by John K. Grande

  • Fifth Season Magazine/Summer 2011


  • John Grande interviews Nils-Udo:

    Active in the field of environmental art since the 1960s, Nils-Udo builds structures, elaborates on the landscape in a scale that fits, montaging natural materials on site. Thus links are established between horticulture and art, but with a basic sensitivity to the history of the landscape and land. Nils-Udo's approach is tactile and often extemporaneous, creates a visual counterpoint between the various organic and inorganic elements. Site specific and with an integrative approach Nils-Udo plantings were a major breakthrough in the field of contemporary art. The trees, plants, and materials he has used in works such as To Gustav Mahler(1973), Birch Tree Planting (1975) and Spruce Tree Planting (1976) embroider on nature using living natural elements in situ. Structures - both hidden and visible likewise play a role. Romantic Landscape (1992) a permanent installation on the grounds of Ludwig Forum for International Art in Aachen, Germany, an entire 'natural landscape', is raised onto an artificial platform yet is used by children who frequent the grounds. In New Delhi, India, Nils-Udo presented garlands of marigold flowers, that flow in long lines like curtains to cover an ancient arch structure evoking a sense of the sacred. For The Blue Flower: Landscape for Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1993-1996) a crater-like earth mound near Munich has a closed gate that contains a pond, plantings of about 10,000 blue wildflowers in a newly generated ecosystem. Thus Nils-Udo's interest in plantings merge with a built up earth structure. In 1994 at the eau de Laas near Pau in France, he created a living spiral comprising various corn species to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the introduction of corn to Europe from the Americas. In the centre an octagonal tower was built with original non-hydrid species of Mayan corn growing on top. At the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, France he recently created a fairy tale-like piece that merges his interest in earth structures and planted elements.

    Nature's process of endless reproduction and recreation are usually not recognized by most of us as we go about our daily lives. Nils-Udo breaks through this dream-state of contemporary culture to make explicit the many ways we perceive, define and reflect on reality. Nils-Udo: art in nature was recently published by Flammarion (2002) and a book on Nils-Udo's Nests by Le Cercle d'art in France.

    JG: You have worked in environmental art since the 1960s. Were other workingin the field at the time?

    N-U: I did not know anybody artist whose subject was living nature in such a comprehensive, fundamental sense - including all the natural phenomena which humans are receptive to. Nor did the minimalist work of Richard Long have this approach. Even less so, the works by American Land Artists who were often fairly indifferent to the vitality inherent to nature.

    JG: You live in Europe, where peoples' perspectives on nature and the environment are quite different from people in North America or Asia for that matter. How did your art evolve into environmental in the early years? Can you remember a specific point when you said I want to make environmental art? Was the original impulse a Romantic one, ideological, ecologist, or did it evolve out of an interest in the aesthetic of the landscape itself?

    N-U: The works I created in Paris in the 1960s using living plants and natural materials marked my first step towards moving away from panel painting and studio work. Moving from Paris to rural Bavaria, perceiving the endangerment of nature, its growing destruction, I lived through a profound change of awareness. "Being a part of nature" being embedded in it and living on it, it appeared to me that acting in compliance with the laws of nature was something self-evident and necessary for survival. To preserve the original character of nature, its unscathed condition, was like preserving the air I breathed, the basis of my existence. Any human interference could bring about nothing but destruction and extinction. Every newly detected piece of destroyed nature brought me to the verge of despair.
    Since the very beginning of my work with and in nature in 1972, plantings have been my central focus. I started out by leasing land from the farmers in my region, the Chiemgau, in upper Bavaria. In the early 1970s, I created a variety of works on these lots with earth modelings and, in part, some extensive plantings of trees, bushes, lawns, and flowers.
    The idea of planting my work literally into nature - "of making it a part of nature", of submitting it to nature - its cycles and rhythms, filled me on the one hand with a deep inner peace and on the other with seemingly inexhaustible new possibilities and fields of action, putting me into an almost euphoric state of readiness for new departures. As a part of nature,I lived and worked day after day in its rhythms, by its conditions. Life and work became a unity. I was at peace with myself. The decade long abstract struggle in front of the canvas with the subject of my life - nature - was now past. Nature's room itself was to be my art space.
    At the same time, I acquired new knowledge with every new piece of my work Iperformed. I advanced further and further, penetrating deeper and deeper - it was as if I was following a call, when, for instance, I was crawling along the course of a brook, endlessly, on and on, further and further. Where to? Longing.
    The aspect of art now completely faded into the background. What I wanted was to live, act and work in symbiosis with nature in the closest possible way. The living nature itself, all the phenomena that are characteristic of it, were all of a sudden potential issues. The sphere of nature simultaneously became the sphere of art, in which I inscribed myself.
    By elevating the natural space to a work of art, I had opened myself to reality, to the liveliness of nature - I had overcome the gap between art and life. The roundabout way of two-dimensional abstraction in painting had been overcome. Henceforth my pictures were no longer painted, but planted, watered, mowed, or fenced. Through my plantations, I associated my existence with the cycles of nature, with the circulation of life. Henceforth my life and work proceeded under the guidance and in keeping with the rhythms of nature.

    JG: One of your works that I personally find most exciting is Landscape with Waterfall (1992), created at Atelier 340 in Jette, north Brussels, a town in which the surrealist Magritte once lived. Not only is this work a nature piece in an urban setting but the nature literally was planted over a balcony and had water flowing out of a room onto the balcony and down onto the street. The tree, slabs of rock and plants projected an idea of nature that so remarkably contrasted the actual place that indeed this replacement of urbanity with nature looks surreal but is somewhat cathartic. How did this piece and its conception come into being?

    N-U: My work is divided into two main divisions. The pieces of work created in and with nature, using exclusively natural materials and the projects designed for urban spaces. These are fundamentally different from the projects I perform in nature. In order to put them into practice, I use any technical materials necessary. If need be, they can also be non-natural materials such as reinforced concrete. They are, as a rule, laid out in urban spaces deriving their tension from the confrontations of austere architecture with natural plantations. The working process is rather like that of an architect. I take measurements, prepare plans and shape models, and in general I entrust building contractors or landscape gardening companies with the performance.

    JG: Is the artificiality seen in Landscape with Waterfall, which parallelsthe Romantic Landscape you built for the grounds of Ludwig Forum in Aachen, Germany (1992) or The Flying Forest in Lyon (1994) intentional. Underlying man-made structures hold up the nature settings in these works. The Romantic Landscape in Aachen is truly ingenious. You can see right away that the hill, stones and trees were intentionally placed there and that we are looking at a constructed landscape. It has also become a place that children can play on. It has a purpose in this place. Did you intend to make this artificiality of the landscape you built a feature of the piece? Or was it a way of making the viewer that in a world where we are continuously transforming spaces and sites, we inevitably make them less natural? Romantic Landscape does make us aware that we can beautify places with planning as much as uglify them through neglect.

    N-U: In my project called Romantic Landscape, I tried to reproduce a specific type of landscape from German Romantic (and Biedermeier) periods, a 'grove', that is to say a 'romantic' place in nature inviting one to tarry. Typical components of a grove can include a shady place under a tree on a knoll, with an erratic boulder, surrounded by flowers and blooming shrubs; a footbridge leading over a brook; a millstone. The landscape lays on a pedestal. Nature has been set on a pedestal and declared a work of art. The Flying Forest is a precisely modeled and planted reproduction of a fictional natural landscape. It has a sloping mountain with spruces and meadows. The landscape lays on a platform placed on high stem columns. A precisely shaped copy of a piece of natural landscape has been set on a pedestal, displayed and declared a work of art. We destroy the original natural landscapes and build ourselves new ones, artificial ones.

    JG: The cross-over into plantings, making a living landscape of trees, ferns or flowers art must have received mixed reactions from the public in the early days. I feel this facet of your work has largely been overlooked in critical discourse, yet its relevance is increasing as landscapers, artists and planners increasingly look to artists for new conceptions of urban, suburban and rural space. Your more recent Shells Flowers planting in Martinique (1994) is predated by your V-shaped section of trees planted in a hillside titled To Gustav Mahler (1976), and other plantings which extremely Romantic and hopeful. The early works embroider on nature in a highly personal way. The more recent works seek to reintegrate notions of nature as a living elements into art, as did your tree walkway in Turin, Italy (1989), a platform that literally allowed participants to experience upper tree growth first hand.

    N-U: It is certainly true that those of my works that I have designed for urban areas have so far been considerably less noticed and appreciated than the works I have performed in the sphere of nature. This is certainly due to the fact that there are altogether considerably fewer of these works, and that these works are just simply more difficult to convey in exhibitions. And also, people are always at first impressed by the ephemeral character of the works performed in the sphere of nature.

    JG: You have written: 'Nature is still complete and inexhaustible in her most remote refuges, her magic still real. At any time, meaning any season, in all weathers, in things great and small. Always. Potential Utopias are under every stone, on every leaf and behind every tree, in the clouds and in the wind. Pitting poetry against the inhuman river of time.

    Do you believe that art can change society, or at least help people to believe in visions other than the commercial, consumer myths that are thrust upon us daily in great volume? Does the change come with recognizing the small things, the details, an awareness of our physical environment in anera where high-tech emphasizes the contrary, a displacement of the individual from their historical, physical and natural environment?

    N-U: We must realize our responsibility for what is happening, for society. Art always deals with reality. Those who shut their eyes to reality are liars and deprive themselves of any meaningful possibility of acting in society and (in the history of) art. What we are working for, if not for man, for society? Despite clear-sighted pessimism - we must hope in order to live. What counts for me is that my actions, Utopia-like, fuse life and art into each other.

    JG: When you worked with corn, a tribute to the Aztecs perhaps, you actually transformed a landscape in France, planting corn over a large land area, building a huge spiral design and walkways that led to a tower in the centre, I felt you were turning a corner, almost into agriculture as a ritualistic kind of artmaking process. How did the public react to thepiece - as art or agriculture? Did you receive any comments?

    N-U: The Maize Project was a piece of work that I performed to order in France on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the bringing of the first maize harvest in Europe. In a way, 'applied art', as it were. A challenge however. A kind of time-lapse spiral through the history of that cultivated plant. A plantation comprising 15 varieties of maize including the original maize stemming from Mexico. The audience, which had of course been informed of the intention of the project, reacted in a very positive and interested way. They enjoyed the comparison of the different varieties of maize. Of course the ecologically questionable side of maize cultivation was omnipresent: enormous amounts of artificial fertilizer and pesticides.

    JG: Can you tell me something of the work you made for the Jardin des Plantes in Paris?

    N-U: This project responds to the spirit, to the poetry, to the language of shapes and the flora present in a typical park laid out 'a la francaise'. Placed right in the centre of the ample square laid out in front of the Musee d'histoire naturelle, there rises a Sleeping Beauty's enchanted castle of roses. Four avenues lead steeply upwards, ending in front of a thick wood of standard roses. At the end of each avenue, a little white cloud issues from the lawn, continuously sending out the scent of a perfume that was mostly composed out of the rose essence 'Paris' by Yves Saint Laurent. Even from a distance, the Sleeping Beauty betrays herself by the bewitching perfume of roses.

    JG: What projects are you currently working on? What future areas of expression in nature are you exploring?

    N-U: Activities planned include outdoor projects for a horticultural show in Germany, a large scale project in front of the eau Versailles, a project in the Neanderthal near Dusseldorf, a series of works on Lanzarote, the Canary Islands, La Reunion, the Indian Ocean, and in southern France. Large scale installations will be made for three museums in Japan. A special kind of challenge is a work designed for a large existing barrage in southern France 'La barrage des olivettes'. The draft has already been made. I am further planning to co-operate with architects to perform projects in urban areas in Germany. As a rule, my projects evolve without any preconceived conceptual ideas. I respond to the natural spheres or urban situations which I encounter, so that I am not able to know in advance what projects will evolve in the various spheres of nature, landscapes, countries.

    JG: Can you tell me something about this major work titled Stone-Time-Man you recently created in Germany? This permanent outdoor installation features a massive stone as its centrepiece, surrounded by huge fir tree trunks, which serve as vertical and horizontal supports that are interconnected.

    N-U: Stone-Time-Man (2001) has been created for Waldskulpturenweg Wittgenstein-Sauerland at Bad Berleburg near Cologne in a forested part of central Germany. This project is about vulnerability and the temporality of human existence. I discovered this large 150 ton rock in a quarry, where ages ago it had broken out of the face, waiting to be blasted apart. In the face of thoughts and sensations that arise inevitably at the sight of such a monumental block of rock, I wanted to take myself back as far as possible. The rock remained unworked. In the sparse beech tree forest, I created a space that both protects and displays it. There it sits, on top of and surrounded by mighty pillars of tree trunk wood whose dimensions react to the monumentality of this mass of stone. I didn't cut one tree down. I chose every one of those mighty fir tree trunks after they had been knocked over by a storm in the Black Forest.

    JG: Is this some kind of representation of the history of the earth?

    N-U: The main thing is that it has to do with la condition humaine.

    JG: And do you feel the response to your nature-based brand of art has improved in recent years?

    N-U: Yes most definitely. Recently there is increasing interest in nature work all over the world.

    JG: And yet environmental art remains marginalized, set apart from the mainstream of contemporary art. No major museum in North America or Europe has yet held a significant show of environmental art.

    N-U: Why should museum people be in a different position than society in general? Knowledge, and thus, interest and affinity with nature, have become lost. That which no longer plays a role in the reality of life cannot find expression in art or museums.


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