In Nature’s Eyes: A Conversation Alfio Bonanno

Sluice, 2000, 1999. Project at Nome Beach, Telemark, Norway, led by Alfio Bonanno in collaboration with 20 Norwegian artists and the Institute for Romkunst, Oslo.

A pioneer of the site-specific nature installation, Alfio Bonanno uses nature’s materials, cutting, lifting, carrying, bending, and placing them. Ephemeral and earth-bound, these works establish links with nature, reminders that nature is both a spiritual source and practical provider for humanity’s needs. When he arrived in Denmark (he was born in Italy and grew up in Australia) in the 1970s, with roots in Arte Povera’s nonconformist use of materials, Bonanno was one of the first to involve himself in art actions that created art with and within nature’s sphere. The founder and leader of TICKON (Tranekaer International Center for Art and Nature) in Langeland, Denmark—a venue that has attracted many of the world’s leading artists to work on site in natural settings (including Andy Goldsworthy, David Nash, Karen McCoy, Chris Drury, Alan Sonfist, Lance Bélanger, and Lars Vilks), Bonanno has extended the language of outdoor installation through his activities with TICKON and as an independent artist. His concerns are as much social as environmental. As Bonanno states: “The ‘other landscape’ exists at a closer look—here—where we have always been, where we least expect to find it—there it is. Where earth meets air, and water meets the sun, we see myriads of vital life cycles. And life arises, where it is given a chance to exist: on the cracked boards of a train wagon in movement, in the midst of a concrete footpath, and on roof tops.”

Bonanno has exhibited extensively in international exhibitions and symposia. Among his commissions are an upturned oak tree installed inside the AMU school in Svendborg (1995), which provides a central focal point around the stairway and seems to carry the roof, and Snail Tunnel (1998) created for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, where participating alongside Mario Merz, Richard Serra, and Suzanne Ussing, Bonanno made an outdoor passage that used the variability of tree limbs to add mystery and imagination. For the Arte Sella Nature Biennial in Valsugana, Italy, Bonanno built Where Trees Grow on Stone (1996), an elongated, curving bodily form made out of branches, twined together and filled with tiny stones in a forest interior. An exquisite curling pod-like sculpture made of bamboo (Where Lizards Lose their Tail, 1999 ) in Tosa Town, Japan seems to defy gravity in a surreal way—a mimicry of bioform in art. In Scotland, Fossil Fragment (1990), a sculpture made from a carved tree with sandstone elements, became instant archaeology, natural history in the art mode. The language of Bonanno’s nature assemblage extends our awareness of nature’s resources. He has created a new site-specific assemblage this summer at the Cedarhurst Sculpture Park in Mount Vernon, Illinois, and will install a new work at Utah State University next year. A 45-minute documentary film, Fragments of a Life, on Bonanno’s art and life has been produced by Lars Reinholt Jensen and Torben Kjaersgaard Madsen.

Forest Basket, 1999. Site- specific work in Vrangfoss, Norway.

John Grande: After World War II you returned at the age of 19 to Sicily from Australia, later to be joined by your parents. The place was called Contrada d’Urne, the area of the terra-cotta vessel—in antique times people walked through there to fill their amphorae with water. In the spring of 1966, a landslide enveloped a section of road near the hills where your family lived. Visiting the slide site, you discovered a beautiful amphora upturned by this natural disaster. When you tried to remove it, it crumbled back into the earth, just a stain in the mud. This trace of ancient history must have left a lasting impression—seen, then returned to nature, the very essence of ephemeral. It is something one finds in the conception and process of your sculpture, and it has followed you throughout your career.

Alfio Bonanno: I have always been fascinated by traces in the landscape, something that tells a story you can build on. It gives meaning to our existence. That particular instance must have left something with me; it was full of so much symbolism. When I helped my father build stone walls to keep the earth from eroding in that area we often found pieces of ancient pottery. This was a place where water was collected way back in time; there was no other water in this area. When my father bought the property it was all covered with thorn bushes. There was no water. It was very hard. We finally found a little cave in the earth. I would go down into the earth and crawl on all fours. We dug it up and went in and found these very old tiny lamps lying there. It was very dark. Then all of a sudden there was a tiny trickle of water—not even the size of the head of a pin—but that was enough. My father dug a little more, and he made a container outside. With time it filled up, and we were able to plant. We relied on that tiny source of water to irrigate the farm.

JG: When you began your career as an artist in Italy you must have absorbed Arte Povera innovations with found, cast-away materials. Do you feel you transferred some of those ideas to the nature art you began to make in Denmark?

AB: Oh yeah. Already at 14, I told my parents I did not want to go to school, that I wanted to be an artist. I had odd jobs and went to art school in Australia. By the time I was living in Italy, Arte Povera was quite strong. I was quite aware of people using natural and discarded materials. Most of them were using natural materials, even if they were working conceptually.

Snail Tunnel, 1998. View from top of tunnel of site-specific work at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark.

JG: Your project at the Miró Museum in 1985 was a breakthrough exhibition, bringing much-needed attention at a time when environmental art was less recognized than it is today.

AB: In any profession you need someone to believe in what you are doing. The Miró Museum gave me the opportunity to create a three-week installation at its Espace 10. This was my international debut, and since I was struggling with nature work, it was very important. I invited my friend the Danish composer Gunner Moller Petersen to create a composition called A Sound Year. This six-hour composition tells the story of the changing seasons with electronic sound. It’s very beautiful, very realistic but also artificially created. It was an ongoing installation that moved from the summer through to the autumn, winter, and spring. We used animals, birds, fruit, plants—everything related to nature. I did line drawings with branches. This type of material has a lot more to say than you would think. A branch put on a wall becomes an expression and tells me something. These natural objects are signs and symbols that inspire me to imagine that they were a basis for our language.

JG: The language and process of your sculpture, your use of trees, branches, stones, moss, and vine branches—all manner of natural materials—carry with them traces of human involvement, of individual expression. You do not segregate nature from human activity. It seems diametrically opposed to your integration of expression with the land.

AB: I am saying, “Look at this stone, look at this tree.” I like to touch things, to smell things. I like to be in the middle of things. That is why I am working out there and usually not in galleries. A museum or gallery can have the possibility of clarifying certain aspects of the expression. But for me the strongest form of expression is out there where the work is born, where it belongs, in real life. That is where it collects its strength, even more so because it is vulnerable. In a gallery works are protected and don’t really live. Site-specific work outdoors has a life and participates.

Snail Tunnel, 1998. Detail of tunnel interior of site-specific work at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark.

JG: Having worked 30 years with environmental art you must have quite a perspective on the whole art and nature movement. How it has evolved?

AB: I got into art and nature, working in the natural environment, because I couldn’t do without it. I needed it, my body needed it, my mind needed it. I was curious. I didn’t do it because of the art and that’s crucial. A lot of art today is being done for the exhibition. Though I am not free of that, going out and working in an open environment is a powerful and demanding experience, but not only in “natural” landscape. When I was in Houston I got really kicked off by the skyscrapers. I would love to work with that particular “landscape.” I’m sure that I could integrate some of my ideas and adapt a site-specific language for this venue and bring a touch of human warmth to these cold, powerful forms.

Tendencies in Funic Sculpture, 1983. Part of two-work site-
specific project at the Hollufgård Sculpture Park, Denmark.

JG: Nature is not isolated from human activity. A fax machine is reconstituted oil and mineral. A house combines a range of natural and nature-derived elements. Nature is an endless source that nourishes us spiritually and practically. Even Leo Tolstoy knew this when he commented: “One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken.” Our own bodies are nature.

AB: You cannot separate one from the other. I am very comfortable working with natural materials in the natural landscape but am very aware of the other side of the coin, our city environment. The best would be to join both tendencies or contrast one with the other. Then it’s a dialogue. Otherwise it gets too aesthetic, too picturesque. As a friend of mine once said, “We have to watch out that we don’t become ‘nature fascists.’” I agree.

JG: If we take the extreme of social activists, Hans Haacke or Joseph Beuys, and compare their work with that of land artists Robert Smithson or Michael Heizer, the intentions are different, but all of these are conceptual from the start. They have the notion of imposing an idea or message onto the landscape. The site becomes a place to drop a concept into place. There is absolutely no link between the art and the setting. By contrast, your environmental projects are involved with the integration of art and nature, an interconnectivity between site and art.

AB: I have a lot of respect for my surroundings and everything that’s in them, ourselves included. That doesn’t mean I hold back. I intervene, but it has to fit in. Even if it stands out, it’s got to have a feeling of belonging to that place in some way. That gives me a reason to do it. Far too much sculpture and installation work imposes itself on a site, or it is just pushed and placed there. Siting is very important because site is my collaborating partner. When I am successful I accentuate the feeling of a place. The work needs the site to breathe and function.

West Coast Relics, 1995. Peace sculpture project, Island of Rømø, Denmark. Work in progress.

JG: What do you mean when you talk of art in nature being a silent revolution?

AB: I gave a lecture in Copenhagen to some art students and younger artists a few years back. They asked, “Do you really mean that you create sculpture because you respect nature and your environment. Is that it?” And I said “Well, isn’t that enough?” So much of the art being done seeks to be sensational; it has to be big, imposing, and monumental. Working with and within a natural environment you learn to look and listen, to respect and appreciate simple moments of truth and participation. My sculptures don’t carry or display signage, the artist’s name, or the title. I am against that. They’re almost anonymous, just there like everything else. I don’t want to manipulate things—just show what they are. It is a form of expression that reaches out to a very broad and growing public audience, many of whom have never set foot in a gallery or museum. Here we have a basis for a true and much-needed natural dialogue. I feel it is a silent but determined revolution.

JG: Why is the art establishment so reluctant to embrace nature art? Science recognizes nature’s endemic place and relation to human health and well-being. Why is the art world incapable of recognizing the profound changes we are wreaking on ourselves and this planet, and the importance of nature to our own survival?

AB: That is a very good question. There is a lot of misunderstanding, and it gets me very upset. Do we really need the art world? We can use other forms for our dialogue. Maybe the wrong measurements are being used, established ways of judging and accepting trends. Trying to make nature into an art may not be the most important point.

West Coast Relics, 1995. Peace sculpture project, Island of Rømø, Denmark. Detail of receding tide.

JG: Your East Sea Ring near the German-Danish border is truly a freeform work, originally conceived as a series of structures connecting the sea and land, like the marks sand worms might leave. You eventually came up with a 20-meter ring, built out of two-meter sections of pine. Setting them alight introduced the element of air, along with the earth and water that were part of the site, a fitting symbol of the unity of elements. Nature, the sea, has reclaimed some of it.

AB: Yes. It was hit by a storm, and I expected that, because there are some pretty heavy winter storms in that region. If nature wants it, it’s going to reclaim it and stop the process. Here again you have the participation and inherent vulnerability of the works. They are very fragile in that sense. Even if they are strong and look resilient, nature is more forceful.

JG: Public participation is a part of many of your projects.

AB: The public is part of the process, whether it be in the planning phase, during, or after completion. It can involve politicians, organizers, helpers, assistants, the art world, and the local population. Involvement of a broad range of people is an important aspect of site-specific environmental art.

West Coast Relics, 1995. Peace sculpture project, Island of Rømø, Denmark. Full view.

JG: Your actions and performances are less well known to the public. A video you made in Denmark had white-clothed figures running around in an empty field. There was a surreal sense to the event.

AB: We did it in a burnt-off field, and when the white-clothed people moved they became a blue blur. It became a surreal moon-like landscape. Playing with images, the people and landscape complemented each other, became one. Organic identities or micro-organic beings.

JG: At the Botanical Gardens in Copenhagen, you built a series of islands, creating earth structures out of fresh willow and sycamore branches in the car park for the animals and birds that frequent the place. Your concern was less with the aesthetic of your construction than its apparent functionality. Terrapins and birds don’t care about the aesthetic of something—just that it works. As seeds landed on the surface and the roots of the willow grew, the work provided an attractive biosphere for the fish, frogs, and insects of the lake. Your artmaking shares something in common with the work of Bruni/Babarit from France, Lars Vilks from Sweden, or Alan Sonfist from New York. You like to leave traces, accept nature’s imperfection and changeability. You are not into pure aesthetics or design. The language is more vernacular, like a dialect spoken in materials. Are you something of a primitive in your approach?

AB: That is a very good question. I do feel a little bit like a primitive. Sometimes I get accused of being naive. The art world seems to want another type of expression. With the floating island project I felt it very strongly, because it was totally ignored by the art world. The most important thing in that project was that the terrapin turtles climbed up and sunbathed on the islands and birds built their nests on the islands. The islands were constructed in a simple and practical way for use and growth—that was the point—not to create an aesthetic and artificial form so that we (not the turtles) have an excuse to call it art.

West Coast Relics, 1995. Peace sculpture project, Island of Rømø, Denmark. Incoming tide.

JG: I think of the Snail Tunnel you built for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, a long processional walkway made of branches that proceeds through a forest, or the bridge over a creek you made from an oak tree at Hummlebaekken, and the intricate Eel BoxHouse labyrinth. All of these works reaffirm the action of discovering something of ourselves in nature. Is Eel Box House a structure, a conceptual work, or a way of bringing life back to a cultural remnant?

AB: The Eel Box labyrinth is one of the most important works I have done. The eel boxes were once used to keep eels and fish alive underwater after they were caught. The red boxes from my island were in the water for 40 years. Bringing the eel boxes into a museum and building a labyrinth structure, keeping their identity while making them into passages, houses, and a village is, for me, a powerful idiom. The identity of the oak I used to make the bridge at Louisiana is still integral to the piece. I cut the tree down the middle and opened it up, but it remains an oak tree after my intervention. It still tells the oak tree’s 350-year-old story.

JG: Where Lizards Lose their Tail (1999), the sculpture you made in Japan is fascinating because it does a kind of biomimicry in creating a kind of curling leaf pod form out of bamboo. Did you decide on the form after going to Japan and seeing the site?

AB: Yes. Over the years, I have found that waiting to see a site before deciding is important. Each site has its own story to tell. If I am patient, something happens. After a day or two, or an hour or two, I never know how long, I connect with the site, and it tells me what to do. The key to what I have to do is there, I just have to find it.

West Coast Relics, 1995. Peace sculpture project, Island of Rømø, Denmark. View of work six years later, in 2001.

JG: You do a lot of art projects in schools with children, and that is a gift an artist can pass on to future generations. Children gain confidence working with materials firsthand, in tactile activity, and they grow experientially.

AB: I’ve worked the last 20 years or so with youth and school children and consider this a very important aspect of my work. That is a chapter of my life that doesn’t come out so much in the art world. In Denmark, that part of my work is ignored as if it were unimportant. It is important, and I have done some big projects even in major Danish museums with school children, because I believe in it. This is the most important investment we can make—in our children. We dialogue in such a great way, and I have learned a lot from children. The child inside of me awakens when I am together with them. I need it as much as they do.

JG: The writer Hugh MacLennan once wrote: “The land is far more important than we are. To know this is to be young and ancient all at once.” The incredible little structure, The Mountain Shelter, you built out of stone on cliffs on the coast of Ireland, with Chris Drury, embodies that spirit of wonder. It’s a beautiful piece in a beautiful place. There’s a feeling of eternity to it that truly stimulates the imagination.

AB: The Mountain Shelter is very anonymous. You can only see it when you get close to it. From a distance, it’s almost invisible. You can’t see it because it is made with the local materials and seems to disappear. It is so beautiful that way.

Bridge of Humlebaekken, 1994. Site-specific work at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark.

JG: How do people perceive nature and nature art differently now, compared to your experience in the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s?

AB: Nature art has now become an explosion. Everyone is playing around with natural elements. People are doing nature sculpture as they would go into a studio and paint. But one has to understand the processes involved—feel the necessity—most of all because it’s a living space. Nature demands more attention and respect. Some younger artists are doing interesting work that reflects the technological world—but nature as they conceive it is more like a virtual reality. I feel this work has a nostalgic touch—almost the feeling of something lost—that is cold and clinical, reflecting a distance from the nature they represent. A growing global awareness about our environment brings a focus on ecological balance. Bells are ringing, warning us about our existence and survival. It is fascinating that we can simultaneously discuss the serious problem of the ozone hole and its consequences while preparing to send tourists for a week in space in orbiting hotels, at a cost of $50,000–$100,000 per person. We humans are, and always will be, the most complex, destructive, and unpredictable species.

JG: We aren’t invincible. Nature is so much stronger than we are. You shot a series of photos of every leaf from an elm tree in your backyard and exhibited the photos in Charlottenberg. It was a modest yet powerful expression of nature’s versatility and omnipresence.

AB: The photo installation covered a two-by-twenty-meter area that ran across four walls. The imagery was very strong. The walls were literally filled with photo portraits of the elm tree’s leaves. It told a story of the biology of the tree. I watched the tree grow in my backyard for 15 years, but it doesn’t exist anymore.

Fossil Snail, 1992. Site-specific work at the Krakamarken Sculpture Park, Denmark.

JG: The West Coast Relics piece on the west coast of Jutland has a certain symbolism to it. What was the idea behind this work?

AB: The exhibition was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of World War II. Twenty or more artists were invited from all over the world. The actual location was where the Germans with the help of the Danes built over 5,000 bunkers. They were never used. It is a fantastic sculptural landscape with glacial boulders and weather-worn cliffs. Some of these bunkers for 50 years have been bashed by the waves, pushed backward and forward on the beach, and moved into the water, like strange obsolete objects. The local people living on the island identified with the burnt-out forms of my relics on the beach, associated them with shipwrecks and whale skeletons, part of their past history—so much so that they wrote to the Ministry of the Environment asking for the sculpture to remain on the beach. In a parallel project, I put hay pieces in front of the Parliament Buildings in Copenhagen in 1992. It spurred the same kind of discussion. A few bales of hay can produce the same amount of energy as 200 liters of heating oil. I was very proud to initiate a dialogue on energy with that artwork.

Straw Sculpture, 1992. 24-hour project at the Danish Parliament Building Square, Copenhagen.

JG: At Odense in 1995, with the Centre for Landscape, Environment and Culture in the 21st Century, you proposed a pilot project involving a huge abandoned garbage dump that serves 200,000 citizens of Odense, the most populous community on the island of Funen. It is still ongoing. The goal of the project is to emphasize recycling, redevelopment, professional, and interdisciplinary co-operation, with art as the catalyst. From the air, the dump and the sculpted landscape are intended to have distinct visual components created out of garbage. Local citizens are to be involved throughout. Fragments of industrial waste are to become freeform sculptural elements embroidering on the conception of the work. Barges will be used to transport people to the site. In fact, garbage becomes the spectacle, the focus for public participation, involvement, and tourism. It sounds fascinating. How is the project progressing?

AB: The Odense project is huge. I have been involved with it for the last six years. We came up with a concept in which instead of hiding the garbage, we would make it the most precious thing, something to discuss and to dialogue on. This is why we are hoping to make a huge cut in the dump, like an entrance to an amphitheater. We want to bring in huge elements, pieces of machinery, pieces of airplanes, and cranes, to enhance the visual aspect of the landscape so it tells a story. This will make it a very visual landscape and accentuate the identity of the rubbish dump. To build a continuity the whole area will be covered with an earth membrane. People have to be reminded that we are a wasteful society, that we consume a lot and have serious problems getting rid of our garbage. There is always the danger that the dump might become a superficial cultural landscape where people will jog or have art and sculpture exhibitions.

JG: In a way the vernacular language of your art is closer to native Amerindian arts. It’s inclusive, less aesthetic than an expression of the contemporaneity of nature in today’s world.

AB: I am proud that you say that. It’s a privilege and an honor. A lot of art critics do not understand that. It has to do with the respect for things. One of the most important things I have learnt over the years is to rely on my instincts. They will pull me through and that is human and universal.

John Grande, a frequent Sculpture contributor, has also published articles in Artforum, Espace, and other publications. He was the 1994 winner of the Prix Lison Dubreuil for art criticism. His most recent book is Intertwining: Landscape, Technology, Issues, Artists (Black Rose Books, 1998).