When viewing the formalism of Bayer’s Earthworks at Mill Creek, and its intended function, I think of the story of the Zen tea master: upon inspecting an apprentice’s grooming of the tea garden, the master shook a nearby tree to allow its leaves to fall upon the manicured landscape, in order to complete the work by introducing natural chance.
The function of a detention basin is messy: trapping sediment and floodwater borne debris is part of the detention process. Although I have never had the opportunity to see the juxtaposition of silt and debris layered by chance upon the ordered landscape of Herbert Bayer’s Earthworks, I imagine the detritus deposited composition might be interesting. But, if we prioritize these earthworks utilitarian intent to function, do we loose the elegant formal quality of the work?
When sculpture engages natural phenomena, chance becomes an important component of the work. The sculpture Host Analog presents this issue by accommodating dynamic displacement. Sited at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland Oregon, Host Analog is an evolving laboratory that embraces an urban context, rather than perpetuating a traditional horticultural notion of a host log. Prior to the sculpture’s installation in 1991, the approximately 1000-year-old, eight foot in diameter Douglas Fir windfall was found in Portland’s municipal water supply, the Bull Run watershed. The host log was transported to Portland with a collection of microorganisms, fungi, and indigenous flora attached to the decomposing log. Introducing the nursing log into an urban environment, where competing non-native plant would naturally establish alongside the existing native vegetation, provided a new paradigm.
This new dynamic sets its own destiny, and the nurse log is now host to a diversity of native and non-native plants, propagated by chance seedlings from both its native and new urban location. The carcass of this old growth tree continues a thousand year relationship of being nurtured by the same watershed, now piped to and misted upon Host Analog, and thus compensating for the moist habitat shift from forest to city.
Host Analog is a piece about dynamic displacement and art as entropy, rather than commodity. If given another one thousand years, this sculpture will lay host to an evolved adaptation of a nursing log. With the dynamics of climate change compounding Host Analog’s evolution, it is doubtful indigenous flora will ultimately outwit the invasive; rather, there will continue to be some form of accommodation. Artists within the earthworks movement learned an important lesson from Bayer’s example of taking art from the museum / gallery context, and applying Bauhaus functionalism to create earthworks with utility. From this legacy, artists not only serve as messengers, but increasingly as healers.
Buster Simpson is one of the nation’s foremost environmental artists. For over 30 years, he has engaging citizens in aesthetics, politics and the environment. Humor and rich metaphors distinguish his work, with many of his deceptively simple sculptures offering solutions to real problems. Beginning in Seattle in the 1970’s, Simpson helped establish the practice of public art as a profession, and still today, he “prefers working in public domains. The complexity of any site is its asset, to build upon, to distill, to reveal its layers of meaning. Process becomes part and parcel. Site conditions, social and political realities, history, existing phenomena and ecology are the armature. The challenge is to navigate along the edge between provocateur and pedestrian, art as gift and poetic utility.”
Among Simpson’s best known projects is Hudson River Purge. This installation in New York is part of a continuing series, dating back to 1983. Simpson placed soft limestone disks in the headwaters of the Hudson River (part of the New York City water supply). The limestone sculpture is a populist environmental agit prop, working both metaphorically and pharmaceutically. As a metaphor, it dramatizes the crisis of person and planet as one: acid indigestion, acid rain – a connection the media picked up on when the coined the titles “River Rolaids” and “Tums for Mother Nature.”
Pharmaceutically, limestone neutralizes or “sweetens” pH acidic waters. The process of adding limestone to acidic rivers is now a standard practice with environmental agencies. Yet, the source of the problem persists: combustion and consumption. We remain resigned to the stop gap solution, “the bigger the problem, the bigger the pill.”
Buster Simpson has received four fellowships and project grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. As an artist, design team member and consultant, Simpson has completed numerous projects throughout the United States and abroad, including Washington, Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, California, North Carolina and London, England. He has been invited to participate in international design competitions in Vienna, Austria and Liverpool, England. He has exhibited extensively, including the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC; the Queens Museum, the New Museum, the FIT Museum, the Neuberger Museum of Art, the Hudson River Museum and PS1 in New York; Spatiozero in Rome, Italy; Foundation Mona Bismarck in Paris, France; the National Botanic Gardens in Wales; and the Oakland Museum in California.
1-3. Host Analog, 1991. Oregon Convention Center, Portland, Oregon.
4. Hudson River Purge, 1983, New York.