In the period since ww2, art that involves nature or natural processes has taken diverse forms, from the huge spiral artworks of Robert Smithson created on the shore of the great Salt Lakes, to the walks of Richard Long through the English landscape, to Andy Goldsworthy’s ephemeral leaf or ice sculptures in outdoor settings. Within such art, there has always been the question: is the immediate experience of the natural world translatable into a gallery? As artists still want their work to be seen and thought about, for better or worse the gallery is the best place – whether in the form of exquisite photographs (eg of Goldsworthy’s sculptures), photographs taken with indifference to art or framing (eg of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty), or data about a walk offering ‘evidence’ of the artwork (eg Long).
Anya Gallaccio (born 1963, UK) has an intriguing way of including natural processes within gallery-based artwork. She creates site-specific installations, often using organic matter such as flowers, fruit, ice, wax and chocolate. An artist who came of age at the same time as the more famous Damien Hirst, Gallaccio challenges the traditional idea that artworks should be a monument within a museum or a gallery; she makes art which changes over time, rotting, melting, being oxydised. It is art about ‘process’ as much as ‘object’, like an unruly experiment, the end result of which cannot be predicted; and as such it is hard to document with a simple photograph – being principled, she refuses to take photos of her own art to sell. She also emphasises the personal experience of the viewer: her work lives on not as photographs that she exhibits but as memories in those who experienced it as well as in the idea of the artwork itself. The emphasis on personal experience puts one in mind of Anthony Gormley’s perceptive comment that art is about ‘reasserting our first hand experience in present time’.
Some of Gallaccio’s artworks have been repeated at different sites. In ‘Preserve Beauty’ (1991-2003), between 1600 and 2000 red gardenias are arranged in four adjacent rectangular compositions underneath large panes of clear glass, with the flower heads facing out towards the viewer. Over time, the gardenias wither and die; as well as changes to the appearance of the work, there are changes to the smell in the gallery, and some flowers even fall out to rot on the floor. ‘Preserve Beauty’ has echoes of Dutch vanitas paintings of the 16th/17th century, which contained collections of objects symbolic of life’s transience and death’s inevitability – a meditation on decay, change, mortality.
The red gardenias, a mix of gerbera and daisies, are grown for commercial consumption and thus are a type of readymade according to Gallaccio – an everyday, often scentless and mass-produced object. These flowers are chosen as they blur the gap between ‘the natural’ and objects of a commodity culture. She explores this overlap between natural objects and those of disposable commodity culture, specifically in relation to the wastage and decay that is usually hidden from consumers. She has stated that, ‘we experience so much of the world at a mediated and sanitised distance, so I try to make art that is not complicit with this structure’.
In ‘Red on Green’ (2012) Gallaccio plucked the heads of 10,000 red roses and arranged them into large rectangle on a gallery floor. At first the installation might seem like a grand romantic gesture. However, Gallaccio’s interest is piqued in what the installation becomes over time. In a way, ‘Red on Green’ becomes a kind of natural performance as the field of red shifts to brown. The symbol of the rose is used as a starting point for meditating on the natural processes of death and decay.
For her installation ‘Stroke’ (2014-15), she constructed a room made of dark chocolate, inviting visitors to lick the walls if they so dared. The room was partly intended to be a feminine space in an art-world defined mostly by men: the artist sees her unusual material as one normally associated with the female domain and she thus brings the domestic out of the shadows, into the public arena. Painted in thick, gentle layers of chocolate, the room was dark and cavernous, a space to be entered into and experienced. The piece relied upon the viewer drawing meanings from the artwork, though it was as much about fantasy and anticipation as the actual (disappointing) experience of sitting in a chocolate room. As the artist explained, the real chocolate room was distinct from what one might have expected. As time wore on, the sweet odour turned sour; the chocolate, painted onto the walls, oxidised; insects moved into the space. More an encounter with decay and discomfort than with sensual pleasure.
Other works include Glaschu (1999), in which a pattern outline from a paisley carpet, drawn from flowers and foliage, pierces a thinly poured layer of cement floor in an elegant neo-classical interior, so that living verdure creeps from the meandering cracks. The theme of nature reclaiming its territory from human ruins is poignant.
More about Gallaccio can be found here https://www.blumandpoe.com/artists/anya-gallaccio