At 90, Agnes Denes Is Still Making Art About the Environment

Agnes Denes Wheatfield
Agnes Denes Wheatfield, 1982 | Courtesy

Just ahead of her 91st birthday, environmental artist Agnes Denes launches Another Confrontation.

WheatfieldA Confrontation, the critically aimed art installation by environmental artist Agnes Denes that appeared in New York City’s Battery Park in 1982, forever changed the conversation surrounding art and activism. It was an act of protest, a commentary on world hunger, food, waste, energy, commerce, trade, land use, and economics. The installation was located just two blocks from the World Trade Center, facing the Statue of Liberty. Forty years later, the artist is still at it, just ahead of her 91st birthday.

Denes has enjoyed a lengthy career, appearing in more than 600 exhibitions spanning from her first solo show in 1979 to the present, with works in dozens of museums and galleries including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

The Budapest-born, Sweden-raised artist is known for her work that shows influences by science, mathematics, philosophy, linguistics, ecology, and psychology as part of her effort to document and aid humanity. Specifically, it’s her theories about climate change and life in the modern technologically-driven world that speak to humanity’s successes an challenges. Currently on view in The Milk of Dreams, Denes’s work is the main exhibition at the 2022 Venice Biennale.

agnes denes wheatfield
Agnes Denes Wheatfield, 1982 | Courtesy

Denes’s newest installation, Another Confrontation, transforms Piccadilly Lights and other major screens across the planet next month with a message for humanity in three new video works. The new commission, presented by digital art platform Circa, will feature an interactive augmented reality component developed by Meta Open Arts. It will allow Instagram users to tap and grow their own augmented wheat field in the platform.

“Agnes Denes is a pioneer who alerted the world to humanitarian and environmental issues when very few people were paying attention.” Josef O’Connor, Artistic Director of Circa, said in a statement. 

“Pushing boundaries once again, we are honored to be marking the 40th anniversary of WheatfieldA Confrontation with Another Confrontation, combining video with augmented reality to present her timely message on a global stage and introduce her prophetic legacy to a new generation.,” O’Connor said.

Another Confrontation looks at the artist’s fears and hopes through three acts including the original Wheatfield installation. Tree Mountain—A Living Time Capsule, was conceived in 1982 and measures 420 meters long, 270 meters wide, and 38 meters high. It was planted in Finland in 1996, made from 11,000 trees by 11,000 people across the globe. There’s a living time capsule on that, which is to remain untouched for 400 years.

Agnes Denes Tree Mountain
Agnes Denes Tree Mountain | Courtesy

For the new event, public-generated photos will be presented by Circa on London’s Piccadilly Lights. There is also a questionnaire that highlights Denes’s ecological focus and concerns about the state of the planet. In that survey, the public is invited to answer 11 questions from Denes about humanity in 2022. The answers will be buried in a time capsule for the year 3022.

Climate art in New York

Last year, fellow environmental installation artist Maya Lin brought a climate change themed installation to New York’s Madison Square Park.

Commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy, the artist and activist brought “Ghost Forest,” to Manhattan from last May through November. It was a forest built of trees that fell victim to climate change, features 49 Atlantic cedar trees killed by rising sea levels. Over the course of the installment period the trees lost their color and turn a “ghostly” grey aimed at contrasting with the Midtown Manhattan park’s naturally green landscape.

The trees came from the nearby New Jersey Pine Barrens.

“I wanted to bring a ghost forest to the heart of Manhattan, and find trees that were as close to Manhattan as I could possibly source,” Lin said in a statement.

Maya Lin Ghost Forest
Maya Lin Ghost Forest | Courtesy

“They had died off due to extreme weather events related to climate change: wind events, fire, sea-level rise, saltwater infiltration and bad forestry practices,” Lin said.

The installation came in tandem with a series of public events held by the Conservancy addressing nature-based solutions to the climate crises and was accompanied by a soundscape that oriented listeners to the once-common animals on Manhattan island including grey foxes and American black bears.

Lin said she was addressing climate change and what she said is the harsh reality our ecosystems face.

“We have very little time left to change how we live within the natural world,” Lin said.

“I wanted to bring awareness to a die-off that is happening all over the planet. But I also feel that a potential solution is through nature-based practices.”

Lin became a household name when in 1981, as an undergraduate student at Yale University, she won the contract for the planned Vietnam Veteran’s War Memorial in Washington D.C. She’s also the designer behind the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and has received the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Rendering of the Los Angeles screening | Courtesy

This May, Denes’s work will be shown daily at screens including London’s Piccadilly Lights, Berlin’s Limes, Kurfürstendamm, Pendry West Hollywood in Los Angeles, Melbourne’s Fed Square, Milan, Luxottica, Piazzale Cadorna, New York, Luxottica, Times Square, and in Seoul, at COEX K-Pop Square.

The event will be revealed in Three Acts across the month, wrapping with the Future: 2022 Questionnaire and Time Capsule from May 21-31, and Denes’s 91st birthday on May 31st.

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