It has been over 50 years since Alan Sonfist first began construction on his major environmental installation, Time Landscape, an indigenous forest in downtown Manhattan that presents a living vision of what once existed before the rapid urbanisation of the city. At the northeast corner of La Guardia Place and West Houston Street, the forest becomes an important message concerning the value of the land's past and the fragility of our environment throughout time.
Considered the father of the environmental art movement, Alan Sonfist brings together art and science in unique collaboration. In addition to studying art, he was invited to develop a distinctive approach to landscape architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In researching the ecology of New York City before Western settlement, Sonfist collaborated with expert consultants such as Jane Jacobs, a leading environmentalist, and Robert Still, a scholar of the city's rich history. He also investigated New York Public Library records and old documents of the period, such as Dutch lumber mill reports and fur traders' accounts of Manhattan's historical environs, to develop an accurate portrayal of the primeval forest.
In addition to its symbolic nature and value as a memorial to the urban environment's ancient past, Time Landscape represents an evolving integration between natural and cultural histories. This is the overarching focus of Sonfist's artwork: to redraw, or rather, steadily excise the boundaries between the nature/culture dichotomy.
Fifty years later, Alan Sonfist continues an extensive and accomplished career devoted to environmental art. Setting the precedent for the movement, he has completed numerous international environmental commissions, creating installations and artworks that attest to the historical narrative of site. His most recent project, and one that has garnered critical acclaim for its hallmarked collaboration between artists and scientists, is the creation of Paradise, an island to be constructed outside of Florence, Italy.
Paradise will be created as a bird sanctuary for indigenous as well as migrating species. To create a vision for the island that harmonizes with the Tuscan landscape and functions as a veritable habitat for a multitude of endemic fauna, Sonfist is collaborating with Dr. Carlo Scoccianti, a leading environmentalist in Italy, as well as Marco Brizzi, an acclaimed architect.
Similar in vein to Time Landscape, the island becomes a metaphoric beacon within the swelter and cacophony of cultural production. However, Sonfist's work goes far beyond simple environmental or social commentary. To only observe either Time Landscape or Paradise as a hologram of what once existed before, or as an environmental life-raft within the tumult of urbanization, would represent a failure to see the works as the progressive, evolving landscapes that they are, and the impetus for change that they spark.
To look at the dates of Time Landscape (1965-present), one can understand that the work is a dynamic, ever-adapting piece that is subject and meant to change. In the same way, Paradise will grow and transform with the environment into a naturalized configuration, while offering a haven for wildlife and an important stopover on the arduous migration of birds between Europe and Africa each year.
Accounting for the region's classical history, the island will be shaped in the original city plan of Florence, as settled by the Romans. The vegetation, determined from extensive research into ancient texts, mosaics and paintings of the Florentine area, will be planted according to the main roads of the historic city. Creating a grid-like structure, the rows of flora will then be allowed, over time, to disperse.
This project follows in light of several recent commissions that Sonfist has completed in Italy attesting to the culture's relationship to nature, such as Birth by Spear. In this environmental installation, Sonfist created an island within the landscape to emphasize the history of the site and demonstrate the ecological stratification over time.
Birth by Spear alludes to the cultural and mythological past of Tuscany, incorporating in its namesake, the origin myth of the olive tree. The Greek goddess Athena, known to the Romans as Minerva, struck the ground with her spear and effectually created the plant that has become synonymous with the natural heritage of Italy. A 10-meter steel pole drives into the earth at the center of the installation, visually symbolizing the creation of the olive plant and the roots of its mythology. Olive trees radiate from the pole, complimented by native wildflowers, bushes and other trees. Surrounding the micro-forest, and denoting the landlocked island, is a terracotta walkway that allows viewers to circumambulate the installation.
Island of Paradise continues the dialogue concerning the intersection of Italy's cultural and natural pasts. Within the island, Sonfist will create several striking bronze sculptures that speak to this relationship. The motivation behind the sculptures is, Sonfist notes, the linkage of DNA. “Science has revealed that the human DNA structure is nearly identical to that of a tree. Through this link we are deeply connected to these arboreal structures and the natural world. The DNA forest is a symbolic representation of the intimate relationship between humans and trees.”
In the middle of the island will stand a group of bronze sculptures of varying sizes, from seven to 10 meters. Each sculpture will symbolically represent a unique DNA signature. Trees, vegetation, and vines will integrate with the sculptures and attract both indigenous and migrant birds. Branches and limbs from indigenous trees will be used in the casting process, resonating with the historical landscape of the site. At the center of the island will be a monumental DNA sculpture that will orchestrate into the land as the forest begins to grow around it. From a distance, the Duomo and the encircling city of Florence can be observed, further connecting the natural and cultural histories of the site.
Sonfist is also currently working on an island installation for a coastal preserve in Latin America for a private individual, where he is creating a viewing path with sculptural events that echo an understanding of the land. Sonfist works with the history of the family and the land, bridging the two together. In his project for Prince Richard, he created a nature preserve on the prince's estate in the shape of the falcon that adorns the royal family's crest. Sonfist will follow a similar trajectory in Latin America, combining the ecological and family history together.
Islands represent ideal focal points for Sonfist. As with Paradise, they bring attention to the vulnerability of the natural world through their micro/macro relationships and offer models on which to base new and progressive ideas. As a bird sanctuary and earthwork, Paradise becomes a hybrid of innovative social and environmental change, a visual progression towards a more balanced and harmonious relationship with our environment.
Find out more at www.alansonfist.com