Exercise 5.5

Photography and Advocacy


Choose one of the options below.
1. Find an example of an organization which exists to explore and promote either a single or multiple perspectives on the topic of ‘environmentalism’ from the perspective of visual artists/ photographers. Make a critical analysis of whether you think the organization was successful. For example, What role did photography/visual arts play in their campaign? Who is their targeted audience? Have they succeeded in making real change?
• Write 300 words with image analysis/annotations.
2. Choose a single photographer making work on an issue related to the environment. Consider their practice and how their work is sited in context of the current thinking about subjects within the wider scope of environmental photography. What impact do you believe their work might have had on current social behaviours or legislative actions?
• Write 300 words with image analysis/annotations.

LP&E, p.182

As noted in Exercise 5.2,

Working on Asg.5, and reinforced by Part 5.3 on Agnes Denes’ Wheatfield … (with which I am becoming a little fixated) I am moving towards concentrating throughout Part 5 on Plant Use and Abuse, a theme that I have pursued for years and which broke into this course in EyV Asg.1.

Exercise 5.2

Accordingly, I will contrast Denes’ Wheatfield with more recent approaches.

[10 Sep] In 1982, Agnes Denes, and helpers, cultivated an incongruous field of wheat on a landfill site in The Battery, Manhattan. The landfill derived from the construction of the World Trade Center, including the Twin Towers, destroyed on 9/11. Denes’ project was sponsored by the Public Art Fund (Tavlin, 2016).

Denes wrote that,

Planting and harvesting a field of wheat on land worth $4.5 billion created a powerful paradox. Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept; it represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, and economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns. It called attention to our misplaced priorities. The harvested grain traveled to twenty-eight cities around the world in an exhibition called “The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger”, organized by the Minnesota Museum of Art (1987-90). The seeds were carried away by people who planted them in many parts of the globe.

Agnes Denes, 1982

The Wheatfield project continues to be remembered in print occasionally, recently, for example, the 2016 article by Will Tavlin in The College Hill Independent, two in the New York Times by Karrie Jacobs (2018) and Jeff Giles (2019), then Katy Hessel’s this year (2022) in The Guardian.

As stated by Denes, The Wheatfield… project formed part of a larger exhibition designed to draw the world’s attention to the problem of hunger: the exhibition showed in, amongst other places, Minnesota, Norway, Sweden, Cologne, Paris and The Barbican, London. The catalogue includes 41 named pieces plus essays and poetry; the Wheatfield was represented in the exhibition by 4 photographs, 3 text panels and a sheaf of wheat, and an essay in the catalogue. Most of the other pieces were paintings and sculpture.

In the few months that the Wheatfield was growing in Manhattan, an oasis in the rubble, it must have been an intriguing and remarkable sight to those working in the nearby office blocks: Denes writes in the catalogue essay,

After my harvest the two-acre area facing New York harbor was returned to construction to make room for a billion-dollar luxury complex. Manhattan closed itself once again to become a for tress, corrupt yet vulnerable. But I think this magnificent metropolis will remember a majestic amber field. Vulnerability and staying power, the power of a paradox.

Denes in Grubb & Blumenthal, 1987, p.86

But Denes might have been optimistic in thinking so and 14 years later any memory of the Wheatfield was overwhelmed when al-Qaeda attacked and destroyed the Twin Towers and their surroundings. Even so, Wheatfield was, briefly, the most tangible manifestation of the 1987 exhibition, but as Hessel (2020) wrote, “of course, it didn’t end world hunger” and, indeed, an art exhibition on a socially important subject is likely to be ineffectual in terms of outcomes because it will mostly be seen by those already concerned by the issue.

When considering the contrast between the 1987 art against hunger campaign and more recent protests, I first thought of Occupy Wall Street (2011, echoed elsewhere such as Occupy London) and the more recent Extinction Rebellion (XR) actions — has protest become more active and participatory, and is it any more effective for being so?
But then I remembered Red Lion Square (1974), Greenham Common (1981-2000) the Poll tax riots (1990) and, for that matter, the Suffragists and the Chartists.
Four Corners Gallery staged a fascinating exhibition this year (2022), Photographing Protest: Resistance through a feminist lens covering protests from Aldermaston in the 1950s to recent Kill the Bill, Sarah Everard and pro-Ukraine actions †.

Denes’ Wheatfield was a dramatic and majestic gesture and a masterstroke of timing but her claims for its impact and longevity were surely exaggerated because, regarding the exhibition, the effectiveness of gallery-based protest is limited.
There has been a long history of active, sometimes violent protest and some examples are given above. These continue with recent instances of George Floyd / Black Lives Matter and XR. There is also the relatively recent development of armchair activism, deriving from two main stimuli, firstly Geldof’s 1985 Live Aid appeal, which generated widespread passive interest and significant donations; then the rise of social media that has on the one hand enabled a great deal of passive activism through simple online support, but also enabled the rapid and (where necessary) clandestine spread of information about active protests and citizen journalism in the reporting of events.

† Perhaps surprisingly, there is no mention of Christina Broom’s photographs of the Suffragist movement, see I&P Exercise 3.3.

LPE Exercise 5.5 References

Alexander, J, Conroy, A, Hughes, A, & Lundy, G (2019) Landscape, Place and Environment [LPE]. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Denes, A. (1982) Wheatfield – A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan [online]. agnesdenesstudio.com. Available from http://www.agnesdenesstudio.com/works7.html [Accessed 10 September 2022].

Giles, J. (2019) It’s a Beach if We Say So: Lost Scenes From Downtown’s Hipster Landfill [online]. nytimes.com. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/17/nyregion/battery-park-city-beach.html [Accessed 11 September 2022].

Grubb, N. & Blumenthal, AR., (1987) The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger. NY: Artists to End Hunger Inc.

Hessel, K. (2022) A field of wheat on a $4.5bn patch of New York: the prophetic eco art of Agnes Denes [online]. theguardian.com. Available from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2022/jul/18/a-field-of-wheat-on-a-45bn-patch-of-new-york-the-prophetic-eco-art-of-agnes-denes [Accessed 11 September 2022].

Jacobs, C. (2018) The Woman Who Harvested a Wheat Field Off Wall Street [online]. nytimes.com. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/14/t-magazine/agnes-denes-art.html [Accessed 11 September 2022].

Mitchell, C., Rees-Sheridan, R. & Whitehead, A. (2022) Photographing Protest: Resistance through a a feminist lens . London: Four Corners.

Tavlin, A. (2016) Art and Politics in Battery Park City [online]. theindy.org. Available from https://www.theindy.org/article/892 [Accessed 6 September 2022].