Environmental Art

Andy Goldsworthy's "Hand hit site dust," Presidio Spire, October 2008

Using only materials found as is in nature — rocks, dirt, water, flowers, branches — Andy Goldsworthy (whose exhibition Incidental Objects is on show at Haines Gallery, SF, through December 24) creates quietly beautiful installation works. Goldsworthy has executed over 120 commissioned works the world over, several of which are located in the Bay Area, including the cracked stone piece, Drawn Stone, which traces the entrance to the de Young Museum, Spire in the Presidio, River of Stone at Stanford, and Surface Tension at the Hess Art Museum. Typical of the Scottish artist’s work, these feel so right, so effortless, poignant and poetic. What isn’t evident is the complex conceptual and experimental considerations leading up to these elegant final products.

This current exhibition provides insight into Goldsworthy’s explorations; it includes documentation — photos, works on paper, proposal drawings, and video — of the “incidental” and often temporary creations resulting from Goldsworthy’s process. Images of a hand smacking the dusty ground in the Presidio at the site of Spire address his process and stand apart from the final rather architectural image. Video documenting the creation of Rain Shadows, for which the artist laid on the ground through rainstorms; in the end, the form of his body remains in the dry dirt. These action maquettes and other artistic residues bring a greater understanding to the longer lasting final product. But they also illuminate, as anyone who’s seen the 2001 documentary Rivers and Tides — which follows Goldsworthy through many artistic adventures — that this artist creates graceful traces, however impermanent, all along the way. It’s a selection that not only reveals Goldsworthy’s path of contemplation, but is a fine example of ephemera that succeeds as works of art in their own right.

Ai Weiwei's "Snake Bag"

The Ai Weiwei show at Haines Gallery is important for many reasons, not all of which have to do with the specific work on view. Hailing from Beijing, Weiwei is at the forefront of the increasingly vibrant conversation the international art world is having about contemporary Asian art, especially that coming out of China. An activist and forceful critic of the Chinese government (he was beaten by the Chinese police last year and suffered life-threatening head injuries because of it), Weiwei’s art gives outsiders intimate insight into Chinese culture and current issues through the universal language of objects and concepts. His work also resonates within Western art history. Obvious influences and references can be made to Marcel Duchamp, Félix González-Torres, and Andy Warhol, and even contemporaries, such as Jeff Koons. (Also worth noting, similar to other mega-artists, Weiwei employs loads of assistants to transform his vision into form.)

Weiwei is a conceptual artist; the greater message of his pieces is not immediately evident. Where his work succeeds then is that it engages us to the point of curiosity. The pieces on show at Haines—all recent sculpture (2006–2010) of various mediums, including porcelain, marble, and canvas packs—are pretty, sometimes luscious, and simple. They are easy points of entry to sometimes difficult subjects.

Perhaps most powerful—at almost sixty feet long, it has quite a presence—is Snake Bag, 2008, a series of 360 backpacks zippered together in the form of a serpent. The work is a memorial to the thousands of children who perished in the 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake; Weiwei holds the government responsible for the excessiveness of the death toll (it was this criticism that led to the police beatings). Kui Hua Zi (sunflower seeds), 2009, is another strong work. Comprising 550 pounds of porcelain seeds piled in a conical shape (it took twenty assistants more than a year to hand-make all the pieces), it’s a nod to the famine diet of peasants during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which spanned 1959 to 1961. The work readily recalls Gonzalez-Torres’s candy piles, albeit appropriately relaying a slightly less generous twist. Of particular interest to the Bay Area is Owl Houses, 2010, a collection of ten hand-painted porcelain structures meant to be owl habitats. These were recently installed in the San Francisco Presidio to serve their sheltering purpose as part of “Presidio Habitats,” an on-site group exhibition that  runs through May 16, 2011.

This is the first major solo exhibition of Weiwei’s work on the West Coast. Go to see some lovely work, stay for the conversation.

This exhibition is on view until May 28, 2010.

Interact with the artist: Additionally, Haines Gallery has created an “Ai Weiwei at Haines Gallery” blog. It serves as a place where the public, artist, and gallery can interact. Questions and comments for Weiwei are encouraged; it’s a unique opportunity to interact directly with the artist. Go to: hainesgallery.wordpress.com.

The FOR-SITE Foundation, partnering with the Presidio Trust, will present “Presidio Habitats,” a site-based art exhibition featuring work by eleven artists from around the world. It is the first of its kind at a National Park. The exhibition opens to the public May 16, 2010, and will be on view through May 15, 2011.
The common concept each artist worked with was to create a habitat for a specific animal that lives in the Presidio. Featured projects, which vary widely, are as follows:

Ai Weiwei’s Western Screech Owl Habitats
CEBRA’s Sculpture Habitat for the Gray Fox
Chadwick Studio’s Habitat for Anna’s Hummingbird
Fritz Haeg’s Snag Tower
Jensen Architects’s Patience
Amy Lambert’s Pollen Balls Project
Nathan Lynch’s Where is the Hare?
Mark Dion with Nitin Jayaswal’s Winged Defense
Philippe Becker Design’s Winged Wisdom
Surface Design’s A Habitat of Flight
Taalman Koch Architecture’s Owl Dome
Many educational and informational programs and displays accompany the exhibition including a 1,300-square-foot exhibition space by Ogrydziak / Prillinger Architects, which features all twenty-five proposals originally submitted (from which the eleven were chosen), interpretive materials, and artist models. This will be located across from the Presidio’s Log Cabin. Additional in-depth information is provided by signage at each site, as well as audio narrative that is accessible via cell phone. Also available is a free exhibition brochure featuring a map and summary information on the works and selected animals.. Finally, there will be a series of  lectures  featuring participating artists, natural resource specialists, and other professionals involved with art and the environment. The exhibition and related programs are free and open to the public.
To launch this unique undertaking, a full-day celebration will be held May 16. Complete information will be available at the FOR-SITE Foundation Website.

Nevada Museum of Art

See current feature in art, ltd. about the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art.