A Bean Story or Art, Accused of Trying to Teach.
By Christina Schmid
On my kitchen counter, looking out into the yard, sits a mason jar that holds about two large handfuls of beans. They are a curious shade of purple, with markings in even darker purple centered around what I think of as their navels—although I’m sure a botanist would be appalled at such misnomers. These beans are not grown for consumption in Minnesota but for their striking blooms: they are called Scarlet Runner Beans for a reason. In Austria, they are called “beetle beans,” for the legs they sprout when beginning to grow roots. Beetle beans are common enough to be the exemplary seed children study in botany classes: “Just take a bean, put a piece of damp tissue with it, put it in a jar and set it in a dark place,” our teacher told us. I did. And promptly forgot about jar and bean, buried underneath my mother’s pile of sewing. Weeks later, a green sprout sneaked up amidst torn jeans and button-less shirts. Long live the resilient beetle bean!
Now, what does any of this have to do with art?
Ask Rachel Breen, whose recent show, “Let’s Not Leave It To Chance,” celebrates the mind-boggling diversity and resilience of seeds, alerts us to the pressing need to save them, and raises the pressures and dangers of introducing genetically modified seed into an eco-system. What excites me about this work in the age of pleasantry[i] is the simple fact that here is an artist taking a political stance, explicitly and without any semblance of reluctance or ambiguity, and moreover, that she does so with formal elegance and restraint.
Breen’s work is didactic in the best possible sense. Her show at Concordia marked the first time the artist has engaged with the issue of seeds and sustainability. Her central questions—what do we want to leave for the next generation? Which legacy do we want to pass on?—precipitated the show’s title: “Let’s Not Leave It To Chance.” Let’s plan on preserving and actively treasuring bio-diversity.
Her conceptual and thematic choices imbue what has been called her “signature style”—working with an unthreaded sewing machine as a mark making tool for creating delicate stencils—with renewed significance. Personally, I tend to get a little suspicious if someone keeps using the same idea, technique or tool, but here, Breen’s technique is utterly convincing. Consider the wealth of connotations: immigrants, Breen tells me, did not bring diamonds sewn into the hems of their clothes; they brought seeds. But in her work, sewing’s purpose—stitching together seams, hemming frayed edges, making fabric into sheaths to protect our bodies—has disappeared. Empty, the needle’s marks no longer serve as openings for purposeful threads. Something—a belief in continuity? a trust in permanence?—has been lost.
The ephemeral nature of Breen’s drawings amplifies this effect. Dusted in charcoal, her pieces slowly disintegrate, lost to the world. Yes, the parallel to disappearing seed diversity may be obvious—once the genetic information is gone, it’s irretrievably gone—but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated before the more subtle points.
Typically, a circle of beetle beans is planted around poles of eight feet or taller. The shoots spiral upward, all the way to the top. In mid-summer, the striking red flowers appear; the bean pods slowly follow in late summer. Beetle beans get big, when grown in the right soil—picture a bean the size of the first joint of your thumb. The harvest does not happen until after the first frost, when the pods get crinkly and brown, paper-thin sheaths enclosing rows of six to eight beans. The remaining green pods, while more difficult to shell, harbor the most beautiful beans: occasionally elegant in brown and white, the fresh beans range from dramatic pinks to all shades of purples, colors you’d never expect to find in a polite little legume.
Unlike Breen’s earlier work, this body of work includes actual thread. It is green and holds together black shards of paper, lined by needle marks, in a piece called Stockpile. The green interrupts the black-and-white palette of the show and offers an organic counterpoint to the machine-made line work with its seductive simplicity. The machine-made patterns are beautiful, especially in the white-only pieces: in one untitled piece, the lines mark a horizon, then extend forward, in a delicate illusion of space that is reminiscent of the minimalism of raked gravel beds in Zen gardens. Illusions of movement animate the plane.
Yet the contrast between machine-made beauty and hand-sewn green thread does not over-determine the work. Poetic potential still abounds: the tiny holes that outline the seed heads of amaranth or Sonoma wheat in delicate patterns suggest that seeds themselves are small portals to the future, organic time capsules, if you want.
In the biggest piece in the show, the eponymous mural, organic shapes of leaves and spores interact with the ominous geometry of genetically engineered seeds. The stenciled images overlap and repeat, but with diminutive differences that suggest the variation found in all naturally occurring proliferation and propagation patterns. Perhaps needless to say, this subtle variation is missing in the representations of engineered seeds.
The references proliferate. A symbol of fecundity alludes to the Greek myth of Cornucopia, the horn of plenty: while in hiding from his father Chronos who notoriously devoured his children—there is no escaping time—the infant Zeus broke off one of the horns of his nurse goat, Amaltheia, thereby accidentally creating a source of abundance. The theme of hidden resilience resonates with seeds: defying time, they carry within them a biological program set to unfold whenever circumstances seem opportune.
From a culinary standpoint, beetle beans are a specifically East-Austrian treat. Soaked overnight and boiled until tender, they are typically eaten as a salad, dressed with raw garlic and the region’s dark green oil pressed from roasted pumpkin seeds. To locals, the beans are not only an annually anticipated delicacy but a part of their identity. Non-locals can have a hard time understanding the bean’s renown and appeal.
Breen’s work is in good company. Andrea Bowers, who, like Breen, uses non-traditional drawing, recently concluded her talk at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design by confessing, rather mischievously, that she had been “accused of being didactic” in her unapologetically political work. This gives me pause.
What does it mean to be “accused of” wanting to teach something? Of course, I, too, tend to share the collective allergy to the kind of heavy-handed, didactic art that seems set on the questionable strategy of guilt-tripping viewers into action, to ideological soapboxes of all sorts that say nothing as loudly as “I am good person and I care about the world.” That’s commendable—but no guarantee for interesting art. Does caring about an issue have to stand in the way of good art, though? Simply because there undeniably is bad didactic art out there, do we need to jettison the very idea that art may instruct, inform, and aesthetically explore something a little more pressing than an artist’s subjectivity, intellect, or the formal concerns of the medium he or she has chosen to explore?
In her talk, Bowers briefly sketched a trajectory for her artistic practice before resorting to a series of “whatever’s”—as if suddenly deciding that taking a stance on art’s evolution might be too risky after all. But what she said before relativism asserted itself was this: from the elevated subjectivity of heroic artists of the first half of the twentieth century, art moved on to a more intellectual, conceptual modus operandi, which is where she situated her work. Projects such as No Olvidado (Not Forgotten) (2010), a monumental drawing installation memorializing the names of immigrants who died trying to cross the border between the United States and Mexico, or, more recently still, The New Woman’s Survival Guide–a laconically impractical, 75-pound catalog of resources–are both explicitly political and didactic. Driven by her commitment to social issues and guided by research, Bowers is right in calling her practice intellectual–but it is also more than that: irreverently ideological and symptomatic of what has been called the “affective turn” in arts. But whatever, right? Shall we risk taking the next step?
Tired of the purely cerebral calibrations of some conceptual art, artists began returning to the affective: the 1990s interminable discussions of beauty succeeded in reasserting the aesthetic power of images. How does the presence of a work of art affect us? Viscerally? Emotionally? Intellectually? In other words, art doesn’t have to look like a pile of trash in order to count as fine art. Some people wrote about the renaissance of craft (Bowers touched on people’s lingering respect for an artist’s labor,) some talked about artists’ responsibility to ignite a conversation that does not voluntarily limit itself to an exclusive, well-heeled little art world circle. A lot of socially engaged artists took their practice—or perhaps it is more accurate to say, their practice took them—out of the White Cube into the gritty, very much not glamorous world of public and community arts.
Bowers is at home in both worlds: leading a parade of children dressed in vegetable costumes down a busy street to raise awareness, joining and documenting the cause of tree-squatters in California, or seeking out Tim DeChristopher, the young man who who successfully foiled George W. Bush’s plans to auction off parcels of undeveloped land in Utah in the last days of this administration. But Bowers, like Breen, also insists on mobilizing traditional gallery spaces to further the causes her work investigates.
These two artists have moved their socially engaged work right back into the gallery. And I, for one, find that exciting: we won’t change the white box by ignoring what it can do. Rather than bemoan the futility of engaging the patrons of such spaces, Breen’s and Bowers’ drawings and installations opt to foster conversation wherever. They strategically activate those loaded white walls as a space that does not have to signal lofty withdrawal into the finer realms of cultural disengagement but as a place to provoke conversation about real ‘stuff’—without offering us all the answers and not chiding us to take the next few right steps but owning up to honest confusion, expressing outrage, and asking pressing questions. If such qualities make this work didactic, then maybe it is time to re-think the negative charge of that word.
Engineering the return of political art into the galleries also caters to a complicated love affair with objects. But here, the yearning for an aesthetics uncompromised by the art-by-committee approach that tends to tether art projects in the public realm serves a larger purpose: it implies that some objects should be protected and perhaps even revered, in part because of their profound aesthetic appeal. The thousands of acres of red rock country Tim DeChristopher’s felonies temporarily saved by hijacking the auction do not serve any practical purpose in their undeveloped state. But watching Bowers trudge through snow and brush, recording the parcel numbers on a blackboard, as if attempting, in vain, to map the land with her footsteps, hints at the vast, unnameable beauty of those undeveloped spaces.[ii]
In Minnesota, the growing season is not quite long enough to allow my beetle beans to grow to full size. They still spiral upward on any pole or lattice I put in their reach; their scarlet flowers are still attractive.
But come fall, I face the sadness of harvesting beans that did not quite have enough time to grow and did not have the soil they like the best. I still obstinately harvest my handful of beans each year and diligently dry them before storing them in a mason jar. I cannot bring myself to cook them, since I will need this year’s harvest to plant the next generation in the spring.
The moral of the story: before we dismiss artists like Breen and Bowers, accuse and convict their work of didacticism, let’s pause and appreciate the risks they are taking. Contrary to nihilist chic, they take a stance, unequivocally. They remind us that change can happen from within institutions just as likely as from without. They make. They choose to teach. They invite us to recognize the importance of small acts of defiance or courageous acts of civil disobedience that will make a difference for years to come. Art, they insist, can be a seed, a stockpile of future possibilities, an opening into a world of our own making.
[i] In “Generation Sell,” William Deresiewicz recently diagnosed the vacuous pleasantries of the “entrepreneurial generation:” not wanting to offend any potential customer, young adults are loath to take a stance, be “negative,” or contradict the tenets of relativism’s anything goes—as long as it sells. (The New York Times, November 13, Sunday Review)
[ii] Of course, DeChristopher was not driven by an appreciation of beauty alone. His concern stems from oil- and gas-fueled climate change. In Bowers’ video, he tells the story of meeting Terry Root, Nobel Prize winning climate scientist, who tells him that “there are things we could have done in the eighties and things we could have done in the nineties, but now it is probably too late … I am sorry. My generation failed yours.” Shall we leave it to chance, then? Let’s not.
All photographs of Rachel Breen’s show by Christina Schmid.
Andrew Bowers, “No Olvidado (Not Forgotten)”, 2010, Graphite on paper, each 120” x 50.” Installation view and details.