Interview with Linda Weintraub, July 2013 - Hudson River Museum and Gallery Guide.
Interviewer: Lynn Woods
How did your experience at Bard’s Blum Institute help shape your curatorial priorities and methodology?
I was given a brand new institution to run. Because it had no history, I was able to originate a program for exhibiting art. I did a quick survey of the audiences in the region and realized that the public I was to serve consisted of three very different groups: the academic community at the college, sophisticated city residents who had second homes in the area, and local people who probably had less exposure to art.
For 10 years I mounted six shows a year with the intention of satisfying the intellectual interests of the faculty, the urbanity of second-homers, and the inexperience of area residents. I’m trained as a visual artist, so I approached curating as an art form. That is why I think of curating in terms of content, style, and audience. I wondered, how can an exhibition convey a social condition? or explore the creative process? or evoke a mental state? This pursuit generated some innovative exhibition strategies.
One example is the exhibition entitled “The Maximal Implications of the Minimal Line”. Its purpose was to overcome the widespread opinion that Minimal Art was boring and meaningless. I wanted to devise a way to convey the movement’s extraordinary diversity and originality. But first, I had to entice people to attend an exhibition of this unpopular art form. So I thought, what if people learned that there were over 50 minimal artworks in this exhibition and every one consisted of a single straight line, the most minimal of minimal forms. It worked. Visitors saw 50 totally different works of art - a line of ice, a line of bricks, a line of bodies in a gutter, a line of space created by pulling a string across a daisy field, a line of text, a national date line, etc. It was a very popular show. Most of the audience consisted of skeptics.
So curating for you is a kind of strategy to illuminate art that otherwise would be dismissed or rejected by many people?
I feel very committed to the idea that curators should come out of hiding and explain to the audience why they have chosen the artworks on display and how the exhibition might inform or inspire them. The primary task of curators is to create a dynamic rapport between the audience and the art works. Artists love this. They want to be received well, not just in terms of enthusiasm but through a deepening experience of their works.
So it’s possible for avant-garde art to find acceptance with the general public?
My role is to serve as an intermediary between very innovative artists and the typically conservative public. This is not easily accomplished. Art often disrupts the status quo. When I encounter works that break boundaries I, too, am baffled. For many people, grappling with some artistic expression that is unfamiliar is too demanding and often results in rejection or hostility. As a curator, it is my responsibility to develop strategies to help people decipher these perplexing occurrences. The methods I developed eventually became a book, Art on the Edge and Over: Searching for Art’s Meaning in Contemporary Society. It is a guide for discerning meaning and significance form art works that violate art conventions.
What drives new expressions in art?
My thesis is that art changes, but it does not change because a particularly original artist decides to tamper with norms for the sake of displaying personal ingenuity or attracting attention. Rather, changes in art are driven by the necessity to communicate new experiences that no existing form of art is capable of conveying. For example, consider recent technologies that have accelerated the tempo of contemporary lives. Today’s avant-garde artists have introduced new mediums, aesthetics, and creative processes to capture this aspect of lived experience. I look for a correlation between innovations in the non-art world and innovation in the art world because these parallels invariably explain the perplexing advances in culture.
In preparing to teach my first art history class, I undertook a study of what motivates change and innovation in art. None of my art professors had provided this essential aspect of art. I launched my study by examining the first two art movements recorded in art history: Paleolithic art, which is characterized by an elegant, sophisticated rendering of three-dimensional form, and Neolithic art, which can take the form of elemental, stick figures and simple geometric shapes. When I first compared them I wondered, did the human race already pass its prime? This impression was soon revised when as I studied the anthropologists’ descriptions of these respective lifestyles. They revealed that Paleolithic folks lived by hunting and gathering. Because they only had rudimentary tools, their survival depended upon keen and precise observation, which their art reflects. During the subsequent Neolithic era, religion and government and agriculture were introduced. Suddenly observation was not as essential as the ability to form abstract thoughts. This advancement in human cognition is revealed in the simplification of Neolithic art forms.
How did you discover eco art? Is it prolific?
When I started becoming aware of the ways humans have been tampering with the planet and the effects of that tampering, I was not aware of art being made with this theme. I began sniffing around and discovered many artists working across the world on themes absolutely crucial to our survival as a species. It is an explosion of richness, yet this work had not yet been recognized as a movement. At the time, there were over 200 artists in my eco-art file. Forty-three are represented in my new book. Since then I have continued to discover artists whose work is significant and worthy of further exploration. There is a world-wide movement and it is burgeoning.
Is there much awareness of eco art?
Eco art is still under acknowledged. My mission is to increase public awareness. Besides cultivating a receptive audience, I hope to encourage that audience to integrate environmental awareness into their daily life decisions. This task is complicated by the enormous diversity among eco-art works. It is difficult to identify an art movement that lacks cohesion. Ultimately, what all eco-artists share is a commitment to the wellbeing and longevity of living entities on Earth. They consciously intend to bolster the vitality of the planet.
What are your criteria in evaluating eco art?
Reevaluating ‘merit’ in art is an inevitable component of addressing the work of artists who pursue environmental causes. Suddenly, decision regarding medium carries ethical consequences. Does the artwork deplete a finite resource? Does it contaminate an ecosystem? Many eco artists have gone beyond using recycled materials to create their work. They even discard the notion that an art object should endure if this requires expending fossil fuels to maintain a climate-controlled environment. Instead, many eco artists invite the natural dynamic systems of the earth to alter their work. Indeed, they welcome these changes to convey that humans should be co-creators with their ecosystems, not dictators. This attitude shift is not confined to art. It represents the evolution of society toward environmental concerns.
With no art object, how can artists live off their art?
Artists who commit to a gallery career confirm the values of a commercially oriented society. It is not uncommon for eco-artists to reject the marketplace because it contradicts policies and behaviors that promote sustainability. Instead of selling durable art objects, they consider their art works to be a kind of performance, or they support themselves by teaching, or they seek grants. Alternatively, some adopt a compromise position by exhibiting documentation of their temporary artworks.
Do you see a shift in the gallery system? How is eco art changing the audience for art?
The official art world of galleries is not the only opportunity for artists to make a contribution to their culture. The meaningful innovations associated with eco art reflect their expansion of the concept of an ‘audience’. They define it as any entity that benefits from their creative intervention. Eco artists still address human by informing and sensitizing people to the critical and delicate state of our planet. But they also include nonhumans as recipients of their art initiatives. Thus, the ‘audience’ for eco art may be plants and animals, or air and water, anything that is fostered and enhanced by art. Once artists expand the range of the audience in this manner, galleries become irrelevant. Eco artists are more concerned with the planet’s urgent problems.
Does that signify a wholesale rejection of the art of the past?
Perish this thought! The art of past eras provides a rich repository of human experience. But contemporary artists confront a critical imperative. Do they want to perpetuate the historic patterns by producing ‘traditional art’, or do current conditions necessitate challenging previous norms and developing alternatives? Eco artists have made the latter decision.
What distinguishes this work as art, rather than science?
It is often true that scientists conduct research, while artists visualize that research and make it decipherable to an audience. But eco-artists are not confining their creativity to symbolic signification and aesthetic expression. Dedication to solving environmental problems has led many artists to adopt the scientific method as a component of their creative processes. The laboratory has replaced the studio. Because many artists share an inclination to deviate from norms, they take advantage of the freedom to explore that may not be available to professional scientists. As a result, some artists have introduced remarkable solutions to persistent problems.
What are some examples of eco art methodologies?
[Argentinean artist] Tomas Saraceno created a metaphor for human humility by creating an artwork that invited natural forces to replace his creative will. He constructed video imagery from a sunflower’s point of view by setting up a camera on the flower. The imagery was determined by the flower that followed that course of the sun across the sky. Wind turbines generated the power to click the shutter, so if there was no wind, there was no image. In this manner the artist removed himself from the equation and allocated this creative role to natural events.
Another example is provided by Eduardo Kac who allows biological matter to determine the colors, shapes, and composition of his eco paintings. They are called ‘biotopes’ because he grows different populations of microbes in a frame and “paints” with the bodies of microorganisms by providing various degrees of moisture and warmth. This eco form of painting thrives and withers in harmony with changing conditions, the opposite of the steady-state conditions most paintings require. By working collaboratively with microorganism, Kac is completely redefining the long tradition of painting in art history.
Everything is up for grabs. Eco art is a really dynamic area of exploration.
Can you provide an example of art that’s truly healing the planet—by helping restore the eco system, for example?
Daniel McCormick, who is based in California, works in riverbeds. He collects sediments that muddy the waters and prevents salmon from spawning and thriving. First he collects reeds and willows growing on the banks and creates woven sculptures from these materials. When they are displayed in a gallery, McCormick includes information about where they came from and their function when the exhibit is over. He then returns them to the site and installs them along the river bank. Over time, by collecting the eroding runoff, these sculptures become a medium in which reeds and willows naturally take root and grow. As the sculpture disappears, the bank becomes stabilized and the water runs clean, revitalizing the stream and salmon populations.
Two of my favorite pieces in “Dear Mother Nature” were Raquel Rabinovich’s paper-like sculptures made of mud.
You can get color and texture out of a paint tube with paint made in a factory. Rabinovich chooses, instead, to derive her color and texture from an essential component of the natural environment. This material resonates with the history and geology of the river where it originated. It registers the nuances of weather and temperature as well as the local culture. Rabinovich’s use rich fertile sediment awakens viewers’ ability to respond to primal experiences. We haven’t lost that, we just lack the opportunity to cultivate it.
Is eco art taught in schools?
It’s beginning to be taught in academia. I wrote my book as a textbook to help foster the adoption of this approach in academia. Each semester more schools are integrating eco art into their curricula. There are also more publications, exhibitions, and multidisciplinary conferences exploring eco art.
What will be the legacy of eco art?
Out of all the kinds of art being made today, I believe that eco art will ultimately endure through history. Just like Baroque art manifested the Protestant Reformation, eco art will be celebrated as expressing the environmental concerns of the early 21st century. My hope is that it will also endure in the form of revitalized ecosystems around the world.
Have you responded to the movement as an artist?
Yes. I’m currently exhibiting a work in a show entitled “Digging Deeper” that is organized by Franklin Street Works, a terrific gallery in Stamford, Connecticut. The show runs through June 16. I am displaying 26 different kinds of fruits and vegetables that I canned. They appear on a specially-designed ten-foot shelf arrayed to Nature’s color spectrum – corn, carrots, tomatoes, raspberries, beets, etc.
Also, I am speaking about my own art practice on a panel at P.S. 1 MOMA which is organized by Heide Hatry.
Are you a vegetarian?
No, I am not a vegetarian. In fact, the focus of the P.S. 1 panel is meat. Heide assumed I was a vegetarian when she invited me to participate. I told her that if I accept, we might have a more lively discussion than she intended, since I would present my full engagement with eating meat – which recognizes its integral role in human physiology and human culture. However, I do not support the cruel treatment of animals raised and slaughtered in large-scale industrial facilities. These methods are not healthy for the animals or for the humans who consume them. Vegetarianism is one way to boycott these practices. Raising your own animals for meat is the other.
So you also raise animals for meat?
I’m responsible for the animal protein served in my household. Meat is one component of my commitment to producing food. Every year I integrate a new component of what we consume into my practice. It began with a vegetable garden and included berries and an orchard. Then I began producing protein. This has been a long-term exploration, moving up the food chain. First we stocked our ponds. Then we added chicken, ducks, geese, and turkeys. Now we also raise a pig and lambs. We keep the mammals from the early spring to the fall, when they are butchered. All the while we are gathering the wild resources from our property: maple sap, mushrooms, turkeys, edible weeds, deer. Hunters use our land and share the game. I don’t perform the slaughter, but I am becoming skilled as a butcher.
This intimate rapport with the foods I eat and serve has greatly enriched my life. Eating has become a kind of sacrament because I nurtured the animals that were sacrificed and now they receive my gratitude. This never happened when I ate meat wrapped in a Styrofoam package.
Do you use the other parts of the animal?
I collect hooves and skins and am trying to learn how to craft every part of the animals’ bodies. I have a sheepskin that I love to put around me on cold days. I even use the animal’s manure. When I clean the pig pen, the manure becomes a gift for my plants, which become food for the pig. This cycle is not just pragmatic. It is an inspiring and fulfilling demonstration of nature’s harmony. It allows me to embrace the entire process of being alive, which is why I called my eco art book To Life!
I imagine it’s difficult to be self-sustaining in the winter.
Not really. I preserve foods by canning, fermenting, and freezing. I also have cold frames in which I grow fresh greens all winter. I do what I can. This year I’m cultivating mushrooms for the first time. Today I ordered the plugs for shitakes, which will be drilled to inoculate logs. These will become there ideal habitat – I hope.
My environmental concerns are global, but I practice them on a very local level. They now determine my whole lifestyle. Nothing is casual any more. Everything is considered, including the miles I travel by car.
Is there a reason why you choose metal for your buildings, rather than wood or some other material?
Three goals determined all our architectural decisions. The structure had to be very efficient, very inexpensive, and very environmentally friendly. Metal fulfilled all these requirements. Wood, for example, requires constant maintenance, it is more expensive than metal, and it is often processed in a manner that is unsustainable. Our buildings are made of recycled cars. They are curved to comply with the natural movement of air, so they are easy to heat. The will endure without maintenance. There was no waste since they were fabricated in a factory.
Isn’t it a huge commitment to be self-sustaining? Can you ever leave?
When plants and animals are growing, being home is exciting. I learned how exciting a few years ago when I was awarded a grant to attend the Venice Biennial over the summer. I kept postponing my departure because something wonderful was always about to happen on the homestead – a baby would be born or a crop would be ready for harvesting. In the end, I never went. I returned the money and discovered my priorities.
Nonetheless, I do travel. I am frequently invited to speak at colleges and conferences. I accept these invitations during the winter months. Also, we have seven grandkids, and every time one turns 13, we take him or her on a life-transforming adventure. In two weeks we’re taking our grandson to Kauai to go boar hunting and spear fishing in the traditional manners.