Agnes Denes, Tree Mountain, 1992–96. View of work in 2023. Photo: Courtesy Jeff Huebner

Default Barometers: Restoring Finland’s Eco Art Icons

Arriving at Tree Mountain, Agnes Denes’s massive collaborative earthwork outside Tampere, in south central Finland, my wife and I started to climb to the top of the 125-foot-high, human-made forested hill. Created with excavated material from a former gravel quarry, it’s one of the largest reclamation sites on earth. On a warm July afternoon last year, we were the only people there. We followed a well-trod path through straight rows of 12- to 15-foot-high pines, some scraggly, some ailing or dead, before approaching the apex, where the rows evolve into a spiral pattern. Looking up toward the top, the trees appeared about twice as tall, lusher and denser. We thought better of venturing farther, though: the hill was growing steeper, and the sandy ground was starting to shift beneath our feet. We feared that we might cause damage—or perhaps compound damage that had already been done. We retreated, and instead walked around the site.

Tree Mountain isn’t just the hill rising from the wooded, dune-ridged landscape, and it’s not a true mountain. It’s a kind-of-sculpted, conical mound set in an expansive sand bowl, part of the sprawling Pinsiö gravel pits. It consists of a 1,380-foot-long and 885-foot-wide site surrounded by an elliptical track. Seen from a distance, the hill doesn’t seem all that unnatural; but, coming closer, the combination of golden section and sunflower/pineapple tree-planting pattern becomes more evident, revealing nature in touch with humanity—and art. “Building a mountain out of refuse material that the mine could no longer use became their payment for using the resources free of charge and destroying the land in the process,” Denes, a pioneering, New York-based environmental and conceptual artist, has written of the work.1

Agnes Denes, Tree Mountain, 1992–96. View of work in 2023. Photo: Courtesy Jeff Huebner

After exploring Tree Mountain, we drove two miles to wander around Nancy’s Holt’s Up and Under (1987–98), which is also set in an immense sand crater surrounded by woods and cliffs. The work evokes an ancient astronomical observatory; indeed, the curving, coiling, 630-foot-long earthen mound, featuring seven horizontal tunnels and one vertical tunnel that looks up at the sky, is aligned with Polaris, the North Star. Holt, who is perhaps best known for her solstice-aligned Sun Tunnels (1973–76) in the Utah desert, wrote in signage for Up and Under that the quarry reminded her “of images of the moonscape transmitted to Earth by Apollo 11.” She was also inspired by prehistoric land art.

I visited both works for the first time more than 15 years ago. Then, Tree Mountain seemed green and luxuriant. So, I hadn’t expected to see patches of dead or dying pines on my second visit. And Up and Under, which is built over a groundwater-rich area—while not exactly a “moonscape”—now looked more desert-like than I recalled. Hiking to the top of the mound for a sweeping view, it was evident that topsoil (one of its building materials) had eroded and that sand was overtaking grass. In addition, the three circular, sky-reflecting pools of water positioned around the site had evaporated and were now strewn with rocks and sand. While still largely intact, and an adventure to find and visit—look for signs saying “Puuvuori” (wooded hill or mountain) and “Yltä ja Alta”—both works are showing clear signs of distress.

At the Tree Mountain site, 2023. Photo: Courtesy Jeff Huebner

Denes, whose works unite art, science, and philosophy, was perhaps one of the first artists to address the planet’s ecological concerns by simulating its regenerative processes. She originally designed Tree Mountain in 1982, before she even had a site in mind. This was the same year that another one of her (temporarily) reclaimed sites became an ecological touchstone. In Wheatfield—A Confrontation, she planted two acres of wheat on a $4.5-billion plot of land just blocks from Lower Manhattan’s Financial District. The half-ton of harvested grain traveled to dozens of cities around the globe in the Minnesota Museum of Art-organized exhibition “The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger,” which welcomed visitors to take and plant seeds.

In the intervening 40 years, as public art confronting human-caused climate change and environmental calamity has become more commonplace, and artists are increasingly collaborating with communities and other partners to help ameliorate the effects of perhaps the most existential threat of our time, it may be easy to overlook how thinkers like Denes first took action decades ago to tackle deforestation, among other issues, even if on a relatively small scale. It’s ironic that Tree Mountain has become afflicted by the same perilous forces that provoked its creation. As Lisa Le Feuvre, Executive Director of the Santa Fe-based Holt/Smithson Foundation, notes, “So many of these pieces of Land Art are feeling stress and strain. They’ve become default barometers of the climate emergency.”

On my first trip to Tree Mountain and Up and Under in 2007, I was accompanied by Osmo Rauhala, among Finland’s most internationally recognized artists, and the instigator and chief steward of both sites. In addition to keeping a studio in New York City, he owns an organic farm in the nearby village of Siuro, which has been in his family for a couple of centuries. At the urging of local residents concerned about the abandoned gravel pits becoming a hazardous wasteland, and inspired by Robert Smithson’s ideas of making monumental art from “disrupted” landscapes, Rauhala founded the Strata Project in the late 1980s in an effort to reclaim the land despoiled by decades of gravel mining and transform it into “a gallery for environmental art.” The nonprofit became a vehicle to initiate, fund, and produce artworks. “The idea,” he told me in 2007, “was to leave some kind of message, or sign, for coming generations about these fundamental questions we are facing right now…Who knows how much [will be] left of civilization in the next 300 years?”

While earning a master’s degree at the School of Visual Arts, Rauhala met Holt and Denes and invited them to visit the sites; Holt came in 1990 and Denes shortly thereafter. Strata raised $500,000, attracting important sponsors, including the European Union, regional and local governments, the UN Environment Programme, and the Finnish Ministry of the Environment, which announced both projects at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (also known as the “Earth Summit”) in Rio de Janeiro and donated certificates for Tree Mountain’s 10-inch pine seedlings to world leaders.

Nancy Holt, Up and Under, 1987–98. Photo: © Strata Project

To realize the two projects, Strata worked with the mine owners, artists, builders, foresters, scientists, and landscapers, as well as local communities and volunteers. Tree Mountain was dedicated in June 1996 by Finland president Martti Ahtisaari. The 2008 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who died in 2023, was the only head of state to physically plant his own tree. Up and Under was dedicated in 1998. The creation of these works marked the first time that Finland—a country known for its vaunted “national landscapes,” its atavistic bonds with the forest, and its adoption of environmental aesthetics as academic discipline and artistic practice—called on artists to create outdoor works designed to help mitigate ecological damage.

The full title of Denes’s project is Tree Mountain—A Living Time Capsule—11,000 Trees, 11,000 People, 400 Years.2 Planted by thousands of people who received “valid and inheritable” documents certifying them as their trees’ custodians for 20 or more generations, this designated national forest was intended to be protected for at least four centuries. That’s the amount of time, Denes has stated, “for the ecosystem to rebuild itself from such a state of destruction and create a ‘virgin’ forest.”3 It’s hoped that this will still be the case.

If all goes as planned, a project to repair and restore the Denes and Holt environments—places of healing and wonder—should be completed within several years, a massive undertaking that is being led by Rauhala and Strata. The necessity of this intervention underscores the increasing need for artists and stakeholders to create maintenance/conservation plans to safeguard public artworks—even those made of bronze or stone—in the face of environmental degradation. This is especially critical for works involving natural and/or living materials, which are more vulnerable to climate-induced threats.

After my return visit to Tree Mountain and Up and Under last summer, Rauhala confirmed that warmer summers and drought periods had started to desiccate parts of the landscapes in the 2010s: “Both pieces have suffered in many ways.” Two nearby towns “own” the works and are responsible for their care—Ylojärvi (Tree Mountain) and Nokia (Up and Under). The towns have minimal resources but have joined forces with Strata and other groups to help get things done.

Improvements to Up and Under are already underway. Working with Nokia, Strata has raised $165,000 to plant new grass, renew the pools, and create an irrigation system. Work should be done by the end of 2025. Land Art “has its own life and commitment independent from the artist,” said Holt/Smithson’s Le Feuvre. “We trust Osmo Rauhala and the town of Nokia to look after this work. It was really important to [Holt].”

Nancy Holt, Up and Under, 1987–98. Photo: © Strata Project

Tree Mountain will require more complex and intensive attention. Minna Vallin, the culture manager of Ylojärvi, explained, “Each year, we have dedicated ourselves to maintaining the area, addressing environmental concerns,” and documenting Tree Mountain’s changes. Still, she added, “Climate change has impacted the landscape, particularly affecting the trees’ root systems.” It was always part of Denes’s plan to cull half the trees by 2026 (after 30 years) because the pines need more space as they grow. With help from experts, dead trees will be replaced by seedlings that have been growing for that purpose in a nearby grove; trees not growing well may be replaced with taller saplings, which will be specially nurtured. In this way, it is believed, Denes’s mathematical pattern can be maintained. The artist said in an email that she’s occupied with many projects and that “it’s difficult for me to keep an eye on Tree Mountain, although I hoped the people involved would feel obligated to keep it alive and well.” She added, “Replanting missing trees would be ideal.” In the case of A Forest for Australia (1998), for example, with its 6,000 trees from endangered species planted into five spirals to form step pyramids at the Altoona Water Treatment Plant in Melbourne, Denes said that people “formed a club to maintain the forest and replant missing trees.”

Strata hasn’t lined up all the funding yet, but Rauhala hopes that Finland’s Ministry of the Environment, an original sponsor, and perhaps other governmental bodies will help to restore the landscape. “There [have] been many ups and downs,” he said. “Working outdoors with nature is not easy, it is very unpredictable. That is why maintaining works like these is full of surprises, but we are trying our best…I am positive we will get them conserved and find a solution for the changing conditions.”

Honouring Wheatfield – A Confrontation, a remaking of Denes’s Wheatfield—A Confrontation, is currently growing in Basel’s central Messeplatz, part of the 2024 edition of Art Basel. Concurrently, Wheatfield – An Inspiration restages the work in U.S. city of Bozeman, Montana, drawing attention to the state’s precarious agricultural future.

1 Agnes Denes, “Living Murals in the Land: Crossing Boundaries of Time and Space,” Public Art Review, Fall/Winter 2005, p. 45.
2 Though it’s often said that 11,000 people came to Finland to plant their trees, it was actually around 10,600—and they weren’t all different people. Not that many participants were from outside the country. The Ministry of the Environment, the town of Ylojärvi, Strata, and Denes, among others, donated thousands of trees (along with certificates), which were planted by crews in peoples’ names, as well as by certificate holders themselves, by families for their children and elders, and by large groups, including school children, on their own behalf or for others.
3 Denes, op. cit.