f0 years ago, in the summer of 1982, Agnes Denes spent two months tending to her five-acre field of wheat that she had grown in one of the busiest, most urban, and most expensive areas of the world: the Battery Park landfill in Manhattan. Even then, the garbage-filled ground beneath the field was valued at $4.5 billion.
Acting as an act of protest to highlight the paradoxes between the urban and rural worlds, her work Wheatfield – A Confrontation was an ambitious four-month project that transformed the area from urban devastation to waist-high golden wheat. Something that seemed unthinkable then – and even more so now.
Though ephemeral, the work is still engraved in the memories of those who witnessed it. “Kansas had landed in Manhattan!” wrote New York Times critic Holland Cotter. “It felt like being on a farm…like smelling nature,” said curator Joyce Pomeroy Schwartz.
The remaining photographs are remarkable. In one, we see the artist tending to her wheat, dressed in a striped shirt with high-waisted blue jeans that contrast starkly with the gray, burly skyscrapers of Wall Street in the background. In another we see the Statue of Liberty looming in the distance. From another angle, we see that the glittering landscape is overshadowed by the twin towers.
Wheatfield not only challenged the two- and three-dimensional art objects in nearby museums (in the past women have tried to find alternative spaces to traditional institutions due to gender differences). She also confronted the state of economic, political and social society. “My decision to plant a field of wheat in Manhattan,” Denes said, “rather than designing just another public sculpture, grew out of a long-standing concern and need to bring attention to our misplaced priorities and declining human values.
“Manhattan is the wealthiest, most professional, busiest and undoubtedly most fascinating island in the world. Attempting to plant, conserve, and harvest two acres of wheat here, wasting valuable property, and thwarting the “machinery” by going against the system was an outrage that made it the powerful paradox I was seeking , to be held accountable.”
By situating the wheat field between the pillars of capitalism and patriarchy, a stone’s throw from Wall Street, the work challenged some of the most salient social, economic and environmental concerns. According to the artist, it represented “food, energy, trade, world trade, economy” and referred to “mismanagement, waste, world hunger”.
If this represented the state of society in 1982—when it was possible to plant a five-acre field of wheat in Manhattan with funding from New York’s Public Art Fund—what do the images tell us about the world 40 years later? Most strikingly, the image of the Twin Towers – the archetype of capitalism – is now a powerful symbol of the lives lost and the wars that followed after the September 11 attacks.
The fact that a wheat field of this size would be impossible in most cities around the world today – especially in New York, where land is even more expensive – is shown not only by the increasing real estate density, the living crisis and the widening gap between the one percent and the rest of the world , but the mismanagement of the country and the greed of capitalism.
As reclamation of land that benefits the planet ecologically was a low priority, we are now feeling the impact. By the end of this week, temperatures are set to soar to a muggy 45C in France and Spain, and wildfires are mounting in Portugal as firefighters continue to battle the raging blazes that are destroying vegetation and causing droughts.
After the four months of Denes’ Wheatfield The wheat was harvested and distributed to 28 cities around the world for an exhibition called The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger. Of course, it didn’t end world hunger, but it was about taking action one step at a time. “My work was aimed at solving a small problem at a time,” Denes said, “and finding good solutions. I don’t do my work for myself; I do it for humanity.”