Green shoots in the city

Radical Nature
Barbican Art Gallery, London

“A work of art when placed in a gallery,” said Robert Smithson, “loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged from the outside world.” Smithson was the first of the epic land artists who emerged in the dawn of environmentalism, the 1960s, and a film of his extraordinary “Spiral Jetty”, built out into Salt Lake in Utah, is being shown at Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969-2009.

Smithson embodies the problems involved in mounting a show of land and environmental art. It was conceived as a revolt against the gallery. This new art was to be wedded to nature, to be beyond ownership and to be ephemeral, decaying back into the landscape. Yet here we are back in the gallery.

The Barbican’s new show attempts to bring together work from artists as diverse as Smithson, Joseph Beuys, Agnes Denes and Buckminster Fuller. At first glance, the ground floor looks something like a cross between a suburban marijuana grow-house and an apathetically vandalised garden centre. Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison’s 1972 “Full Farm”, a hot-house installation of real crops growing beneath fluorescents, can’t help but bring to mind Dan Flavin; Henrik Hakansson’s huge chunk of rainforest grows tipped on its side; A12’s wooden crate contains a mini English Garden reflected ad infinitum in a hall of mirrors. It seems though that there ought to be some kind of surprise in finding the harsh concrete volumes of the Barbican obscured by trailing fronds and green shoots, but there isn’t: it feels perfectly natural. Like most buildings of its era (which coincides with the genesis of environmental art) the Barbican was portrayed in the architects’ drawings half-obscured by foliage.

So there is no surprise. Mark Dion’s “Mobile Wilderness Unit – Wolf”, a stuffed wolf atop a trailer of portable landscape, begins archly to address the issue of the museumification and commodification of environmental art, but the problem gets worse upstairs. Wolf Hilbertz’s organic architectural fantasies are brilliant but marginal, Diller Scofidio & Renfro’s Blur building (in which visitors walked through an artificial cloud), a brilliantly conceptual conceit is lost in a movie of mist. The same architects’ New York High Line, a stretch of elevated railways converted to wilderness park, would have fitted far better.

In Joseph Beuys’ sinister “Honeypump at the Workplace”, two tons of honey are pumped pointlessly around a system of tubes by a pair of engines. But here, sitting motionlessly on the floor, it is shorn of any energy and life. Agnes Denes’ magical photographs “Wheatfield – A Confrontation” show New York’s as yet undeveloped Battery Park turned into arable land, the Statue of Liberty appearing over a horizon of corn. You are reminded of the classical socialist realism of communist propaganda, a wonderful subversion of the symbol of America. Lara Almarcegui’s studies of the wilderness and urban decay waiting to become London’s Olympic sites are also memorably elegiac, and Ant Farm’s “Embassy for Dolphins”, a piece of marine diplomacy to encourage inter-species relations, is hippy greenness at its sharpest.

There are compelling fragments and the exhibition extends beyond the museum with installations across the city – although, oddly, there is nothing on guerrilla gardening, the most spontaneous, provocative and urban form of environmental art. The show just doesn’t hang together. “Museums,” said Smithson, “are tombs, and it looks like everything is turning into a museum.” Forty years on, we’re still in the museum.

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