Arabella Natalini I would like to ask you, first of all, something about your beginning as an artist. You were brought up in New York: how has the urban context influenced your decision in working with nature?
Alan Sonfist As a child I lived near the last ancient Hemlock forest of New York. The forest possessed fresh water river dissecting the Bronx, my neighborhood. This was my sanctuary and my play area as a child. The Bronx was a slum covered in concrete that I had to walk on for several blocks to my sanctuary. As a child I realized the value of the fresh smell of the earth in contrast to the urban garbage of the slum. I began to see these dichotomies of nature and culture everywhere. The Bronx was divided by gang warfare, but the forest was an exception; eventually however this forest was set afire, as well as the buildings in the neighborhood. I witnessed the destruction of my childhood forest. I felt the sadness of the forest’s destruction and I knew in some way I had to restore my childhood dreams. As part of my experience, I kept diaries of drawings and photos of my interactions with the land. These observations became the beginnings of my reconstruction of ancient forests throughout the world. Later I realized what I had observed as a child was an echo of what was happening throughout the world. It became my mission to reintroduce the magic of the ancient forest and its interaction within a city environment.
When I first proposed my Time Landscape in 1965 to the city, a commissioner parks Thomas Hoving, became a supporter of my idea to restore ancient forests in the city. We discussed many sites and I came forward with a proposal to create 50 sites throughout New York, one for every community throughout the city. It was my intention that each neighborhood could have pride within their natural history. As we have restored landmark buildings in our cities, I planned to restore natural.
AN Your interest in nature and in the relation with the site has often brought up a parallel with the works of Land Artists. All of you have created environments, but while the Land artists were often confined in remote places and anchored to the language of minimal art, you seem to have been less conditioned by these boundaries and more interested in making your works accessible to people. Do you agree with this impression?
AS Yes I agree, Time Landscapes are meant to create a dialogue within the community. My work has become a microcosm of understanding the environmental issues of our time. Each artwork addresses the unique natural cultural history of a site. Therefore they become integrated into the community, educating the community of the value of the Earth in the city.
AN Don’t you think that more than digging into the past, like an archeologist (as it has been said), you are someone who intervenes in nature by creating works which reveal a past through your own experience…
AS I consider myself to be a visual archeologist. By utilizing land that has been altered by humans, each Time Landscape uncovers layers of human interaction with the land. My childhood is of wonder and amazement of the magic of the land and how we as humans have altered it. In the 1980’s I started incorporating agricultural landscapes into my art. Again reflecting my childhood adventures of creating miniature farms on my outside my window. I would grow indigenous plants that were used by the Indians for food – squash, pumpkins, and corn. My family would join in eating the food, not unlike sharing olive oil from The Circles of Time with the local community. The outer layer of The Circles of Time is a functional agricultural area. Each experience became magnified in my adult life. Thus I am contributing to the visual archeological layering of human civilization.
The project I am creating in Tuscany deals with olive trees. In addition to the many material uses for which the Olive Tree was and is utilized, the cultural significance of this specific tree is beyond remarkable: the Roman goddess of wisdom and war, Minerva, was believed to have given birth to the olive tree through her spear. The olive tree became a symbol of abundance, glory, and peace. I intend to use the ancient olive tree in conjunction to the contemporary.
No longer is art confined by medium, but rather only by ideas. I feel that all great art has dealt with the social issues of its time. As the Renaissance painters have dealt with the spiritual and social values I feel that global climate change is the social issue of our time that has to be addressed in art.
AN In all your works there is a strong bond with the site, in both a geological and botanical sense. Yet, how about the people. Does the relationship with the inhabitants affect you? Do you see yourself as someone who steps into an already existing community or do your interventions aim at creating or shaping a community?
AS The art becomes part of the communities’ dialogue in the understanding of why earlier inhabitants lived there.
In the Tampa Natural Cultural Landscape the pubic schools were invited to develop a textbook on the different histories of the site. The book is being used by the public school to understand the ecology of the region.
The Birth by Spear landscape is shaped in the resemblance of an ancient olive leaf, partitioned by an indentation in the earth. This allows the viewer’s feet to follow the sloping path as his eyes observe the olive leaf from several different perspectives. Within “this road” there is a series of tiles, depicting the history of the olive tree. People will be encouraged to add words to the brick pathway describing the olive’s history. Like the great churches of Europe where people contributed funds in order to have their name added to the wall of the church, people will be able to add their interpretation to the birth of the olive tree.
AN Starting from the United States, you have worked all over the world, making many works in Europe, mainly in Germany, France and Italy. What fascinates you most in Europe? Are there different local features that affect your work in each of these countries
AS Europe has had a longer history of interaction with the land. Therefore my work is a logical extension into this layering of the land history amongst populations. In the United States there is still the myth that we are exploring our wilderness. My art becomes a monument to our understanding of global environmental changes. The mythology of conquering the land as in the pioneer spirit is over. We have conquered the land and depleted it, now we have to restore it. Human beings are inventive creatures able to adapt to these environmental issues and the creation of my landscapes can be considered to be one of the solutions.
An example of my art is The Monument of the Lost Falcon. With a wingspan of 44 meters and 28 meters The Monument of the Lost Falcon, created for Prince Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, is in reference to the noble bird. The silhouette of the falcon is an earthen wall with a 2 meter wide space of grey slate beyond it, while 750 European larch seedlings are planted in a naturally wild pattern on the interior of the falcon. As many as 350 of these seedlings are inherently indigenous, but can no longer be naturally found in the area. In its greatest irony, the complete outline of the falcon is only visible to a bird.
AN In Italy, one of your most famous works, The Circles of Time, was made in Tuscany, at the Celle’s Park. In time, did the a more detailed knowledge of the area offer the different suggestions that you brought into Impruneta’s work, Birth by Spear? How did you develop it? Are the “Archeology of nature” and the historical narration always your constant starting points?
AS Birth by Spear is again reintroducing the origin of the olive tree used today becoming archaeology of nature. This is similar to the circles of time project in that it deals with both the ecology and cultural history of Italy. I had reproduced a Renaissance walkway around The Circles of Time as reference both the trade of economy and cultural ideas along these stone routes through the Tuscan Country side. This motif returns taking on a connotation of protection and fortification in the technique of the path surrounding the ancient olive trees.
In the Koln Sculpture Park I have created a monument, Disappearing Forest of Germany, to commemorate the trees. The trees of Germany are dying due to the environmental change. There will be a sculptured leaf that is an accurate portrayal of the biological leaf, and the ancient seeds will be encapsulated within the ground below the sculpture. The exemplary trees selected are the German oak, beech, and wild service tree. Each of the trees function as an internal part of the ancient history of Germany and are now becoming the relics of their own past.
Currently I am also creating an environmental sculpture entitled Adder Protecting Ancient Forest, in Exeter in the UK. I will utilize the ancient microbes to recreate the ancient forest of the site.
In a similar fashion, the Centennial sculpture for Kansas City entitled Circles of Life calls into question the role of art in an endangered environment. The large bronze, central sculpture is actually a casting of limbs from endangered tree species. These relics were found on the forest floor, yet spring to life in sculpture form. The sculpture, surrounded by a ring of indigenous trees and prairie, has been superseded by the momentous growth of the once sapling trees.
The artworks Rocky Mountain Arch in Aspen and Time Totem in Anchorage, Alaska display the foundation of natural history—geology. Rocky Mountain Arch represents the spine of the Rocky Mountains, while the varying geological layers exhibit the chronicle of the hidden geological history. Time Totem depicts the Alaskan fault lines caused by aggressively shifting tectonic plates, recording the tension that results.
AN You have realized so many important and appreciated works all over the world: is there something that you still dream of accomplishing?
AS In my presentation at the Metropolitan Museum I stated: “Public monuments traditionally have celebrated events in human history—acts or humans of importance to the whole community. Now, as we perceive our dependence on nature, the concept of community expands to include non-human elements, and civic monuments should honor and celebrate the life and acts of another part of the community: natural phenomena.”(N.Y. 1969).
Birth by Spear becomes a very rich summary of all my art. Therefore it becomes one of the more significant artworks I have created and I feel that it will reflect that in all historic cities there should be an ancient natural marker of time, as I have created in this artwork. I would like to propose similar artworks throughout Europe where I uncover the ancient geological vegetation of the city so that people can gain a clearer understanding of our world. My dream would be to have a Time Landscape amongst all populations fostering both a natural and cultural understanding of history amongst humanity.