Five mind-blowing conceptual art pieces from Agnes Denes retrospective at firstsite

By Mark Sheerin | 05 December 2013

Exhibition preview: Agnes Denes: Work 1967-2013, firstsite, Colchester, until March 9 2013

Colour photo of an artist in a field of wheat planted in the midst of a city
Agnes Denes, Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan – With Agnes Denes Standing in the Field (1982)© Agnes Denes, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York
Conceptual art shows can be tough nuts to crack. The documentation can be too dry for some. Others will engage with the original ideas and, in the case of Agnes Denes, may be blown away.

Colchester is the unlikely location for the Hungarian artist’s first ever retrospective in Western Europe. It is long overdue and the show spans some 45 years of artistic activity. Here are some edited highlights:

Rice/Tree/Burial (1968)

Quite a lot to get your head around here. Denes planted rice, in the interests of sustenance; she chained up trees, in a protest against ecological interference; and she buried a series of haiku, in the name of human creativity. If that weren’t enough she repeated the work in 1977, on the precarious edge of the Niagara Falls.

Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan (1982)

In her best known work, Denes turned over two acres of downtown Manhattan to arable farming, bringing golden wheat to the urban jungle. In doing so, she flagged up themes around food, waste, commerce, energy and economics. Battery Park, historically a landfill site, is today a housing development. One wonders what the residents would make of Denes.

Map Projections (1973-1979)

Denes’ witty and surreal map projections could just turn your world inside out. The New York-based artist took a gridded representative of the globe, and morphed  this image into a range of shapes. The quirky results include cubes, eggs, snails, hotdogs and donuts. And Denes went on to make etchings and lithographs which, she insists, have an equal value to the originals.

Pyramids series (1967 onwards)

Pyramids are another heady touchstone for Dene, providing inspiration by their logic, their architectural innovation and their social construction. Pascal’s triangle also features in her reckoning. The baffling artists puts it best when she says of pyramids, “They represent the past and the possible future we will invent’. 

Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule, Ylöjärvi, Finland (1982–83)

In 1982, as you do, Denes began work on a project 400 years in production. Yet again she took inspiration from pyramid form to, this time, build a mountain. The 430m long and 270m wide result so far can be found, in the Pinziö gravel pits near Ylöjärvi in Finland. It will be ready in 2382 as soon as the trees, planted by 11,000 people from around the world, reach maturity.

You might also like:

Culture24/7: seven top art exhibitions around the UK for December 2013

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Firstsite opens doors to Colchester past, present and future with Camulodunum

Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

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