There aren’t many as blunt about environmental degradation as Danish artist Tue Greenfort – much of his art concerns water and petrol usage – and yet his recent exhibition at the Sculpture Center in Queens could not be more complex in highlighting, in full, our relationship with the environment. The exhibition, humorously/hauntingly entitled “Garbage Bay” after Jamaica Bay’s nickname in the early 1900’s, explores the current state of the area, much of which is now either protected beach, city park, or national recreation area.
While the environmental protections put into place are vast improvements over what was once an inadvertent landfill, Greenfort’s exhibition introduces a much more convoluted conversation. The bay, mostly marsh, has historically held very little recreational value for New Yorkers, and was thus cast in the shadow of much prettier, Thoreau-inspired, escape-into-beauty type projects like Prospect Park. Only now are we beginning to pay attention, with the collective realization that managing and protecting such precious ecosystems as the bay is necessary.
And yet “managing” the bay involves such interventions as dredging an area of the bay for maintenance, and to test a hypothesis involving rising sea levels, which has unsurprisingly stirred up a considerable amount opposition. Greenfort picks up on the potential harms of science in a piece called That Thing Over There – A dialectic of fucking Nature (2013), whose materials include a collection of horseshoe crab carcasses (a species populating a large percentage of the area), BB gun pellets, plastic pieces, and glitter.
It’s a disturbing portrait of our scientific imagination, our Sir Francis Bacon-inspired empiricism that necessitates destruction by way of dissection. The piece’s composition never quite reaches a scientist’s precision, instead suggesting a more haphazard collection of a hoarder. Meanwhile, the title rests uncomfortably between the two identities: the word, “fucking” could be either an adjective conveying a blatant disregard for “fucking Nature,” or a verb highlighting what some view as a scientist’s rape of the earth. In either case, Greenfort displays a disillusionment about our efforts surrounding the natural world, ultimately leading to complexity and confusion.
The largest installation of the exhibit – a miniature ecosystem of plastic, water, and other materials that make up four pieces entitled The Great Gateway; Algreen 81002 Aqua 50 – Gallon Rain Water Collection and Storage System; Horseshoe Crab, Companion Species YOUTUBE series; and Good Ideas Big Blue Recycled Rain Barrel – further complicates our ecological situation. The plastic rain barrel – a well-intentioned mode of conservation and practicality – is placed in an environment full of plastic pieces directly referencing the seemingly never-ending flow of litter into the marshes.
It constructs an odd reality in which waste is hopelessly engrained in modern life, a concept that is now as constant and immortal and difficult-to-rid-ourselves-of as the plastic that constitutes our garbage. It consequently affects both the natural and human worlds, as Greenfort points to in the inclusion of a YouTube video on the horseshoe crab. The difference between the two worlds, however, is stark; it’s more difficult for us to see how ecology and waste affect us, especially when considering the largely unattractive and recreationally worthless marshes. And so we turn to science, which requires the dissection again referenced – and literally displayed – in the YouTube video.
The complexities of the exhibition are such that it’s hard to come to any conclusions about the bay, other than the fact that we must take care when handling such delicate ecosystems. And it perhaps must be more care than we are used to, what with projects like Million Trees beautifying the city while the marshes continue to degrade. Greenfort directly participates in the project – albeit unconventionally – in his piece I’M ONE IN A MILLION, a simple tree provided by the New York Restoration Project that lies decaying in a granny cart.
Are projects like this entirely useless? I don’t think so, and I don’t think Tue Greenfort thinks so. Rather, he seems to imply that this sort of beautification project is not applicable to areas like Jamaica Bay, an area as cradled – and as helpless – as the tree.
But however complicated, however helpless, we’re making progress. At least I like to think so. And though cynical, Tue Greenfort’s effort to grapple with the situation is never mournful, rather pointing out the absurdities of it all so that we can start working through our complex, violent, ever-changing, and incredibly weird relationship with waste and ecology.
Tue Greenfort’s exhibition, “Garbage Bay,” is on display at the Sculpture Center until the end of January.