Alan Sonfist: Circle of Life, Revisited Essay

11/10/2000 - 12/01/2000
Alan Sonfist: Circle of Life, Revisited
Heather Lustfeldt

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Encapsulating time for posterity is evidenced throughout the course of human history.  Cultures and societies are recorded through written and oral histories, artifacts and relics, art, literature, geography, archaeology and technology.  These and other constructs are tools that assist our understanding of the world, a world profoundly affected by human intent and invention.  If components of a culture are not preserved for future generations, gaps in knowledge occur, a history is lost.  The same is true of the natural world.  As nature is continually depleted and endangered, the vital need for awareness and strategies for conserving it become increasingly clear.  For over three decades, New York artist Alan Sonfist has addressed nature’s plight through his art, poignantly recapturing glimpses of a largely lost natural past.

In celebration of the new millennium, the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute revisits a time-based environmental sculpture by Alan Sonfist, called Circle of Life (1985-2085), with an exhibition of photographs that document the progression of this unique work of art.Installed in 1985 on the north end of the campus of the Kansas City Art Institute, this site-specific sculpture was commissioned to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Art Institute and conceived as a gift to the city.2   The sculpture consists of two distinct components- a bronze sculpture and natural plantings- and symbolizes a century of culture and growth.

Circle of Life exists as a living, monumental time capsule, evoking a metaphorical reading of time, nature and place.  A growing grove of indigenous trees of Kansas and Missouri, selected by the artist, includes varieties of oak, redbud, maple, hickory and ash.  The grove forms a concentric outer ring measuring 20’ in diameter.  A model of a natural forest, this cross-section of native trees thrives today and will flourish in coming years.  The grove encloses an area of earth originally planted with indigenous prairie grasses, since overtaken by the trees.  In the midst of the enclosure, a 25’ sculpture rises, composed from fallen limbs of endangered and fallen trees from this area, gathered and bronzed by the artist.  Natural limbs were interwoven with the bronzed branches originally, but decayed long ago and returned to the earth.3
Upon entering the thicket, the artist’s gesture is revealed in subtle juxtaposition with its park-like environs.  As surrounding trees continue to thicken, the bronzed limbs become increasingly camouflaged.  Sonfist’s objective- for the sculpture to disappear amoung the forest over the next 100 years- reinforces his adage, “the future will out-grow the past.”  Like many of his environmental projects, referred to by the artist as “narrative landscapes,” Circle of Life depicts natural struggles, cycles, and human interaction.  It is at once an idealized, romantic vision of a bucolic past, and a real system affected by natural and human interventions.  It represents a wild, indigenous nature non-existent in most parks and public spaces within cities, where flora are too often selected and placed based on ornamentation, unreflective of the indigenous past of the site.  Sonfist describes his intent as such: “This sculpture is a symbol to the distinctive contrast between the ornamental landscape of the site and the rebirth of a natural system.”4  Circle of Life embodies the most important sensibilities encompassing the art of Alan Sonfist.  Intently autobiographical, ecological, natural and based on ideas of time- Sonfist’s art celebrates nature as public monument, informing communities of their land’s natural past, and inspiring citizens to embrace this forgotten heritage.

Sonfist became known in the mid 1960’s during the first wave of Environmental Art, also referred to as Earth Art and most recently as Land Art.  This complex, divergent movement invoked a hybrid of concerns associated with Minimalism and Conceptualism, burgeoning tangential sects of Ecological, Process and Body Art.  Artists like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer used the earth as artistic medium, imprinting bold gestures in often-remote areas of the American Landscape.  Seeking to subvert the gallery context, demystify the art object, and cultivate a broader understanding of art, these artists created expressive works that imposed a sort of masculine intrusiveness with both temporary and permanent results.  Iconic examples include Smithson’s Spiral Jetty(1970), composed of rocks, earth, salt crystals and water coiling into the Great Salt Lake in Utah and Heizer’s Double Negative (1969-70), created by blasting two voids through facing sections of rock of the Mormon Mesa in Overton, Nevada.5

Sonfist shared many concerns put forth by Smithson and Heizer, but he occupies a different artistic milieu. His work reflects a semblance of approach with European artists like Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, who embraced a personal lyrical idealism and connection with the Earth – anathema to Smithson and Heizer. Echoing lyrical sensibilities espoused by many nineteenth- century artists such as Asher B. Durand of the Hudson River School, whom Sonfist admired – Long and Fulton ritualized the act of walking within the land, capturing pristine visions with photographs.  Long is recognized for creating temporary, delicate gestures through repetitive walking, or placements of stones, whereas Fulton left no trace of his physical presence.

An important connection is also apparent between Sonfist’s approach to the site and certain women artists, who, in the 1970’s, began countering intrusive philosophies and practives of artists like Smithson and Heizer.  Incorporating their bodies and rituals into their art, women forged a deep connection with the earth as seen in the art of Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta.  She began inscribing her body into the land in the late 1970’s, reating temporary portrait reliefs she referred to as ‘earth body sculpture.’  Eroding with time, these ephemeral gestures symbolized a physical connection and transience upon the earth.  Sonfist evokes ritual and connection with the earth through continual collection of natural specimens, likening his body to elements such as leaves and branches, and enacting animal behavior within the landscape.  The integral connection of humans to the earth is also seen in a culminating body art gesture by Sonfist called Last Piece (1973), in which the artist proposed to will his body to the Museum of Modern Art after death, presenting a photograph of himself naked and lying flat.  His body’s decomposition would, for Sonfist, be a continuation of his art, epitomizing on ultimate connection to nature.

Born in New York City and raised in the South Bronx, Sonfist discovered a communion with nature as a child in the nearby Hemlock Forest, then one of the few remaining virgin forests of New York City.  Regarding the Hemlock Forest, Sonfist wrote: “Through my artworks, I recreate the forest of my childhood.  I know from my own experience that the forest saved me as a child.”6  He traces his memories and very specific events to the forest, creating complex, autobiographical diaries that describe his connection to natural elements, animals, trees, and the notion of simultaneous time.7  He recaptures and interjects his projects with the forest of his youth, yet tailors each to its specific site.
Sonfist’s most recognized reforestation artwork was begun in 1965.  Through years of research, consultation with botanists, biologists, ecologists and city government officials, Time LandscapeTM of New York was realized in 1978, at the corner of Houston Street and La Guardia Place.8  On a rubble-filled vacant lot, Sonfist planted a pre-colonial forest of indigenous trees, grasses and flowers that inhabited the site prior to colonization by Western settlers.  Sonfist reintroduced much of the native flora, as it had ceased to exist on Manhattan due to massive development.  The artist-created forest offers a window into the past, inserted within an urban construct.  It images a time before urbanization, when societies were connected to their natural surroundings.  Sonfist stated: “In the twentieth century we have totally separated ourselves from our natural environment: we have become Nature-haters.”9  Time LandscapeTM of New York presents a view of nature as artifact, as a precious resource to be preserved and reclaimed rather than shirked and taken for granted.

Time LandscapeTM removed the artist’s gesture completely, presenting a wild area of untended forest barely recognizable as art, while other projects evoke layered, more specific readings that reveal an artistic and poetic intent, thus understood as ‘narrative landscapes.’  Kansas City’s Circle of Life or a later environmental sculpture in Florence, Italy, called Circles of Time (1986-89) may be understood as narrative landscapes, each imparting a precision of thought and historical reference.  Similar to Circle of LifeCircles of Time incorporates an intricate history of its site through concentric circles.  Trees composing an ancient forest enclose three central bronze sculptures, symbolizing human intervention.  The circles represent land uses by ancient Greeks (cultivated herbs) and Romans (a stone road), and contemporary agricultural uses of the land (olive trees).  More recent narrative landscapes in France, Finland and the U.S. continue to evoke the natural pasts of their sites through various interpretations of their histories and societies.  Sonfist’s artistic strategy to recapture the natural past through constructive, ecologically minded projects that benefit and replenish the environment have met with questions concerning its legitimacy as “art.”  But with a pervasive depletion of natural resources and wilderness, Sonfist’s vision resounds as an important and responsible artistic response to environmental problems.

Sonfist’s art, in a sense, has opened the door for more radical ecological interventions by artists who envision and enact solutions for ecological and environmental crises.  Mel Chin, who uses plants as remedial, healing tools on toxic sites, is one such example.10  Helen and Newton Harrison, active ecological artists since the early 1970’s, recently proposed Vision for the Green Heart of Holland (1995), a healing ‘ring of biodiversity’ for an eroding section of land that provides a model of health for the future.  Similarly, Agnes Denes’s, Tree Mountain – A Living Time Capsule in Ylojarvi, Finland (approved on Earth Day, 1992), incorporates 10,000 trees planted by 10,000 people, to be maintained for 400 years as a monument for future generations.

“It is only by understanding what is in our own backyard that we gain a greater sense of protecting the rest of the Earth,” Sonfist wrote.11  His deep connection to nature and inherent understanding of himself as part of a large, intricate natural system, inspire him to reach to the past as a way to connect to the future.  In his famous essay of 1968, Natural Phenomena as Public Monument, Sonfist asserted a need for “reevaluation and redefinition” of “the concept of what is public monument.”  Stating that public monuments typically celebrate “events in human history.” He also pointed out that “public monuments embody shared values” within a community, communities encompassing not only humans, but also animal and natural systems.12  Sonfist’s assertion that the twentieth century has fostered generations of “nature-haters” is hard to refute in light of a plethora of current practices that cause great damage to the environment.  But in a spirit of hope that imbues his art, perhaps, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, a concerted effort at conserving the environment will become fact rather than fiction, and Sonfist’s words will prove to be opinion rather than prophesy.

This contextual show is in conjuction with the millennium exhibition, Tempus Fugit: Time Files at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art from October 15- December 31, 2000, curated by Jan Schall, the museum’s associate curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.
2 Circle of Life was made possible by grants from the Linclay Corporation, developers of One Main Plaza, and the Contemporary Art Society of Kansas City.
Hoffman, David, “Seeds of beauty in the forest of man,” Kansas City Star, Star Arts October 6, 1985), 1D.
Oakes, Baile, Sculpting With The Environment – A Natural Dialogue, (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, A Division of International Thomson Publishing Inc., 1995), p.160.
For a comprehensive critical and histroical survey of Environmental Art, see: Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis, Land and Environmental Art, (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1998).
Oakes, p.158.
Sonfist’s autobiographies were subject for the exhibitions; Autobiography of Alan Sonfist at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1975; Alan Sonfist: Autobiography, Neue Galerie Sammlung Ludwig, Aachen, Germany, 1997, essays by Lawrence Alloway and Wolfgang Becker.
Time Landscape TM is a trademark implemented by Sonfist for his Time and Cultural Landscapes.
Oakes, p.158.
Revival Field, Pig’s Eye Landfill in St. Paul Minnesota (1990-93) is widely recognized in this genre.
Oakes, p.158
Sonfist, Alan, “Natural Phenomena as Public Monuments,” (1968), in Alan Sonfist (Purchase, N.Y.: Neuberger Museum, 1978), presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.