The Garden in the Anthropocene Era
The garden has historically mediated between man and nature, reflecting how cultures see themselves in relation to nature, and at best embodying the symbolic meanings and myths that nature and the cosmos hold for us. Today, the dominant industrial culture that pervades the world and has its roots in the west has no such vital garden culture.(1) In working with my own projects, I have often pondered the issue, because the absence is so glaring, especially now that we are again becoming aware of how interdependent we are with nature, the earth and the cosmos, and how destructive of nature we have become. One may speculate that over the last few centuries, man has come to see himself as finally having established control and domination over nature, and thus not felt the need for a mediating artform such as the garden. Or perhaps the problem goes much deeper, to the very roots of western culture. Perhaps the fundamental problem in how western man conceived his relationship to nature lay in the very earliest myth of Paradise and the expulsion. Expelled from paradise, an essentially impossible ideal of benign nature, man came to conceive his relation to actual nature as adversarial. Nature as it existed was threatening and had to be subjugated. Armed with the apple of knowledge, man set about subjugating it, and in the last few centuries has succeeded to the point of threatening both nature and himself. Today one might half seriously ask, what was the original sin? Eating the apple of knowledge or inventing the myth of paradise and expulsion? In contrast, in the Far East, no such expulsion from paradise myth existed. Man saw nature as reflecting the cosmic order. His highest purpose was to understand it and live in harmony with it.
In the Gothic period, when the Christian church stood at its apex, spectacular cathedrals were built. They mediated between man and God. In contrast, the garden, most often an ancillary cloister courtyard, was a modest affair, as were artistic depictions of paradise gardens. They were symbols of something beyond, and medieval man never really gave form to what paradise might look like if it were fully fleshed out. With the advent of the Renaissance and humanist culture, the garden came into its own, but with a secular, human-oriented focus, even though, ironically, many of the great early Italian gardens were commissioned by cardinals of the church vying to become Pope. Over the next 300 years, three major garden styles were to evolve and flourish as significant reflections of the prevailing culture. Each successive style evolved in relation to the previous, as well as being influenced by the topography and climate where it evolved. However, all looked back to antiquity and the classical world for inspiration. Nevertheless, their references to temples, statues, grottoes and water features, recalling ancient myths and deities, had more to do with humanist erudition than with any real belief. The paradise garden remained as a reference point, but was transformed into a worldly pleasure garden which, especially in Italy, overflowed with sensual water displays. The French garden, grander, more ordered and less playful than the Italian, came to reflect the centralised, absolutist state that evolved in France. The later English garden, with its informal but idealised nature (an aesthetic influence from Japan), was seen as reflecting, in contrast to the French, the more liberal English political order, as well as the virtues of English civic ideals.
If one is to criticize the western garden traditions, traditions that have after all produced any number of delightful gardens, it is a criticism that is directed more at the culture itself, rather than the gardens. To put it concisely; the Christian tradition ephasized the relationship of man to God; the classical Greco-Roman renaissance tradition emphasized man, his power and pleasures. Neither put the emphasis on man´s relationship with nature, the earth and the cosmos.
To put the western garden tradition in perspective, one can compare it to the Japanese garden art, representing an eastern tradition influenced by Shinto, Tao and Buddhism. Japanese cosmology and the Japanese landscape were intimately intertwined and formed the inspiration for garden design, which in turn was closely tied to wider religious and cultural beliefs. The depth, subtlety and resonance of meaning far exceed western models.
As much as western gardens reflected their prevailing cultures, it was the culture of a small elite. This proved problematic in light of subsequent cultural and political developments. The Enlightenment put an end to the symbiosis between western garden culture and the elite. As both democratic and later socialist political movements evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries, and an increasingly rationalist and utilitarian worldview came to prevail, gardens were seen as a useless and decadent playground and power display for the wealthy, whose time was past. With the advent of modernism, sporadic private efforts have been made to revitalise garden culture by drawing inspiration from the formal language of modern art. With a few exceptions, the results have mostly been formalist and decorative, and they have not found a wider cultural constituency. (2)
By the mid-19th century, a more utilitarian style of landscape design made its appearance, as industrialisation was causing increasingly rapid urbanisation. Chaotic growth required urban planning and urban sanitation. The urban park, with light, air and recreation for all, became a major focus. Exemplary urban parks were laid out in major western cities. While they drew formal inspiration from various earlier garden cultures, especially the English, they were driven by utilitarian considerations. They were, however, major civic undertakings. Today the utilitarian approach continues to dominate landscape design. Making major infrastructure projects and commercial developments more palatable to the public is probably at the top of the agenda for most landscape architects. Even the urban park has lost its central civic role as development has become increasingly decentralised, diffuse and suburbanised. Ironically, the rapidly expanding suburban and exurban population has probably exponentially increased the amount of gardening actually done, as people tend their lawns and plant their flowerbeds in search of their own small private paradise, as a refuge from the surrounding development. But it has not produced a vital common garden culture that would begin to reflect a new consciousness of mans relationship to nature.
In his seminal book The Machine in the Garden (3) and later in his article ”The American Ideology of Space”(4), Leo Marx analysed western cultural attitudes to nature from an American perspective, which very much pervades the world today. He argues that for the prevailing dominant culture, nature and land has value only in that it can be economically exploited. This has proved to be true everywhere today, regardless of political ideology. Herein lies the crux of the ecological crises and our culture’s dilemma today.
However, as early as the 19th century, a minority dissenting tradition of pastoral idealism emerged, whose representatives fought to save extraordinary and beautiful natural habitats and landscapes from exploitation. Those who embraced it can be thanked for the existence of various national parks that have been established around the world. While aesthetics and a sense of sublime nature drove these early pioneers, the efforts of today’s dissenting activists to save wetlands, rainforests, rivers and oceans are driven more by scientific data.
Early pastoral idealism had its roots in the Romantic Movement, which emerged in force in the art and literature of the early 19th century. In an increasingly secularised world, driven by the Enlightenment, traditional Christian iconography had lost much of its power to move people. Writers and artists instead sought a renewed sense of the sacred and the sublime in nature. Two leading early romantic painters, Caspar David Friedrich and William Turner, are exemplary. Friedrich’s often spare paintings, of carefully composed archetypal landscape elements that take on symbolic meaning, still resonate powerfully today. So does Turner’s almost abstract use of colour and light to evoke sublime landscapes. Turner’s quote, ”God is the sun”, sums things up rather well.(5)
In his book Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic tradition(6) Robert Rosenblum traces this impulse to revitalise the spiritual from Friedrich and Turner via a number of northern landscape painters to the early modernist movement, when a significant number of the avant-garde sought a similar spirituality in pure abstract forms and colours, thus establishing a thematic continuity between 19th century romantic landscape painting and a significant strand of modernism. However, standard histories of the development of modern art tended to lose sight of this continuity of theme, focusing instead on composition, technique, colour and secular subject matter. As the early modernists, particularly the Futurists, the Constructivists and the De Stijl group, polemicized for a new art inspired by the machine, the urban metropolis and new ways of seeing, they simultaneously denigrated the romantic landscape painters as hopelessly passé and sentimental in a modern industrial world. In this culture war, nature lost to the machine, the urban metropolis and an increasingly mechanized man.
Today we realise that we need to reassess our relationship to nature and the earth. Ongoing political activism to save rainforests, oceans and the atmosphere and stop a host of other environmentally destructive activities are having some effect. This activism is in the front lines of the practical efforts to change things. But if we do not find a way to change the broader culture’s view of our relationship to the earth, it is questionable whether we will succeed. Political activism, education, and scientific and technological efforts are essential, but there also has to be an artistic dimension to give vision to a new sensibility. Graphs and statistics illuminate but they hardly excite the soul. Since it is man’s relationship to nature and the earth that is the focus of the crisis, the garden is the most natural artistic and historic medium to give expression to this new sensibility, to symbolically capture a new metaphysical relationship between man and nature.
One assumes that primitive man instinctively knew that he was intricately linked to nature, the earth and the cosmos. A few Thousand years of civilisation, when man assumed he stood at the centre and everything revolved around him and his god, lies between our newly rediscovered understanding of our intimate connection to nature, earth and the cosmos and that of primitive man. We come to this realisation with a new, perhaps more enlightened, and certainly more hard-earned perspective, and hopefully with the will and ability to live harmoniously with the earth. But if we truly feel it in our gut, we, like our ancestors, will stand in awe of what we are a part of. Perhaps the garden, like the cathedral of old, can manifest our sense of wonder. The garden as mediator between man, nature and the cosmos needs to become an integral part of the larger transformed culture.
"But just imagine, that overnight it would suddenly be there"
"Eternity is in love with the productions of time"
- William Blake.
Elonkorjaajat (the Harvesters)
inaugurate Galleri Cheap Thrills 1971, Helsinki
All national art scenes develop through the dynamic contrast between local traditions and foreign influences, between the conservative institutions and organizations of like-minded young artists intent on asserting their view of the world. Possessing an unprecedented vitality, and gaining considerable attention far beyond the borders of Finland, Elonkorjaajat (The Harvesters) was such a group. Established in 1970, with its heyday between 1971 and 1977, it has never officially dissolved. The initiating group of artists included Pekka Airaksinen, Carolus Enckell, Antero Kare, Philip von Knorring, the ingenious Olli Lyytikäinen, Jan-Olof Mallander, the fictitious Leo Ruuskanen, Carl-Erik Ström, Ilkka-Juhani Takalo-Eskalo, Erik Uddström, Peter Widén and Stuart Wrede.
In a time when the official art scene adopted a wait-and-see policy and the left's view of art as a tool for revolution became all the more unyielding, The Harvesters did something that no one other than an artist can achieve with such beauty and long-lasting power. They reinvented freedom, over and over again. It was at the group's collectively run gallery with the pertinent name Cheap Thrills that I first came into contact with the works of Stuart Wrede. They seemed slightly more distanced and more related to international currents, such as conceptual art and minimalism, than the art of his colleagues. Their independence with regard to their Finnish context appealed to me, perhaps due to the fact that not many artists examined the durability of these alternatives in Sweden either. In the following years, as I became more acquainted with Wrede's work, I discovered how fundamentally wrong I had been with regard to what I had interpreted as a lack of emotion and distancing of oneself in a minimalist sense.
The American artist Carl Andre has described the interface of the creative field as a triangle, in which the three sides stand for tradition, creative ability and economics. For Wrede, one of the formative traditions was that of the Finnish landscape painting of the previous turn of the century, with giants such as Akseli Gallén-Kallela and Pekka Halonen. This offered him the insight that a seemingly purposeless piece of nature could act as a mirror for the most subtle and archetypal movements of the soul. With regard to the radical aesthetic alternatives offered at the time, Wrede reacted mainly against the programmatic emptiness and detachment of minimalists such as Donald Judd, as well as the lack of sensuality he experienced in the works of many of the earth artists, while at the same time appreciating what he considered their spiritual dimension with the austere and simple gestures out in the desert, in a landscape before and after man.
he three sides of the triangle have also shaped other aspects of Stuart Wrede's work as an artist, where one line represents the architect, the second line the artist, and the third the museum man. All creative work constitutes an inevitable dialogue with older colleagues, and as an architect he was especially interested in the Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund, as well as his famous fellow countryman Alvar Aalto. Our own generation of architects and art historians had learnt to view victorious modernism as completely rational with "Form follows function" and the Austrian portal figure Adolf Loos' dictum "Ornament is Crime" written on the walls in emblazoned letters. Included in this anathema was naturally everything that had an air of "old fashioned" symbolism to it as it had lost its cogency within architecture if not degenerated into kitsch.
But in actuality Loos sought to revitalize meaning in architecture by returning to abstract archetypal forms and the inherent sensuality of materials. This effort was obscured by his polemical modernism. Similarly Asplund's oeuvre, from his pared down classicism to his final modern masterpiece, the Woodland crematorium, built on revitalizing symbolism through the use of archetypal forms.
Wrede, who rather early on became interested in this neglected symbolic dimension of some of the leading first generation modernists, also had his own early amusing experience relating to form and symbol. While attending the all boys Phillips Andover boarding school in the USA from 1957-61 he did a painting in his second year that he eventually submitted to the annual student art exhibition. Seen and intended by the 15-year-old artist as a completely abstract image his painting was interpreted by the jury of teachers as depicting a vagina and summarily rejected. Here Wrede learned that what appears harmless to one person may seem to be quite subversive to others and that the unconscious always makes itself known in one way or another.
This interest for reading not only the rational overtext, but also analyzing the subtext in depth, led Wrede to reinterpret the architecture of Gunnar Asplund in a book that aroused controversy particularly in Scandinavia, and that coincided an Asplund exhibition Wrede produced in 1978 at hte Museum of Modern Art in New York. This project subsequently led to Wrede being appointed first as curator and later as head of MoMA's architecture and design department between 1985 and 1992.
The eternal questions surrounding life, love and death, the most profound themes of poetry, are in integral part of all visual renditions and can function as depictive principles for creating meaning without it being overly obvious to the viewer. It is, in any case, interesting to reflect upon why the symbolical interpretation has been so controversial, especially within modern architecture. The following passage from the obituary Aalto wrote in 1940 in memory of his friend Asplund should have expanded the field long ago:
The motifs of a large proportion of our conventional architecture still are fragments of a bygone era. Another architecture has arrived, which builds for man and essentially regards people as a social phenomenon, while at the same time taking science and research as the point of departure. But beyond that a newer architecture has made its appearance, one that also includes the study of psychological problems--"the unknown human" in his totality. The latter has proved that the art of architecture has inexhaustible resources and means which flow directly from nature and the inexplicable reactions of human emotions. Within this latter architecture, Asplund has his place.
Other architects Wrede refers to as sources of inspiration are Frank Lloyd Wright, Carlo Scarpa, and Luis Barragan, whose respective works all possess a strong sense of place, a superb adaptation to the landscape, and a profound symbolic power.
Claes Oldenburg, Lipsticks in Picadilly circus London, collage 1966
The cultural revolution of the 1960s and America's escalating war in Vietnam radicalized the young intellectuals, not least in the United States, and gave rise to mistrust not only of the political agenda, but also the entire view of the world and life style of the older generation. The dream of self-realization through consumption, Christian Puritanism, and its reactionary view of the outside world, and the general double standards formed the backdrop against which young people sought for new instruments for protest, decisive action, and alternative life patterns. Within the field of art, abstract expressionism was forced to back down in the face of the emergence of a new, brazen realism with motifs borrowed from mass media and consumer products. Not satisfied with simply creating traditional artworks, pop artists invented the happening, a rediscovered Dadaist provocation, playful, chaotic, and often violent, that spread its energies throughout space and time -- and then vanished.
Through pop artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Stuart Wrede discovered that art could be political without being openly agitating. Beneath their playful surface, Oldenburg's sculptures of utilitarian goods often possess an erotic symbolism and a tendency to aggressively question certain aspects of society. In contrast to all the dubious purposes society and the powers-that-be endorse through convention and unbridled habit, Oldenburg suggested the building of large-scale monuments in the cities. Västerbron in Stockholm would accordingly be replaced by a gigantic saw, cutting the prison island of Långholmen in two, the intersection at Canal Street and Broadway in Manhattan blocked by an enormous cube of concrete engraved with the names of fallen soldiers and Central Park in New York endowed with a gigantic teddy bear turning its back to Harlem.
Wrede was studying architecture at Yale at the time, and in connection with his work with the student periodical Perspecta, he contacted Herbert Marcuse in Cambridge Mass. in 1968, which resulted in a recorded discussion from which the title of this text was taken. In 1964 the German-born philosopher came out with his book One Dimensional Man, in which he analyzed capitalism's creation of a new man, lacking a sense of solidarity, and focused solely on personal fulfillment. The book offered him cult status within youth organizations and the new left-wing movement. When Stuart told Marcuse about Claes Oldenburg and his art, the aged philosopher became ecstatic and exclaimed that if such monuments were to be realized, no one would ever be able to take contemporary society seriously. Surely there would be a revolution!
Claes Oldenburg and Stuart Wrede during construction of Lipstick, May, 1969
Armed with Marcuse's quote Wrede and a group of fellow students contacted Oldenburg to commission him to build one of his monuments. The artist's positive answer led to a period of feverish activity. The plan called for an Oldenburg monument to be designed and built as a surprise gift to Yale University, coincidentally also Oldenburg's old alma mater. (How could the University refuse a gift designed by one of its famous alumni?). The students and Oldenburg created a non-profit organization, "The Colossal Keepsake Corporation" to which Wrede was elected president, whose sole purpose was to raise money for, to build and to donate colossal monuments to educational and other public institutions. Following in depth discussions with Oldenburg, who presented various designs, Lipstick (ascending) on caterpillar tracks was chosen as being properly provocative both to the hosting institution, Yale, and to the country in its clear anti war message amid the raging Vietnam war. Building on Oldenburg's earlier proposal to replace the Eros Statue at Piccadilly Circus with a collection of gigantic lipsticks, which Wrede admired, the Yale monument, on its tank treads, was more overtly aggressive and political, a powerful double exposure of a death bringing warhead and a tool for erotic enticement.
Claes Oldenburg with the installed Lipstick. The original tip was soft and because of a leak kept deflating. It was later replaced with a hard tip.
Completed in May 1969 the Lipstick was Oldenburg's first fully completed large-scale monument, measuring a whole seven meters in height. One can imagine what a watershed the artwork must have been as it was installed on the campus in a mega-happening, with the stark contrast between the vivid pink lipstick and the aggressive tank treads. What an experience it must have been to witness the lipstick phallically rise towards the sky and deflate for the first time ever.
Yale would have preferred to refuse the gift, but dared not to. Over time, however, it became evident that the university would not live up to its responsibilities concerning the upkeep of its new monument. This led to Oldenburg and the students' decision to take back the gift. Wrede instead developed a plan to send the monument as a gift from the United States to Finland in connection with the upcoming European security conference. As a counterpart to the peace statue donated by the Soviet Union to Helsinki the Lipstick would have stood in a small triangular park next to the Old Student House in the center of Helsinki. A coalition of radical student organizations and art patrons was mobilized to this effect, but the plan fell through at the last moment.
The sculpture lay in storage for several years but during its absence acquired a mythic aura and became world famous. In 1974, prompted by the staff of the Yale Art Gallery, the university humbly asked if they could have the monument back, agreeing to raise considerable sums to restore it. Their request was granted. Today it stands on the Yale campus once again provocatively relevant thanks to the adventurous war politics of George W. Bush, also a former student at the university.
The charged political atmosphere of the late 1960s and early 1970s and the budding environmental movement prompted Wrede to begin to design his own monuments. While inspired by Oldenburg's work they were even more focused politically and agitatorial.
In the fall of 1969 Stuart Wrede made his own monument proposal for Rome, entitled Fountain for Saint Peter's. In the midst of Christendom's holiest of sites an enormous enema would hang on a cross shaped construction with its erect syringe spouting in the middle of the square. It was a provocation of unprecedented magnitude that, in my view, can only be compared to that of the surrealists who suggested in the 1920s that the palace of justice in Paris be torn down to make room for an enormous graffiti depicting a woman's exposed genitals with the accompanying text Keep the dialectics open!
Claes Oldenburg, Lipsticks Ascending on Caterpillar Tracks being installed May 15, 1969 in the center of the Yale campus in a quadrangle which was a war memorial
Proposal to replace the Palace of Justice in paris with a giant graffiti.
Photomontage by Stuart Wise, 1968
Stuart Wrede's monument, which the artist himself characterizes as ecological, suggested a radical antidote to the compact intellectual constipation that had transformed the originally revolutionary Christian evangelism to a dogmatic church and reactionary political force with global influence. Through the object's dual function as an instrument for enemas and postcoital rinsing, the monument also directed an accusation towards the Catholic Church for its anti-feminist attitudes and its reactionary sexual politics in an increasingly over-populated world. Through the sculptural form of a body hanging from a cross, the artwork harked back in the beginning of Christianity, while also alluding to cheap tourist souvenirs. The fact that Wrede introduced himself as an architect and a successor to Bramante, Rafael, Michelangelo, and Bernini also contributed to the blasphemous humor, while also oxygenating the thought process.
In 1968, Jean Tinguely experienced the censorship of silence so typical of Catholic countries, when he, at the Piazza Duomo in Milan, ignited a sculpture in the shape of a gigantic phallus that ejaculated a fountain of fire and smoke towards the Duomo, a church consecrated to the immaculate conception. Not one word was mentioned about the event in the papers the next day.
Sculpture/Happening in front of the Duomo Milan, Italy 1968
In 1976, Wrede's monument proposal received coverage from the Italian architecture periodical CasaBella. Once again however, the censorship of silence made its presence known.
In connection with the first Earth Day, the ecological protest manifestation held in 1970, Wrede proposed a monument for New York entitled Decomposition. The model shows eight sugar cubes distributed in an evenly placed row on a grid, as rationalistic architecture or domino pieces, in progressive degrees of disintegration.
The idea was that cubes of sugar would be placed out at regular time intervals and react to Manhattan's unhealthy corrosive air. With time they would become all the more soiled and deteriorated while the monument as a whole would cover and increasingly large area. As observers we would become witness to the collapse of rationality, the disintegration of the system, and the breakdown of architecture under the wear of time, and the final triumph of entropy. But we would also become aware of the positive vision of transcending the white cube -- the symbol of the gallery, the reserve of art. Perhaps eradicating boundary between art and life could be possible after all! Here Wrede also challenges the traditional role of the artist, in which the artist reigns supreme over the composition, as opposed to nature taking over and acting in accordance with its own principles.
Proposed Fountain for St. Peters, Rome, 1969
photomontage 20 x 22 cm
Whether the monument was to be executed in a monumental scale or as an anti-monument on a scale of 1:1 remained an open question. The monumental scale required a collective effort, while as an anti-monument the sketch instead becomes a recipe for a work to be carried out by anyone, whenever and wherever.
A third but related work came in to being when Wrede returned to New York in 1975 after working 2 years in Africa. In Le Spectre Duchiesse, Wrede apostrophizes one of the most influential artists of the 1900s, Marcel Duchamp. He does this by creating a photo montage of a section of Duchamp's "large glass" or The Bride Stripped Bare of Her Bachelors Even (a piece he started in 1915, and left unfinished ten years later) namely the excrement-like "inscription up there, or the Milky -- way with the three draught pistons" and a photograph of Manhattan's skyline. In an interview in 1915 Duchamp said "New York itself is a work of art, a complete work of art..." A jumble of possible implications emerges as one becomes aware of the title of the art work Le Spectre Duchiesse a play on words in the spirit of the master, where the meanings shift between spectre and spectrum, phantasm and phantom, and in addition the work lays its load in slightly misspelled French and German.
Le Spectre Duchiesse, 1975
photomontage 23 x 17 cm
The Bride Stripped Bare of Her Bachelors Even (the large glass)
Perhaps this is about the mixed feelings towards a city where everything is possible, but where everything is also transformed into a commodity; a hard-boiled and provocative cynicism that 26 years later became the target of one of the most violent terrorist attacks in history, symbolically aimed at the two buildings in the picture.
During a wintry trip to his native country in March of 1971, Stuart Wrede was struck by the poetic power of the ice breaking as the ferry made its way through the Gulf of Finland. The experience, with its contrasts between light and dark, heat and cold, and the primeval softness of the water and the raw power of the surrounding granite islets inspired the choice of key materials in Wrede's work as an artist. Our daily contact with water tends to make us disregard the fact that it is a paradoxical chemical compound, both life giving and potentially deadly. It is the only thing we know of that expands as it freezes to ice and floats on itself (a thoroughly bizarre property). Our planet is also referred to as the water planet with its approximate 1.3 billion cubic kilometers of water existing in a closed system. We can never get more, but we can, as our neighboring planet Mars, lose what we have.
The following winter of 1972, Stuart Wrede wandered out onto the frozen waters of the bay outside his family home in Pernå. It was twenty degrees below zero, and equipped with a motor saw, the artist examined the possibilities of poetically shaping this fantastic material. Evocative of the American earth artists Walter de Maria and Michael Heizer, to whom the desert became a symbolically saturated stage, the frozen bay became a projection of surface upon which Wrede worked his compositions. Ice Skating and Exit were the first works in a material which was to become a central theme in Stuart Wrede's artistic production.
Exit received its title from Wrede's ingenious Harvesters colleague, Olli Lyytikäinen, and alludes to both birth and death. From what side does the exit take place? The inspiration for the work came from Caspar David Friedrich's painting The Sea of Ice, but the title also contains a certain degree of irony, an intellectual approach that permeates the works of both Wrede and his colleague Lyytikäinen. Lyytikäinen himself had created an image depicting a rabbit hopping back into the magician's hat. An attempt at laughter at the edge of terror?
Ice Skating is, in its own right, a wonderful example of the humor, varying from the sedate to the boisterous, existing as an undertone in many of Stuart Wrede's works. This surreal object, a block of ice on skates, the artist pulled on a string to and fro across the ice, like a dog owner walking his over-eager pet , and we are reminded with a jolt of amazement that three fourths of our body consists of water. Here we are also reminded that humor, this frequently misunderstood force, not only implies light amusement but also, and perhaps more importantly, has a vigorously defiant quality about it.
Wrede's return from Africa in 1975 and the 1976 exhibition of the Harvesters at the Amos Anderson Museum prompted a new series of works.
In Finnish Landscape of 1976 a block of ice lies on an equal block of granite. Over the course of the day the ice melts leaving only the granite and the void left by the melted ice. A contemplation piece this Finnish "ur" landscape is in its utter simplicity also saturated with symbolism and a three dimensional homage to both the great mystic of abstract expressionism, Mark Rothko and to Caspar David Friedrich, whose monk stands in silent reflection before the enormity of the ocean
The simplicity of form and symbolical richness that characterizes this new work of Wrede is movingly expressed in In Memoriam and Hômmage à Malevitch both conceived in 1976 but not realized till December 2003 in Lapland. The first is a rectangular opening cut in the frozen lake that freezes over and gradually obliterates almost all traces of its own existence. The second is a cross cut and lifted out of the light and dark, plus and minus, water and ice, the work pays honor to Malevitch and his point zero. It also acquired a new and profoundly personal significance for Wrede, whose wife Judith Streeter, also an artist, passed away suddenly in August 2001.
These works lead us back again to Casper David Friedrich and specifically to his masterpiece rom 1824 in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg. The layered symbolism of this painting, depicting towering masses of ice in a frozen sea, is further accentuated when one discovers the ship crushed under the immense force of the ice. One of the paintings titles The Sea of Ice relates to Perry's tragic quest for the Northwest Passage. Another title The Wreck of the Hope alludes not only to man's limitations when challenging the overwhelming forces of nature, but also to the dramatic events of Friedrich's time when his native Pomerania, then a Swedish dominion, lost its freedom to the armies of Napoleon. Friedrich's motif bears even more weight when one considers that he fell through the ice as a child but was saved by his older brother, who in turn drowned before his eyes.
In Ice Wave also from 1976 but never realized, Wrede proposed cutting a line of ice blocks in the frozen bay from the open sea towards land which would be animated by the force of wind and waves. The work lead to a discussion with Swedish choreographer Margaretha Åsberg about a performance of dancers on ice floes, not yet realized either.
Waves come in different mediums. Shoreline Pine is a true objet trouvé, actually found in a log pile on its way to the paper factory. Impressed by the powerful wave like energy of its exterior Wrede cut the log into a series of cross sections exposing in the process a decaying center. presented in a series the seven sections offer a remarkable transformation from section to section. And as we start counting the annual rings we not only experience a rising reverence for this fallen giant we also notice our fingers outlining the contours of Aalto's famous vase over and over again. We join the artist in his salute to the great master.
Caspar David Friedrich
The Sea of Ice, 1823-25
Woodland Crematorium, 1935-40
Wrede's projects out on the frozen bays of Finland, like the work of the earth artists in the desert were out in raw nature removed from daily human environment. But Wrede's architectural background had given him a long-standing interest in the garden and the park. But by the 1970s modern garden and park design had become mostly either insipidly formalistic of pseudo-functional. The symbolic power of early modern landscape designs such as Asplund's and Lewerentz's Woodland Cemetery had been lost sight of. In 1975-76 he proposed a few works that sought to revitalize the symbolic dimension as elements in a modern garden; a dimension that had of course always been central in the garden in the past, where life, love, birth, death and paradise are the themes.
The Romeo and Juliette Fountain of 1975 was his first work to combine architecture and the garden to create a modern folly, like the caprices of rococo and romanticism, for no other purpose than to promote poetry and play. Love and longing become the point of departure for this unorthodox construction where a balcony protrudes from a free standing wall covered in ivy facing out on a large phallic stone as a spouting fountain. One clear source of inspiration was a trip to India the year before among others ot the rock temples of Ajanta and Ellora where Wrede saw the Hindu lingam monuments, the phallic sculptures anointed with oil and endowed with flowers by believers as a tribute to the lavish and eternal productivity of nature. Combined with this life-affirming Hindu symbol is the Buddhist stupa, originally intended for housing the consecrated relics of holy men thereby emphasizing the cycle of life and death, but also constituting a symbol for the soul's path to ever-increasing insight.
Stupa, Cave Temple, Ajanta
There is also an element of surprise and theater to the work. Through the rendition of the famous balcony scene, Wrede pays tribute to the most profound authority on the human psyche of them all, William Shakespeare, while inviting each and every one of us to participate as actors in the drama. One would like to see this monument realized, especially as it would allow one to practice putting aside all inhibitions and openly enjoy life.
While in the Romeo and Juliette Fountain the wall of ivy symbolized the living sensual delight of the garden, in Et in Arcadia Ego of 1976, grass, that most innocuous and pervasive of garden materials becomes the medium of choice. The title derives from a painting by Nicolas Poussin, which features shepherds interrupting their carefree wandering to contemplate a cubic stone tomb of classical antiquity, a reminder for them perhaps of life's brevity. But while the rather surreal image of a cube of grass had come to him out of nowhere it did for Wrede have a strong connection to Adolf Loos to whom it became an homage. Two disparate Loos projects that Wrede admired related to it, his design for his own tomb, a simple stone cube and his design for his wife's bedroom, in a sensual minimalism where the fur rug of the floor rises up and covers the bed. Death and life, the cube pursues the same themes as Loos and Poussin.
Sketch for his own tomb
Included in poetry's arsenal of metaphors are the grain of sand, the water droplet and the blade of grass as analogies for infinity and the knowledge that the individual is part of a multitude where generation follows generation in abounding excess. One is once again reminded of Wrede's early concern for the accelerating imbalance of the earth's ecosystem. This has now become common knowledge. While the first version of the grass cube was done for an exhibition and was temporary, in the summer of 2006 Wrede installed a larger version of the grass cube outside at the Överby Garden school outside Helsinki for the purpose of studying whether it was possible to sustain life in this somewhat unnatural grass formation all year round with the aid of an internal irrigation system. It was.
Ice Wedge a project from 1976 was also meant for the garden, where a large wedge of ice penetrates the crevice in a grassy mound, fertilizing it only to melt away itself into the next step of the cycle. The apparently hard and aggressive form of the wedge contrasts with its gentle melt into the mound.
Et in Arcadia Ego, 1638-40
The same year Wrede proposed Grass Carpet an unorthodox park cum earth sculpture to replace 57th street between 5th and 6th avenue, needless to say not realized. An undulating carpet of grass rolled on from one avenue to the other, with imagined pieces of Manhattan bedrock rising up perhaps in protest at having been leveled to make way for the cars. At the 5th avenue end the grass carpet hangs over a wall, it's end dangling as if hung out to dry. A project that inserts a calmer, albeit more powerful eternal pulse into the hectic city.
During these artistically fruitful years, from 1975-76, Stuart Wrede also completed a first draught of the Summer-monument, where a large rectangular pillar of ice was surrounded and protected from the wind by four walls covered with ivy. After showing a smaller version at the Harvesters' retrospective exhibition at Kunsthalle Helsinki in the winter of 2003, Wrede started work on convincing the City of Helsinki to erect the monument outdoors in full scale. The idea was to put the monument in place on the 1st of June and have it melt away by the end of August, thereby marking the passing of summer. This was to be repeated each year. If the summer were to prove warmer than usual, the monument would melt faster, and if colder it would last into the autumn. With the aid of researchers at the Finnish Meteorological Institute, the ideal size for the monument in a summer with normal weather conditions was calculated at 8 x 8 meters, providing it would stand in a shady location, protected from the wind. In his campaign to realize the monument, Stuart Wrede developed a photo simulation of the monument and published a brochure. The campaign was successful, and the city became interested due to an earmarked budget for the inauguration of a new park in front of the parliament annex.
First proposal for Summer Monument, 1976
What was intended as a slowly melting, contemplative monument for marking the passing of a season was assigned a completely different and considerably more meaning-saturated location between the funnel-shaped stronghold of art, Kiasma, and the center of big politics in Finland, the sealed granite cube of the Parliament. In order to adapt the sale to, among other things, the four weighty statues of Finnish presidents in the vicinity, the cube of ice was reduced to 3 x 3 x 3 meter or approximately 27 tons. And the site which originally was to be sheltered from the sun and the wind was now wide open to both. Due to the timing of the park's inauguration, the cube of ice was not put into place until August 3. The melting monument both contrasted and became a commentary to the heavy statues and especially the massive parliament, in an irony that accelerated beyond control. The blazing sun, warm winds, and intense showers caused the monument to collapse the third day and melt away after a mere five. A much faster "Performance" than expected, and also a lesson in the unpredictability of nature, as well as a reminder that even Finland is subject to global warming.
Summer Monument, project for helsinki, 2004
Computer simulated photo of the original proposed 8 x 8 x 8 meter, 500 ton
Man's fascination for water, be it in the form of a storm, a waterfall, or a stagnant pool, must be archetypal or genetically inherited, in the same way Carl Sagan suggested the universal signal for demanding silence, shhh, could be a memory from when primordial man shared time and space with the giant lizards... No one who has experienced the quiet and all-encompassing peace of watching a bobbing float while fishing hour after hour can deny that water has a singularly meditative effect on people, an effect that paradoxically only can be compared to that of fire, accentuating the idea that we exist on an archetypal level.
In a series of works starting in 1995 Wrede has worked with water, where a few basic geometric forms, the line, the circle, the spiral and the cross, are carved into the water surface by means of dams, over which the water flows and disappears into its own depth. Here the datum plane is no longer the frozen bay of his early ice works but the still water surface of a reflecting pool. While they share a formal and even a certain spiritual link to earth art these more intimate and sensual works are quite different from the gestures in the desert of De Maria, Heizer, Long and Smithson.
Competition for Center for Arctic Cultures
(with Eric Chase and Laura Heim) 1984
The first project was Double Falls where two dams facing each other the length of the pool create continuous waterfalls falling against each other, in the process carving out a water furrow which draws the eye towards the horizon. On the one hand a calm if slightly mysterious s contemplation piece on the other a disquieting evocation of the precarious biblical parting of the waters or even more alarming, of a "negative" reef that draws you into its depths.
And in Double Cross, also a contemplative work, the juxtaposed crosses pay with the notion of plus and minus. The smaller protruding cross (equally a plus sign) adds water into the pool, the larger negative cross (also a plus) drains it.
In Spiral Falls there is a tension in the double reading between the spiral, a negative line in the water spinning outwards towards infinity, and the spiral river, increasingly constricted, flowing inward towards a central point and vanishing. In an international competition for the design of the Center for Arctic Cultures in Rovaniemi which he designed with Eric Chase and Laura Heim in 1984, Wrede also made use of the spiral theme, an effective symbol for the center -- periphery theme. Physicists agree that the universe has been expanding since the Big Bang, but what comes next? In a model of the future of the universe it has been calculated that when the centrifugal force reaches its climax the universe will slowly start to implode towards the point where everything started, only to trigger a new Big Bang ad infinitum.
Spiral Jetty, 1970
The cycle of water includes a stage that is difficult to visually capture, that is, water in its gaseous state. Wrede has concretized this aspect in his work Below Zero and Ice Wall both from 1996. Here he uses simple, basic shapes in metal, and equips them with freezer elements, allowing the water vapor of the atmosphere to show itself as frost and ice.
In Below Zero the cross like block, which ices up, rises out of the depth of the black surrounding pool with water cascading in around it. The shape inspired by both Malevitch and the rock-hewn churches in Ethiopia that Wrede admired. But the powerful impression of ice rising out of the black waters has its source in Gallen-kallela whose famous frescoes for the Juselius mausoleum in Finland featured one with ice floes in the black waters of late fall. That Kandinsky borrowed the image of a horse from one of Gallen's frescoes that subsequently became the symbol for Der Blaue Reiter, one of the most influential groups of early modernists shows that Gallen's pictures by no means existed in provincial isolation. Even without this background knowledge, one can also be intrigued by yet another play between plus (form) and minus (temperature) in Wrede's piece. Ice Wall is in turn a salute to the much-admired Louis Barragan.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Fall, 1903
sketch for the Juselius Mausoleum frescoes
When Wrede was invited to participate in the exhibition Environmental Archaeology in the granite caverns at the Retretti Arts Center in eastern Finland in the summer of 2007, ice was the natural materal of choice. However because the exhibition lasted all summer and works built of ice would melt (even in the, from sun and wind, sheltered caves). Wrede decided to build on the technology developed in Below Zero and Ice Wall. But whereas these works had used traditional copper refrigeration coils; in the new and much larger work, he developed, in collaboration with the Finnish refrigeration company Huurre Oy, an innovative system where anti-freeze at minus 8 degrees Celsius was pumped into the sealed space between the double layers of the form, causing the whole exterior of the form to ice up.
All three of the works were designed specifically for their cavern settings. In the Beginning was a 2 meter diameter ice covered sphere which hovered in space above a body of water in a grotto. Parting the Waters was a thing 6 meter long frozen wall that, surrounded by dams, thrust itself up out of the waters depths. And Ur Monument was a three and one half meter high frozen cylinder, evocative of a giant lingam, set in a round vaulted grotto.*
It is easy to understand that the opportunity to pursue his thematic interest in ice, granite and water deep inside the granite caverns was especially alluring for the artist. The Retretti caverns offer "primeval" spaces, and Stuart Wrede's three works there constitute an attempt at returning to a "primeval art". For the viewer open to their poetry and symbolism, his works In the Beginning, Ur Monument and Parting the Waters constitute a high point in Wrede's work, pointing ahead through the convergence of several different themes.
Not least in regard to the scale, where the lack of reference points in the surrounding cavern allows the works to shift from the tangible to the monumental and we begin to grasp what it would mean if they suddenly stood outside in the city or in nature. Not as in an exhibition context, or as an art experience one deliberately seeks out, but comparable instead to Stanley Kubrick's classic space epic 2001, where man unexpectedly comes face to face with the primordial image. These three works also encompass a paradoxical span ranging from the intensely dramatic to the most profound stillness, which, in turn, reinforces the insight that the artist here is operating in an archetypal realm.
Stuart Wrede sees an even more extensive project ahead of him: of gathering most of these works in a Garden of Life, a synthesis of landscape, garden art, and fine arts. A bold and timeless romantic endeavor in an art world where the work of art is normally reduced to a commodity for private consumption and often plays with of-the-minute urban codes. If he succeeds in achieving this, it will be a singular place unlike anything else, reminding us of the most profoundly existential, and at the same time, fragile, powerful, and timeless aspects of our respective short lives. Here lies the subversive nature of Stuart Wrede's art.
* The first two works functioned as planned with the new technology acquitting itself well. But with Ur Monument, the largest of the works, the pressure needed to circulate the liquid and freeze the form caused a serious leak that proved impossible to repair. Thus while the piece was installed in its vaulted cave it never iced up. The photograph of the work is therefore a computer simulation of how it would have looked in a frozen state.
Björn Springfeldt is the former director of Malmö Konsthall and Moderna Museet in Stockholm.
The Garden of Life
In 1975, when I embarked on the first sculpture projects that are now part of The Garden of Life, I already had in mind that they should be elements in a garden. The garden had become a neglected art form in the twentieth century. My conviction that a new, ecologically conscious age needed a revitalised garden culture to give artistic expression to its aspirations was half-conscious in the beginning, but has only strengthened over the years. The Garden of Life is my response to that conviction. I started my artistic career in 1969 doing proposals for ecological protest monuments, partly inspired by Claes Oldenburg, from whom, as students, we commissioned his first built monument, Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks and gave it as a surprise gift to Yale University. A protest against the Vietnam War and a conservative society, it turned out to be one of the major cultural-political art events of the late 1960s in the USA. I went on to work with ice on a frozen bay in Finland while living there in the early 1970s, and then with plant material and later water and ice when I was back in the United States from 1975 on. The projects were done over a long period due to the exigencies of earning a living. Since moving back to Finland in 2003, I have been able to devote myself more fully to my own projects.
The Garden of Life has had a long gestation period. Thirty-five years passed from the time of the first projects in 1975 until the final concept took form in 2010. Sixteen of my works, done intermittently over those years, form the elements of the garden. Despite the diverse media and materials and the long timeframe, there was both a unifying aesthetic and something I only realised later, a unifying theme. The works – in water, ice, grass, etc., minimal and archetypal – were, each in their way, metaphors for life. Some had references to the cosmos or to nature, some to human nature, but both symbolically and formally, they fit together. When one day I came upon a drawing of the human brain, the concept of the garden fell into place. The brain is where we conjure up our symbols and metaphors of life, and so it seemed appropriate that the form of this garden symbolically evokes the human brain.
Et in Arcadia Ego, 1976
My sources of inspiration have been the whole of garden history, landscape archetypes, artists from Poussin to Friedrich, and architects such as Asplund, Baragan, Kahn, Lewerentz, Loos and Scarpa. In contrast to many modernists, who hoped to reinvent art, architecture and the garden from zero, I have sought to build on past models, yet transform and revitalise them to give new meaning to the parts and the whole. In my work, I have tried to create simple archetypal symbols that can be intuitively felt and freely interpreted by the observer. They may have cultural and art historical references, but such knowledge is not required to appreciate them.
The Garden covers slightly less than one hectare. Its shape and its plant material suggest a symbolic brain. The brain, like much in nature, has a natural symmetry. To tie the garden into the larger cosmic cycle, I have emphasised the central axis, orienting it east and west, to sunrise and sunset. At the eastern end, a low rock escarpment is topped by an earthen mound with a V cut into it to reveal the rising sun. To the west, the garden overlooks the sea for an unobstructed view of the sunset.
Below Zero, 1996
In addition to the sun, chronometer of our daily existence and our source of energy and light, water, that essential element of our being, nourishing and sensual, dominates the central axis. Throughout history, fountains and water gardens have been playful and light and occasionally contemplative. But water has a broader emotional range, evoking mystery and the unfathomable, the erotic as well as fear and death. I wanted the garden to evoke the full range of emotions that water can inspire. The central reflecting pool in the garden, a metaphoric river, flows ambiguously in three directions. To the west to the open sea, to the east (like the river Styx) into the bowels of the earth, and all along its course, over double dams, in on itself. The plant material of the garden, a kind of poché in which the projects are embedded, seeks to mimic the dense organic coils of the brain. Narrow paths wind through the vegetation. (The exact species of plant material used would depend on the eventual geographic location of the garden and its particular microclimate). More open stone paved areas surround the various sculpture projects. The garden itself is surrounded on either side by a taller forest. A tree-shaded arrival avenue takes you diagonally through the forest to the base of the granite escarpment. Set into the rock to the left, a round domed cave contains the first sculpture Ur Monument. Covered in ice, the piece is both a sentinel and a latent fertility symbol. Next you arrive at the central axis of the garden, the symbolic river. To your left is the cave into which the river flows, and at its back a smaller opening into which the river continues into the earth. Hanging in the back of the cave, as if floating in space, is an ice-covered sphere, the sculpture In the Beginning.
To your right in the distance, emerging out of the middle of the river, is the sculpture Birth, a cross between a sphere and an egg in frosty cast glass. It was inspired by the first verse of the Kalevala, which tells of the creation of the world.
At Birth, a major cross axis occurs. To your right, set in its own square reflecting pool is the Romeo and Juliette fountain. It consists of a planar 7 x 7 metre wall covered in ivy. A small white marble balcony, served by steps from the back, overlooks the reflecting pool and a cylindrical rock spouting a fountain from its top.
The Tree of Life, 2009
To the left of Birth, a freestanding wall of ice, 3 metres high and 9 metres long, also sits at the back of its own reflecting pool. Behind it and to its sides, it is surrounded by a considerably taller hedge of trees to protect it from the rays of the sun. The wall of ice serves as the backdrop to the sculpture Et in Arcadia Ego a small square island in the middle of the reflecting pool with a cube in its centre. Grass covers both the island and the cube seamlessly. The piece borrows its name from a painting by Poussin of a blocklike grave in a beautiful Arcadian landscape. Further along the main axis are six smaller square pools, three on either side of the river. Like the dichotomy of the brain into left and right sides, they represent dichotomies. The three on the left are closed forms. The central pool has a circle chasm in the middle into which the water cascades. The two side pools have the circle and the square carved into them via double dams. On the right, the pools are open forms. The middle pool has a column of water vapour rising out of its centre and diffusing into the sky. The two side pools represent the spiral and the crossing, also carved into the water via double dams. Two major water sculptures embedded in the vegetative brain on opposite sides of the river axis symbolise another dichotomy. On the left is Plus and Minus. A plus sign rises above the surface of a rectangular pool. Water pours out of its top over the sides. Adjacent is the minus sign, a slit in the surface of the pool into which the surplus water disappears.
On the right side of the river axis, also embedded in the vegetation, is The Dance of Life fountain. Jets of water of approximately human height spout in a circle, rising out of a low-lying spray of water mist. Moving nozzles make the jets of water dance, giving a sense of dancers moving round in a circle. Computers choreograph the whole sequence. It is inspired by Matisse’s Dance and August Malmström’s Älvalek, a well-known 19th century Swedish painting of fairies dancing in the morning mist.
The focal point looking west along the river axis is the sculpture The Tree of Life, a 4 metre high T-shape in steel with water cascading like heavy rain out of its outstretched arms. Silhouetted against the sky and the sea beyond, the cascading shower of water is lit up by the rays of the sun. At its western end, the river ends in a waterfall over the stone retaining wall.
At its base, a sloping cascade carries the water the short distance to the sea.
- Built in metal, the work runs on a compressor which causes the form to ice up with the natural humidity of the surrounding air. The other ice-covered works in the garden are similarly constructed.
- After having first designed Ur Monument for a summer exhibition in 2007 in the caves of Retretti in eastern Finland, I was told there exists a famous naturally-forming ice lingam in a cave in the mountains of northern India.
- Originally, a slightly smaller version was built for an exhibition in Ekenäs, Finland, in 2009. The sculpture known as Hope now stands there permanently