Sculpture September Vol.18 No. 7
Nils-Udo: Nature Works
Active in the field of environmental art since the 1960s, Nils-Udo creates significant structures that play with lanscape scale, planting or montaging materials to establish links between a specific landscape site, horticulture, and art. Seen in Japan, North America, India, and Europe, his structures and forms have developed an expressive language with its own unique syntax. By highlighting nature’s presence, Nils-Udo’s landscape montages make us all the more aware of our place in relation to nature. His approach is tactile and extemporaneous, playing visually with the various organic and inorganic elements available in a given site. Works such as Hungerwiese, Birkenpflanzung (Birch tree planting, 1975) and Fichtenpflanzung (Spruce tree planting, 1976) in the Chiemgau region of Germany, as well as more recent works like The Blue Flower: Landscape for Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1993–96) make use of constructions as well as birch and spruce tree plantings as elements of their language. The plantings from nature represent what they are—trees and plants. Nature becomes a platform on which the artist layers a discourse of human intervention in relation to the scale and dimensionality of landscape as well as the life forms therein. A sense of the ephemerality of life is inscribed onto the landscape in these ever-changing artworks. We see his work in documents, photos, and catalogues more often than we will see them in reality, and their ephemerality is an omnipresent theme—nature plays the central role, with the artist as intervenor, someone who sensitizes viewers to their links to nature.
Some of his works use the assemblage of natural found elements and others are created through plantings alone, as in Hungerwiese, Birkenpflanzung, which consists of trees planted in a circle, or Für Gustav Mahler, Pappelpflanzung (Poplar planting, 1976), an ascending V-shaped planting on a hill in Chiemgau. Nature continues to create these artworks after they are put in place by the artist, confronting the very notion of art as a highly specialized endeavor, distinct from nature.
Artists have long been inspired by nature, yet for the past two centuries nature has become increasingly a "subject" to be appropriated or contained in a work of art, even if the artist’s message was ultimately spiritual or aesthetic, or both. Art has been considered to be distinct from nature, even if nature is the raw material or source for these expressions. This separation goes to the heart of our civilization’s dilemma over identification with nature. Nature is not just a concept or a generality, but is everywhere. It is a constant presence whether as climate, vegetation, topography, or specific life forms. The evidence of our relation to nature is everywhere, not in "the way things are assembled" but in the things themselves be they man-made or natural. Fax machines, concrete, automobiles, steel, and glass all derive from nature, yet we largely do not recognize nature as a presence in contemporary life. Our modern-day vision is a techtopic one. We codify and process our responses to images, yet deny the presence of the real world around us. Nils-Udo’s works are, in his own words, a "documentation of a dying world experience. To bear witness, at the last possible moment, to a now seemingly anachronistic perception of life, an attitude that can barely be understood, even by those willing to do so."1
Nils-Udo’s work, unlike that of the Minimalist-inspired land artists Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, retains a sensitivity to site, to the permacultural matrix of living elements and more closely parallels the work of Andy Goldsworthy, David Nash, or Bob Verschueren. Nils-Udo’s nature constructions, plantings, and arrangements of found elements evidence a need to seize the tactile environmental reality and to build a language out of it—but nature remains an equal player.
Nils-Udo seeks to establish connections between living, natural environments and his presence therein, something that is "minus minus good" (to borrow a phrase from George Orwell) in the high-tech world of contemporary art, where virtual reality and cyberspace are equated with the real thing. There are patterns, structures in Nils-Udo’s works that flow over into and incorporate the natural environment, yet the references to human intervention are there too, in the structures he builds. The borders between nature and human culture are hazy. As Nils-Udo states: "Turning nature into art? Where is the critical dividing line between nature and art? This does not interest me. What counts for me is that my actions, Utopia-like, fuse life and art into each other. Art does not interest me. My life interests me. My reaction to events that shape my existence."2
A beaver builds his hut and we do not call it art or architecture, yet the logs are tooth-carved and the hut is a construction. The divide between humanity and nature has become so clearly delineated a conception that nature has become a foil used to describe artificiality. The billboard or screen image of a leaf or a caterpillar, for instance, is now used to sell product. Product and production imagery (itself a product) reduce and channel our conception of nature’s domain just as a J.M.W. Turner or John Constable painting inadvertently emphasizes humanity’s dominion over nature, condensing the sublime into a tableau. We bestow our consciousness, our ability to recognize the links between things, environments, and experiences to the micro-screen. Sensory experience, however, is preconscious as much as conscious. Marshall McLuhan described civilization as Euclidian and centralized. He contrasted this with the oral and acoustic character of primordial cultures. The latter, he believed, responded to the simultaneous, the holistic, the harmonious.3 Within an otherwise chaotic universe of energy patterns and riotous growth and energy, Nils-Udo introduces a "civility," in the forms of structures, designs, and plantings, and the dialogue within his works is an interplay between this civility and the holistic realm invoked by McLuhan. The connections to nature are sometimes screened or rendered into a language of material, other times reordered into a comprehensible interpretation of simultaneous acoustic, tactile, and visual environments.
Object-based art, even installation art, is largely propagated for the museum or gallery venue. As a result, it exists to justify the space. We are provided with a brief snapshot of an artist’s vision expressed in a phenomenological way, but the contexts and spaces within which the creative act and installation take place are artificial, distanced from (if ultimately layered upon) the permaculture of the earth. The artificiality of the act of creation is emphasized rather than the age-old links that have existed between cultural activity and nature. In Nils-Udo’s work, on the other hand, subtle curtains of marigolds hang from an ancient arch in New Delhi, India (1994), or bedeck cacti, in 3 Kakteen (1994), reminding us of the fragile balance between human activity and nature.
The structure in an early Nils-Udo work such as Hommage à Gustav Mahler (1973) is literal in its use of natural materials to build a syntax or "language" of expression, playing with symmetry, undulations, and variations, effectively drawing lines in space with tree branches. The heterogeneity of his language of expression, indeed the complexity of the structures and forms he builds, evokes an architectonic dialogue on culture and nature. In Der fliegende Wald, Fichtenpflanzung (1984), a 10-meter-high microlandscape set on a raised platform of tree logs in Lyons, Nils-Udo built a structure out of nature only to set nature atop it. Nature supports nature. The structures that have been put in place reference our culture’s capacity to build a meaning into what is essentially a self-generating continuum of life. Elements in a site—the colors, shapes, weight, luminescence, and durability of nature’s diverse elements, even the broader geological strata or lay of the land are integrated into Nils-Udo’s morphologies of human presence in nature. Erlenpflanzung auf Grassoden-Schiff/Sitz aus Rundholz, Sallenelles (France, 1990) encourages a reflection on the history of the land and the way humanity has altered and shaped it. Atop an ogival-shaped mound cut-away by Nils-Udo, with a stand of planted trees and a chair in the midst of this island, the presence of civilization in the ever-changing matrix of natural history is evoked. The structure and language of living elements, our relation to unrecorded holistic history, agriculture, the wilderness, and the culture of nature all intertwine in this work. Here, parallels can be drawn with Alan Sonfist’s Circles of Time (1986–89), created in Florence, a work that references the geological, vegetal, and human history of Tuscany.
The structure of language is the ultimate preserve of a culture’s mindset. Working with a natural system that is complete in and of itself, Nils-Udo applies a language of experience through material assemblage in novel ways to describe rather than define. As he says, "Even when I work alongside nature, preparing my intrusions as gently as possible, they always remain a basic contradiction within themselves. My whole work rests on this contradiction. It does not escape the inherent destiny of our existence. It injures what it touches: nature’s virginity." 4
This interchange with temporal experience is atypical for our era. A gap exists between the "I-ness" of formal expression, the tautologies of avant-gardism, and the real world. Nils-Udo seeks to offer a mutualist vision wherein nature as environment is an omnipresent backdrop. In revealing the diversity in a specific environment, he establishes links between human and natural history, between nature and humanity that are always there, yet seldom recognized.
Nils-Udo’s work expresses with a profound sensitivity the limitations of the art object yet equally recognizes the role permaculture plays in planetary survival. As contemporary art plows into the future, a sense that art need not reference objective reality at all has been projected through the virtual metastasis of the screen. Nils-Udo’s art moves in the other direction, evidencing nature’s constant place in our lives, even as natural resources are increasingly limited, delineated, quantified. The dialogue with time and place that is an eternal backdrop to Nils-Udo’s art is as much a comment on our civilization’s history of exploitation of nature as it is a reflection of the ephemeral nature of life itself.
Nature’s processes of endless reproduction and re-creation are largely unrecognized by most of us as we go about our daily lives. Nils-Udo breaks through this dream state of contemporary postindustrial culture to make explicit the manifold ways we perceive, define, and reflect on reality. Rooted in nature, Nils-Udo’s art provides us with a key to understanding the primordial roots of the human condition and reminds us that habitat, food, and material resources are constants for any culture whatever the state of technology. In 1994, at the Château de Laàs in the Pyrenees, Nils-Udo created a living spiral comprising various corn species to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the introduction of corn from the Americas. The center of the spiral had an octagonal tower with original non-hybrid species of Mayan corn growing on top. Sheaves of corn trailed down to the ground on all sides. While the wooden tower recalled earlier structures such as Der Turm (1982), a composite stone, pillarlike tower created for the Bentheimer Sandstein Symposium, the links between agriculture and aesthetic vision were emphatically underlined by the spiral walkway and corn plantings that surrounded Nils-Udo’s central votive structure. Atmosphere, climate, living forms are linked in a global sense, but the changes and transformations are gradual and geospecific, and Nils-Udo sustains this sense of the continuity and specificity of nature within his aesthetic. The microcosm begets the global vision. He calls the details of nature he works with "potential Utopias," to be found under every stone, on every leaf, and behind every tree, in the clouds and in the wind. The dialogue is ultimately with the illusion of time, with immeasurable presence.
The Modernists severed links between nature and art to secularize art, and the Postmodernists eulogized the object/ product and fell into a miasma of the fatalistic blind alleys of product metaphors. Nils-Udo seeks to unify culture with nature. He builds frameworks within a work, documenting the drama of nature’s eternal gaze and his interventions therein as with a camera. These have included the elegiac, illusionistic tilted platform Heidekrautpflanzung in Rautenform in Alter Eiche (1986) created in Strasbourg, Root Sculpture, Mexico City (1995) or Herbstbild, Oberbayern (1997). The camera frame is referenced from within the work. The framing device challenges our notion of context—environmental within the work and imagistic when seen in a photo. The arrangement of elements re-creates a notion of civility, of a memory of culture. A sensation is evoked that art, like nature, at its most essential is economy, part of the culture of nature. These materials, environments Nils-Udo works in and with, merge notions of ecology and economy. Indeed, as both words derive from oikos, an ancient Greek word that means household or home.5 For Landscape with Waterfall (1992), Nils-Udo worked nature into a human setting.
A platform/balcony made of iron was added onto a building in Brussels. Schist stone from the Ardennes, a tulip tree, a cornel tree, and ivy—a veritable transplanted ecosystem was created there. A pump within the building generated a waterfall that cascaded out onto the street. Art working with nature became an urban, as much as a rural issue. Echoes of this project can be found in a work conceived for a rest stop on the A29 Autoroute in the Paris-Le Havre region, now adapted for Expo 2000 in Hannover, and in other projects enacted in abandoned industrial parks and city sites, built to be maintained in perpetuity. The Blue Flower: Landscape for Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1993–96), a craterlike earth mound near Munich whose closed gate contains a newly generated ecosystem, and Landscape with Lake (1994–96) in Cottbus/Pritzen, Germany, built in collaboration with factory workers in the spirit of Joseph Beuys, are two examples. An ecosystem with aquatic plants and fish has been integrated into the lake that forms the pivotal focus point in Landscape with Lake. To encourage the protection of endangered flora and fauna and to protest the clear-cutting of old growth forest in British Columbia, Nils-Udo worked with Peter Gabriel near Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1996, assembling floating installations that were set ablaze in a symbolic rebirth ritual.
A retrospective of Nils-Udo’s work, which originated at the Ludwig Forum in Aachen, Germany, is currently travelling in Europe and North America. Working with the environment as an interactive component of an artist’s production implies an acceptance of our place in the cycle of nature. Nils-Udo’s interactions are a Gesamtkunstwerk, an ethnology of the soul. His eclectic style carries with it a narrative on human history, for the language of his art is instinctual, builds its nest in experience, and circumvents the conventions of reproduction, containment, and mimesis. His work challenges these conventions, if only to make us realize that nature is ultimately neither a conception nor a representation, but quite simply the art of which we are a part.
John Grande’s most recent book is Intertwining: Landscape, Technology, Issues, Artists (Black Rose Books, 1998).