see it as a project describing utopic alternatives, if you understand utopia as a “perfect” place built on impractical, idealistic scheme for social and/or political reform.

AE: How do the three formats of the show operate collectively? How did the work create a new networked-focused dynamic in Gentofte, as you write in your statement? 

ALR: There are three overall themes in the exhibition: food production, communities, and rituals. We have tried to unfold the themes in the three formats: the exhibition, the collaborative/locally based projects, and the mediation program, offering the audience/guest/citizen as broad a view of the themes as possible. We encourage the locals to engage in the mediation program, and actual involvement of the local community is happening in the projects “Civic Garden” and “Monument.” We hope that we are building and opening a network based on the interest in learning and doing local food production. Also, Kenneth A. Balfelt’s film LifeDevelopmentGarden [about a prison garden] will be distributed to prisons around Denmark, hopefully starting new collaborations there as well.

Rob Carter, 'Model Øregård Park' from "Sweetness and Light," mixed-media with dirt, wood, sugar seeds (2013)

Rob Carter, ‘Model Øregård Park’ from “Sweetness and Light” (2013), mixed-media with dirt, wood, sugar seeds

AE: As usual, you are growing plants that will take over the park! Why the interest in this type of overgrowth? Is it related to a sort of utopian vision in which plants dominate?

Rob Carter: A future where nature takes back the land — that story is one that we know will happen, and left for the shortest period of time, plant life will reclaim and move into spaces once used or maintained by humans. The starting point for this project was the history of the Øregård Museum and gardens and its connection to the business of farming in the form of sugar (its construction was funded by the shipping and sugar business of the Danish West Indies). The garden in the exhibition is reflective of the way this plant and our craving for sweetness were the basis of the construction of architecture in various forms — as such sugar built Øregård and the windmills of St. Croix and led humans down a treacherous path through the horrors of slavery to the health problems of today. Maybe the plants are the ones in control, as Michael Pollan suggests in The Botany of Desire. Perhaps that is a utopian vision of plant dominance!

In my installation at Traneudstillingen I’ve recreated Øregårdsparken as an island seeded with sugar (in this case Sugar Drip sorghum and some stevia). During the two months of the exhibition, the land will become dense with foliage and the model building engulfed by the plants, and the contrast in scale between the plants and the building will become more and more pronounced (in theory these plants can grow to 9–12 feet). The idea is for the plants to transition between the controlled environment of an organized park and then, through natural vigorous growth, take back the house and grounds, turning it into a wild (and free) plantation.

Those accompanying photographs where nature has reclaimed the windmills seem to act in a contrasting way — the encroaching vines are more like a fig leaf over the injustices of the past uses of these structures. Here, nature has taken back and made the architecture of mechanized farming and forced labor look romantic, sometimes beautiful.

New Garden City is on view at Traneudstillingen (Gentofte Hovedbibliotek, Ahlmanns Allé 6, DK-2900 Hellerup, Denmark) and around Gentofte through October 13.

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...