The latest in conceptual art is politically correct, biodegradable, and carries a formidable olfactory punch

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Out Front, Fall 1998

What a Bold Choice of, Er, Caca
The latest in conceptual art is politically correct, biodegradable, and carries a formidable olfactory punch
By Cristina Opdahl

As Christo, everyone's favorite environmental artiste and wrapping bandit, is poised to festoon Central Park with huge gold flags this fall, we pause for a moment of celebration: The good old days of nature as performance art are upon us once again. Remember 1974, when we were treated to Joseph Beuys's masterwork, I Like America and America Likes Me, in which the German spent five highly artful days holed up in a New York City gallery with a wild coyote? Or Robert Smithson's bold basalt-and-limestone Spiral Jetty? We're still waiting for that one to erode. But the new wave of ambitious nature art has several distinct advantages. The first: It eventually goes away.

Green art is compostable. Carol Cook's Hogritude is a sculpture group of several hogs, molded from fresh cow manure eagerly donated by a local dairy farm. The first (and only) showing of Hogritude was last spring at an outdoor exhibit near Dallas. For the life-size molds, Cook mixed cow patties with alfalfa, pecans, acorns, birdseed, Crisco, and for sturdiness, psyllium, a vegetable bond (and, ironically appropriate to the medium, also a laxative ingredient). While their public appearance was brief, the hogs did linger on for a while, decomposing in the artist's yard. The piêce de doodie developed a nice outer crust that children, judging from the footprints Cook would later find, loved to balance atop. "And the dogs really liked the hogs," Cook said. "They'd immediately run over and pee on them."

Green art makes strip-mining a breeze. When you're tearing minerals from the earth, state regulations can cost a lot of jack: Reclaimed hills can be only so steep; unnatural holes must be filled. How annoying. But call it craft and you can do anything you want. The Art Institute of Pittsburgh's Angelo Ciotti did. Ciotti says he saved the State of Pennsylvania $72,000 with his Twin Stupas, a 90-foot-tall strip-mine-spoil-pile-turned-monument aesthetically set off by a 45-foot-deep pit. Both are decorated in spirals of rye grass, coal, and birdsfoot trefoil (a local plant). Ciotti says, "As a painter uses pigment, I use revegetation schemes."

Green art eats pests. The balance wasn't quite right on Lightning Raptor Roost, until the hawk chicks moved in and it became Lightning Raptor Roost with Hawk Chicks. The wood sculpture, complete with nesting platform, was built by former Wyoming potter Lynne Hull, and it does a fine job of keeping a parking area off Interstate 80 clear of mice. But building birdhouses, says Hull, is not her primary artistic purpose. Nor is crafting pretty things for people. She makes art to help animals, like the antelopes that sip from the water holes she carved in Wyoming desert rock. (And the spider monkeys of Quintana Roo, Mexico, which benefited from her tree bridge over a busy road between their homes and their favorite guava trees.) "In Wyoming, for example, there are more animals than people." Hull says. "I began this work because I needed an audience."

Green art walks the walk. "A work of art may be purchased," proclaims British "walking artist" Hamish Fulton, "but a walk cannot be sold." The bwana of the conceptual hike, Fulton turns museum-sponsored trips — from the Bolivian Andes to Montana's Beartooth Mountains — into ambulatory oeuvres that might, say, end on the winter solstice or be undertaken (during his pseudomonastic period) without sleep. As an option to following the action live, Fulton brings back snapshots and paints his travelogues on wall-size canvases. These, he will gladly sell you.

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