16 October 2016


Wheatfield with Crows, by Vincent Van Gogh (via)
Yet another serendipitous delight from the BBC radio iplayer - a farming programme about The Field of Wheat, a bit of "social art" that involved a 22 acre wheatfield - combining agriculture, art, science, economics. Up to 60 people could "buy in" to the project, with the hope that they'd make a little profit on their investment at the end of the year. They collaborated on decisions like how much nitrogen fertiliser to use and where to sell the crop, but the farmer (Peter Lundgren) decided the practical things, like when to harvest. 

This is part of a global art project - the idea behind it is to bring farming, and the decisions the farming industry makes, to a wider audience. "Having a conversation with the general public" - trying to understand wat they think about the importance of farming.

Artist Ruth Levene made some interesting comments about "framing", which is something that can be applied to any artwork. (I take framing to mean how is the artwork contained and how does it sit in its context, and that the frame sets the work apart under the label "art".) This is my transcription of what she said:

When does a field of wheat become a work of art, she was asked. "I think for us it's about framing the land and framing the story. What we're interested in is how the world works and how we perceive the world and often people are busy doing their own thing and they see this field of wheat from one particular perspective. 
In one sense we don't see it as much different from a framed picture. It's just our frame goes on in time and a bit further on in space. We're taking a landscape, we're taking a subject, in this case wheat, and we're putting a frame around it but we want to invite people in to make that live, to have that discussion, and following the wheat itself means that we have to see it from seed to harvest, and so the frame is just expanded, and in it we invite people not to just look but to speak and to listen and be involved."
They say great art has the power to move people, said the interviewer - do you think this field has done that? "Yes - I think together there has been times where ... everyone goes on their own journey to this, and everyone has come to this field of wheat from a very different place and a very different politics, and to share those with other people means that they'll see the same field maybe through a different lens, and I think there's time to do that where people have realised that their own perspective is not the only one."

A "meeting house" was built of straw bales roofed with a tarpaulin - at one end was a window, "framing" a view of the field, now cut to golden stubble, bringing everyone back to that focus on the 22 acres. Talks about to takeplace were about the changing relationship of art and culture to agriculture (including rituals and rural celebrations, and ways of reinventing them for our age), and about "harder" topics like the global grain market. 

Visual artist Shelley Castle has used soil samples from the field as pigments -
Subtle, beautiful, rich colours of the earth (via)
She has made a 7-foot long scroll with drawings of insects that have been found on field surveys. A baker made bread from some of the harvested wheat - a loaf that needs no kneading and goes into a cold oven, proves at 110 degrees C for half and hour to prove it, and then you turn the oven up to 180 degrees for an hour to cook it. 

A year in the life of a wheat field is summarised by John Lewis-Stempel (here), author of The Running Hare: the secret life of farmland, which was a Book of the Week on Radio 4. (Yes, BBC radio is the mainstay of my entertainment, information, and enlightenment. Glory be!)

The Running Hare "recalls an era before open-roofed factories and silent, empty fields, recording the ongoing destruction of the unique, fragile, glorious ploughland that exists just down the village lane.
But it is also the story of ploughland through the eyes of man who took on a field and husbanded it in a natural, traditional way, restoring its fertility and wildlife, bringing back the old farmland flowers and animals."
Wheatfield - A Confrontation, Battery Park Landfill, downtown Manhattan, 2 acres
of wheat planted & harvested, summer 1982 (via)
Another wheatfield is a land art project by Agnes Denes, grown on derelict urban land. "In Wheatfield - A Confrontation, Denes examined the natural cycles of growth and regeneration. Her stated purpose was to call "people's attention to having to rethink their priorities." She constructed the wheatfield on a landfill near the World Trade Center, an unlikely spot for crop production. Two assistants and some volunteers helped her remove trash from the 4 acres of land, spread 225 truckloads of topsoil, and plant 1.8 acres of wheat. She contends the work would not have been possible without numerous volunteers who arrived at random to help ... An irrigation system was installed to sustain and regulate the wheat's growth cycle over four months. In summer, the green wheat stalks stretched skyward and turned a brilliant amber by early autumn. In the late fall, the artist harvested a thousand pounds of the grain."

Paintings of wheatfields abound, possibly inspired largely by Van Gogh. Yet, as a common part of ordinary rural scenery, wheatfields have been showing up in landscape paintings for a long time. Keep an eye open for them!

by Constable (via)

by Elizabeth Moore Golding (via)
Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with cornflowers (via)

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