Land as Canvas

When farming and art intersect

When artists use the land as their canvas, wonderful, organic creations are brought to life. Farm and landscape art exist at the vital and fertile intersection of cultivation and visual art, and result in land-based creations that allow viewers, artists, farmers, and visitors alike to interact with the landscape in new ways.

Site and crop selection are often the driving forces behind agricultural designs, but along with functionality, the organization of farm crops naturally has an aesthetic craftsmanship. The organic, flowing design of many rice paddies in China, Japan, and Indonesia, and the geometric symmetry of corn rows in the United States, are just two examples of farms with starkly different visual layouts.

photo of rice paddiesPhoto courtesy of Skitter PhotoThe organic, flowing design of many rice paddies have an aesthetic craftsmanship.

While these standard layouts are designed for practical farming, when a farmer or environmental organization actively plants, tends to, and alters the land in a way that is intentionally visual, or invites artists to do so, the site specific results can be stunning, thought provoking, and monumental.

Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, created the piece Eleven Minute Line at the Wanås Art Farm in Sweden. The raised curve of the piece is organic — both visually flowing and made of earth — and powerful in its three dimensional presence; it interrupts and guides the way in which the cows can traverse and interact with the field. Modern Farmer explains that the piece was purposefully placed out of public view, but it remains accessible to cows.

photo of Maya Lin Farm ArtPhoto by Anders Norrsell Maya Lin’s Eleven Minute Line guides the way in which cows traverse the field.

Wanås is a global leader when it comes to landscape art, and has an enormous estate that includes farmlands, forests, and a castle. As the Wanås website explains, the estate “is a place where art, nature, and history meets.” The organization focuses on site-specific sculptures and installations, but is involved in sustainable forestry and agriculture as well. In fact, the estate is the largest producer of organic milk in Sweden’s Skåne region. Charles Wachtmeister, CEO of the Wanås Estate, credits collaborating with artists as a primary factor that inspired the farm to go organic.

Another land art piece from Wanås, this one by Hannelie Coetzee, Ou sog tussen bome/The old sow between the trees, is less about farming, and more about melding nature and art. This naturally sourced piece was created as part of a 2015 Wanås exhibit called, Barriers — Contemporary South Africa. It blends into and emerges from the woods in a manner that is all at once fanciful, startling, and captivating. Other pieces at Wanås are more abstract, as is Anne Thulin’s Double Dibble installation in which red orbs in tree branches draw attention up into the tree crowns’ sphere. This work helps us to contemplate balance, scale, buoyancy, and the layers of the forest’s canopy.

photo of Old Sow Farm ArtPhoto by Wanås Konst The old sow between the trees blends into the Wanås forest.

“At Wanås you’re off the beaten track,” says Elisabeth Millqvist Wanås Konst, artistic director for the organization. “The park is a quite wild beech forest, where suddenly something appears and you start looking, asking yourself what it is. To start by looking is an excellent way to relate to art… It’s different from a white cube art-viewing situation.”

photo of Double DribblePhoto by Anders Norrsell Double Dribble draws attention into the tree crowns.

Konst added that the outdoor art experience allows visitors to experience the art more playfully, and also to notice parts of the natural landscape they might otherwise have missed. “A lot of times, people will tell me, almost with a guilty look, that they really enjoyed being in nature. They will describe something they saw, like mushrooms or a moss that looks like the stars, [Mnium stellare],” she adds. “This makes me happy, because I think they would not have looked so carefully, if the art works were not there. Art and nature mix together. Some pieces are clearly manmade, but others you can’t be sure about; not about where and when they are from, or who made them.”

In Japan, the tradition of modifying rice paddies to create images offers another type of agricultural art. In these pieces, different varieties of rice are used for their unique colors, and plant height is controlled to create a three-dimensional effect. These stunning agricultural installations are often best viewed aerially. Artists in Inakadate, Japan adopted a Star Wars theme for their 2015 creations. The works are immensely popular and viewable by shuttle car tours. Farmers have used similar techniques in Shenyang, China to create rice paddy artwork covering some 25 acres, a tradition that also serves as a way of praying for blessings.

Photo of Star Wars Rice Paddy ArtPhoto by yari hotaka Artists in Inakadate, Japan adopted a Star Wars theme for their 2015 rice paddy installations.

Art farms also dot the United States. Woodland Farm in Kentucky, for example, contains several art installations, including giant “Pink Snails,” fashioned from recyclable plastic by the European collective Cracking Art Group. Land artist Stan Herd worked with the Minneapolis Institute of Art on a 1.2 acre colorful recreation of Van Gogh’s Olive Trees, best viewed from above. He spent weeks mowing and planting the land to create the piece, which he refers to as an earthwork. Another piece, Young Woman of Brazil, brings attention to women’s rights issues in Brazil. Created in Sao Paulo, the piece was made in cooperation with Green My Favela, a group that strives to create more green spaces in Brazil’s favelas.

photo of Young Woman in Brazil Art InstallationPhoto courtesy of Stan Herd Young Woman in Brazil was created in São Paulo, Brazil.

“Beyond the physical creation of the earthworks, the interplay with community, students, environmentalists, farmers and even the photographers and media, creates an energy beyond the sum of its parts,” Herd told Earth Island Journal. “ That’s the art!”

Art encourages us to interact with and perceive our environment and our existence in new and sometimes more appreciative ways. While shining a light on artistically designed and farmed land, these varied artworks draw attention to the stewardship of our environment, the magnitude of the undertaking of agriculture, and its potential for beauty as well as invaluable service.

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