Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape, 1978
Source: Wikimedia Commons
What landscape questions are asked by Alan Sonfist’s artworks? The obvious answer is that they ask environmental questions by creating sanctuaries for pre-industrial landscapes within cities. As the Green Museum puts it: ‘for almost 40 years, Sonfist has dedicated his work to linking city-dwellers and suburbanites to a nature that civilization has destroyed, with the hope that a greater appreciation of nature would encourage them to protect its future.’ His best known work is Time Landscape in Greenwich Village, proposed in 1965, realised in 1978, which creates an urban oasis based on the pre-colonial landscape. Sonfist has been criticised for mere preservationism which disguises present environmental issues by ‘fixing an image of the landscape frozen in the past, privileging one moment in ecological history over all others, and including more complex interactions with various inhabitants, native or other’ (Brian Wallis in Land and Environmental Art). However, this historical aspect of his work may also be one of the things that make it interesting.
Sonfist’s art can take the form of simple works about reclamation, e.g. Pool of Virgin Earth (1975), a circle of ‘pure’ earth on a chemical dumping ground in Lewiston, New York, designed to attract windblown seeds. However, in some larger scale works he has been able to question (or at least illustrate) the way landscapes evolve over time and space. For example, Time Landscape not only uses ‘pre-colonial’ trees and grasses: it also involved planting them on the original land elevations. In Circles of Time (1986-89) Sonfist traces the history of the Tuscan landscape in concentric rings: primeval forest, first settlers, Greeks, Romans and finally a ring linking the sculpture to the surrounding farmland. And his Secret Garden (2001) in Ontario used rocks arranged according to their position in geological time. Judged purely on environmental grounds some of these works may be inadequate, but then it might be asked what kinds of art intervention could ever be consider genuinely adequate to address current environmental concerns?