Earth Art 2012 converges on VanDusen Botanical Garden

Talent from around the world is converging on VanDusen Garden to create Earth Art out of everything from rock to fungus to radishes

New Zealand artist Chris Booth is lying in the high grass in one of the wilder reaches of VanDusen Botanical Garden. The renowned sculptor, recently arrived in Vancouver from his home in the Bay of Islands, 300 kilometres north of Auckland, has been fighting jet lag while heaving immense slabs of granite around and sawing up a heap of abandoned and reclaimed logs. His afternoon nap, taken a few metres from the mysterious, towerlike structure he is creating, is a small concession to his exhaustion. Still, he’s quickly back on his feet, because he’s under the pressure of a tight deadline. His ambitious project has to be ready by next Thursday (August 2), when Earth Art 2012 is officially launched, although the public can enter the park and watch the art being made.

Organized by John K. Grande, an independent writer and curator based in Montreal, the exhibition spotlights the work of five internationally acclaimed artists: along with Booth, there’s Nils-Udo from Germany, Urs-P. Twellmann from Switzerland, Nicole Dextras from Vancouver, and Michael Dennis from Denman Island. What they have in common, Grande says while guiding the Straight through the show, is a commitment to “issues of sustainability in the arts, and to working with biocultural contexts and materials.

“These artists provide us with opportunities for contemplation,” he explains. “They remind us that we are part of nature, not separate from it.”

Grande is the author of a number of important books and essays on the relationship between art and nature. Walking along the botanical garden’s winding pathways, he outlines the history of the earth-art movement, from its anticommercial and pro-ecological origins in the late 1960s and early 1970s to its revival in the 2000s. “There’s a renewed interest in earth art now, partly because architects who are innovating with materials and nature design and sustainability have stimulated a new awareness.”

Twellmann, whose gorgeous wooden spiral is featured on the Earth Art 2012 poster, uses a chainsaw to create unexpectedly poetic sculptures and installations. On a lunch break, he describes the giant wooden “zipper” he plans to install in a grassy slope in the garden. Cut from Douglas fir trees that have blown down in the area, the 25-metre zipper will be partially open, partially closed, symbolizing our attitudes toward the earth itself.

Dennis, Grande says, carves tall wooden figures—forest ancestors—out of debris left behind by the logging industry. These figures, he adds, “have a formidable presence” and speak to our shared humanity.

Nils-Udo “creates ephemeral works from natural materials that range from leaves and berries to trees and boulders,” Grande says. “His nature constructions, plantings, and arrangements of found elements reveal a need to seize the tactile environmental reality and build a language out of it.” At 75, Nils-Udo is one of the grand old men of earth art, although he’s probably best known to pop-culture audiences for creating the splayed circle of reeds, cradling a naked child, that’s reproduced on the cover of Peter Gabriel’s OVO. Just arrived in Vancouver, he has yet to develop a plan for the VanDusen site. “I always work without any preconceived ideas,” he says, sitting at the entrance to the garden. “I’m not an artist who furnishes nature with artifacts or prefabricated objects. The subject is nature itself. I just help a little bit.”

Dextras is developing her Little Green Dress Projekt under the shade of the vine-draped Lath House, on the edge of the Great Lawn. With two assistants, she is building wooden dress forms on which to display 28 dresses composed entirely of locally sourced organic materials—everything from rushes to roses to radishes. Each dress is designed to fit one of the 28 women who are participating in the project by donating materials and filling out a survey about their attitudes towards eco fashion.

“The project is playing with the idea of fashion and the little black dress that every woman is supposed to have in her closet,” Dextras explains. “The idea here is that everyone should have a green garment, a piece of clothing that is made from sustainable materials and practices.” Ultimately, she continues, the little green dresses should open our eyes and minds to the enormous environmental impact of the clothing industry—and the need for change. “We’ve made great leaps as far as people having awareness about organic food,” she says, “but nobody’s applied that awareness to the greater problem of everything else that’s manufactured.” Dextras will photograph each dress as she puts it on display (the dresses will decompose over the course of the exhibition) and post the photos on her blog.

Back at his installation, which at the moment resembles a Stonehenge-like sacred site, Booth explains what he’s doing. Vertical slabs of granite (leftovers from the seawall reconstruction), mounted in a tight circle, will be surrounded and mostly buried by heaps of cut logs. Once the components are in place, Booth says, “we let the greatest recycler on the planet—fungi—do its work. Over 30 years, the wood will rot and the stones will slowly, slowly open up, almost like petals of a flower.”

The contrast between the monumental nature of Booth’s artwork and the microscopic life forms that will realize its full unfolding is startling. He enthuses about mycorhizae, then strikes a more sombre note. “I’m trying to celebrate fungi but also it’s part of a greater project that I’ve been working on for years, which is to make people more aware about the effects of climate change on these absolutely vital organisms.” Booth gestures around him. “These forests and gardens wouldn’t exist without mycorhizae.”

“These earth-art interventions,” Grande adds, “represent an awakening awareness of nature’s place in all aspects of human culture.”

Earth Art 2012 is at VanDusen Botanical Garden until September 30.

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