Fernanda Espinosa is a current OHMA student. In this post, she examines the intersection of the traditions of Land Art and Oral History in the work of AG Evans and Laura Barnett.
Since 2013, Alfred Evans (aka “AG”) has been making installation art across the street from his apartment in NYCHA’s Farragut Houses, near the Brooklyn Bridge. In the small grass area he has created various installations using elements from nature already on the site and repurposing trash left in the streets of his neighborhood. Some of the materials he has worked with include sticks, leaves, and boulders for sculptures, as well as expired air fresheners, take-out containers, floor tiling, Christmas decorations, and political posters. AG constructed several golf course terrains with holes made from these objects and has been using and performing on a small piece of grass as a golfer. The golf course helps keep the area clean and the previously forgotten sidewalks next to a high-traffic highway are now even being expanded.
As an artist and oral historian, OHMA alum Laura Barnett has been working alongside AG documenting the projects through oral history. They have a shared interest in activating public landscapes as well as what Laura called “a common temporality in a fast world,” by enjoying the process of letting ideas brew through time and space, preventing them from prematurely rushing in their corresponding creative endeavors. Both artists also share now-distant memories of the Brooklyn where they grew up. However, they did not cross paths until a few years ago when Laura noticed the objects AG had carefully been placing in their shared geography around the public space of the Vinegar Hill area of Brooklyn.
I interviewed AG and Laura on February 4 about AG’s artwork and the collaboration with Laura as part of OHMA’s Oral History and Public Dialogue series. A few days before their presentation Laura had suggested I become familiar with a film about Land Artists. I wasn’t familiar with this type of installation but before diving into an infinite web of information for answers, I had already paired those words –land art- with mental images of an art practice centered on land as an agent and its mystic connections to all humans. My suspicions went from more obvious, yet politically charged concepts, such as land as a food source, to more mystic thoughts about human interactions with space: the space directly around us, and the intangible space, such as magnetic fields. However, this was not the case, not exactly. Land artists proper, like Walter de Maria or Robert Smithson, were more preoccupied with the imposition of their large-scale installations on the landscape and exploration of existing natural landscape as art, a landscape that replaced their studio-based canvas and challenged art made for enclosed and exclusive spaces. However, after hearing from AG about his own practice, I realized his installations, while working with objects in nature and everyday life (see and listen on “Finding the Chi”), also took it a step deeper.
Yes, when speaking about his work, the artist spoke about finding a balance, about harmony, and healing, concepts in tune with Land Art. But also, and most importantly, he spoke about change and love for his environment and community, and about the desire to transform the space and humans around him.
Two weeks after the presentation, on a sunny Saturday afternoon I arrived at Dia: Beacon, an art museum occupying a former Nabisco box factory in the Hudson Valley. I walked through the spaces, as one would do looking for treasures. The collection exhibits art from the 1960s and 1970s, a period that included the tradition of Land Art. The work being exhibited is often large in scale, some site-specific, and sometimes ephemeral. Each room intersects with other rooms through multiple thresholds posing as both entrances and exits, so you never know whom you will cross paths with next, or again. Natural light penetrated the space through windows so far up it is as if the sun itself had followed the viewers to witness them witnessing beauty. Large-scale installations by the aforementioned artists were prominent in the space, as well as other very famous sculptures by Richard Serra, among others. Yet, and to my own surprise, it was not the De Marias or Serras that moved me. Instead, I continued searching and walked into Joseph Beuys’ work, which kidnapped all my senses. It was Beuys who articulated my interests not only in AG’s approach to creative practice, but also my interest in public art in general. The late artist’s gallery was divided in two spaces; one side was filled with black and white photographs arranged as a visual archive built of staged and real images from Beuys’ life, constructing an alternative history. Then, I headed to the other side to discover more about the stacks of felt I saw there. Looking for some clues I walked in between the tall stacks and suddenly, I found my treasure: it was silence. I could hear an opaque silence every time I stood between the mountains of felt. The material absorbed the surrounding sound waves, resulting in an almost palpable silence when standing next to it. While admiring how space and even sounds and silence can be intentionally sculpted, I thought about AG’s work and how he, too, is transforming time and space.
Beuys, a German artist with a lengthy carrier, subscribed to the Fluxus art movement, a network of artists who had a strong presence in New York City in the 60s. He pioneered the principle of social sculpture to speak of art's potential to transform society. Social sculpture includes human acts that shape society or the environment. Like AG, he also wanted to sculpt the world we live in, and this was his main focus. Land Artists were influenced by this approach, and one of Beuys’ most prominent late works, “7000 Oaks,” is considered to be part of the Land Art tradition.
During our public interview AG shared his motivations in carrying out this type of transformational work. In the following clips he explains why and how his creative ventures were born from a desire to mold and service his community.
Your life is art, you just have to find some way to get it out.
It was not just the instance of art… but it was doing a service that was direly needed in the neighborhood.
Nowadays it has become more and more difficult to come across creative work in the public space that’s meant to make us reflect upon how we think of life, what our role in history is, and how we move through the world. While spaces like the Dia: Beacon galleries can be great for those who can dedicate the time and money to travel to the location about two hours away from the City (I’ve only been there once and I’ve been in New York for eight years), AG’s installations can be seen and interacted with at places that are already part of our daily life, you just have to notice it. Art, or however you want to call creative actions, is what allows us to stop to understand the world in focus, making beauty visible by giving it a designated space and order, while also asking us to reflect on how we are contributing to shaping the world.
Oh, and did I mention he also does spoken word? Check out one of his poems, “Looking for Love”: