Before and after views of Edible Estates Regional Prototype Garden #1: Salina, Kansas, 2005.

Fritz Haeg’s Alternative Possibilities

Fritz Haeg doesn’t like to make objects. He is a mover and shaker who parachutes into a locale and shows people what’s possible: “Working with local people, I’m a catalyst for something to happen.” He admits that his role isn’t clear. “What is art? What is an artist, a designer? I have no idea—that’s the point. I’m thinking about how people occupy the land. How do I live here?”

Visitors to the 2008 Whitney Biennial encountered some of Haeg’s objects in Animal Estates 1.0, a multi-part installation in the courtyard and on the exterior of the museum. As is usual with his work, it grew out of the site. “The question is,” he says, “what can happen here that can’t happen anywhere else? What is possible here at this moment?” At the Whitney, he built 12 homes for animals who lived on Manhattan Island 400 years ago and are unlikely to return any time soon—a huge, twiggy eagle’s nest over the entrance canopy, a barn owl box looking like a mini-Whitney, and a stylized beaver dam and lodge in the courtyard. “The point is to acknowledge what was there,” he explains. As a follow-up, Haeg and 18 students built 18 birdhouses for tree swallows and American kestrels at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, using plans from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Initially, Haeg’s work might seem identical to projects produced by a Cub Scout troop. In fact, he seldom creates anything that, on the surface, looks unusual. (His architecture is something else again.) For instance, photographs of his Edible Estates depict lush gardens in front of ordinary houses, but the story of how those gardens came to be there is unique. Haeg chose residences in Levittown-type settings, where every house has a tidy, uniform front yard. Finding enthusiastic householders, he designed one-of-a kind vegetable gardens, recruited volunteers to help plant them, and raised funds for topsoil and plants. It became a community happening, with the bonus of food for the residents. “After the [2004] election,” he explains, “I got hung up on the Red State/Blue State thing. I started wondering, what kind of project could I do that could be viewed and discussed by an art critic in New York, a friend in L.A., my aunt in New Jersey, and somebody in Nebraska, and they would all get it. I realized that the space of the front lawn cuts across every barrier. Almost everybody has one. This space is so charged with energy and so terrible. Cities are engineered for isolation on every single level. They prize as little eccentricity as possible, as much control as possible. How can we introduce evidence of our own lives back? I wanted to create a place for people and plants to have communion.”