Fertile Ground: Cultivating Identities from the Soil

Nina Wexelblatt
Oct 14, 2014 3:43PM

The word “cultivation” contains opposites. Applied to people, it evokes the development of the discerning taste that one might hope to gain through education; at the same time, it describes the process of tilling soil to ready it for yielding crops. Though these two meanings seem disconnected, their association appears often in the collective imagination. For example, the biblical Adam - the legendary first man - is said to have been created from dust.

This exhibition seeks to explore associations between the natural, base materiality of dirt and the cultivation of a cultural identity.

Art historian and critic Leo Steinberg describes Robert Rauschenberg’s achievement as “a transposition from nature to culture through a shift of ninety degrees.” He argues that the artist was able to separate the picture plane from its ordinary status as a window-like representation of the natural world and instead treat his work like a “flatbed,” a site of cultural labor and free association.

Rauschenberg’s enigmatic installation “Mud Muse” (1968-71) forms the center of the exhibition as a locus of possibility. A roiling pot of sound and motion, it evokes a primordial stew from which something alive might emerge.

The “flatbed” site of fundamental kinetic energy and cultural formation is reflected in the earthy and uneven patterning of Yayoi Kusama’s assemblage “No. 62.A.A.A.” (1962). Her work is a psychological exploration of unfettered obsession, while the rows of egg crates impose a gentle order on the chaos of natural material.

The formation of identity from the dirt is enacted in Jean Dubuffet’s “Le très riche sol (Extremely Rich Earth)” (1956). The rumbling, rocky texture of the soil slowly comes together in the form of a human figure, suggesting the richness of the Earth is its ability to give life. Dubuffet himself was known for using materials such as grass and pebbles in his work, suggesting the expressive cultural possibilities of manipulated nature.

Political questions of identity formation are also expressed through a connection to the soil. Ana Mendieta’s haunting photograph “Untitled (from the Silueta series” (ca. 1978) and Liliana Porter’s installation “Trabajo forzado [Forced Labor]” (2005) take two different approaches to how the Earth bears witness to injustice against those who are unable to advocate for themselves.

Three films speak to the bridge from nature to culture. Dennis Oppenheim’s “Selection from Aspen Projects” (1970) and Pierre Huyghe’s “A Way in Untilled” (2012) enact a conflation of natural elements and the human body; the former explores the physical effect of plants and rocks on the body, while the latter depicts the human figure subsumed into natural systems. Kim Asendorf’s “Solo show in Sim City” (2011) uses the format of virtual world-creation to work the “land” from an unformed state into something “useful.” 

Finally, Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler’s pair of “Dead Cat on Movie Mountain” (2011) photographs remind us that though nature doesn’t speak in a human language, it is not silent; as long as we are constantly being formed from the Earth, it still worthwhile to listen.

Nina Wexelblatt
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019