Essay: An Acre of Art

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

"What I stand for is what I stand on." Aldo Leopold

There is a long-standing tradition of artists responding to the landscape in a romantic or idealized manner, but today's issues take us well beyond any such view of the world. In considering the future of planet Earth we cannot escape the far-reaching implications of biotechnology: genetic engineering and corporate farming are reshaping agriculture and, along with it, the world we have known.

In "Acre of Art," Mark Knierim and Robert Lawrence address these issues and pose questions about "seeing" the landscape. Their project combines site-specific mixed-media sculpture, creative interaction with an acre of land, and a Web site.

For over ten years Knierim and Lawrence have had a friendship informed by travel, collaborative action, and the sharing of countless stories (or personal mythologies) about the landscape. Their common ground is the common ground. Both began their lives in rural surroundings. Knierim lived at Cottonwood Corner, a remote intersection in western Minnesota, where his family's home and gas station stood in a sea of farmland. Lawrence was raised in rural New Jersey. The nearest town, with a population of twenty-four, offered a general store, a post office, and a liquor store (owned by the postmaster).

As professional artists, they have each created a significant body of work. Knierim's sculptures and paintings are grounded in the agricultural landscape of his time. His reverence for the land has led him to a concern not only with beauty but also with the patterns that play out when humans interact with the landscape. Through formal, elegant, sometimes minimalist forms-which he regards as visual poetry-he alludes to the earth, the sky, and the horizon, at the same time offering a quiet commentary on the relationship between human beings and nature.

Taking a more analytical approach, Lawrence creates mixed-media sculptures and installations that pose questions about human attempts to manipulate nature. His critiques commonly hybridize technology (such as computers, photography, or videography) with a myriad of natural forms, yielding humorous, often cautionary results. In a recent installation, Lawrence filled the bottom of a dark elevator shaft with corn cobs fitted randomly with blinking red "kernel" lights. The eerie effect was a ominous challenge to the growing trend of engineering living forms.

While Knierim alludes poetically to the landscape and pays homage to agriculture in works of carved and painted wood, Lawrence uses technology to reinterpret the representation of the landscape and the ways in which the world is being transformed. He paints out that one of the challenges of technology is that it so often leads to a loss of place. This is problematic because many humans already perceive themselves as separate from nature.

Originally conceived as a meditation or contemplation on a piece of land the artists planned to purchase "An Acre of Art" evolved into something more like a history of their own relationship to the landscape. "It is difficult to really see something," says Lawrence," and with 'An Acre of Art' it's like what Wittgenstein said, 'seeing is seeing as.' In the act of seeing we cannot leave our own histories." For the artist, the projects primary aim has become the rethinking of ideas about "land" and "place."

On a piece of land near Monticello, Minnesota, borrowed from Stewart Turnquist, The MAEP's program coordinator, Knierim and Lawrence planted corn and created a meditative space around it. In the gallery at the museum (a space "in between the land and the rest of the world"), sculpture and video images reference both the land and the Web site.

Featured in the center of the gallery is a 30-foot table built of native cottonwood, fitted with a trough filled with corn. On one wall hangs a long sheet of lead, evoking a cold, gray sky. Very much in keeping with Knierim's signature horizon pieces in carved and painted white pine, this sculpture pays homage to a modernist technique for achieving vastness through pure, simple form.

On another wall hangs a 14-foot-long chicken coop housing two live chickens, Scout and Mabel, both pets of Knierim's. A live chicken cam hooked up to the Web site offers a chance for the public to check in with the chickens from home throughout their museum stay. The coop, embellished with an antique gold-leaf picture frame, alludes to landscape painting-it calls to mind the works of artists such as Grant Wood and Eastman Johnson.

The chicken cam not only critiques our fascination with virtual reality, it also frames Scout and Mabel as individuals, thus confounding the factory model for mass&#151producing chickens and other livestock as through they are inanimate objects or industrial "products". Today, most people relate to farm animals only in the abstract, or at a distance. Scout and Mabel give the visitor to the installation a direct and, for some, unique encounter with chickens.

Knierim and Lawrence are engaged with looking at the way "real" places and things are often experienced indirectly through the mediation of images. The presence of real chickens and real corn grounds the sculptural inventions of the installation in the real.

As public artists, both Knierim and Lawrence are well aware of their responsibility for the well-being of the chickens throughout this project. From the initial stages of planning they have consulted with David Halvorson, a veterinarian and poultry expert from the University of Minnesota, about the birds' physical and psychological needs.

Scout and Mabel were delivered through the mail, arriving on Mark Knierim's doorstep as three-day-old chicks. They have spent their days in the studio watching Knierim work, in their coop (designed and built by Knierim), or in the backyard garden with the neighborhood children, who named them and love to hold them. They will always be Knierim's pets, his companion birds.

Knowing that the birds would be participating in the exhibition at the museum, Knierim was careful to acclimate them to a variety of situations. For example, he took them along, in a kitty carrier, when he did an artist residency in southern Minnesota (they were excellent models for the students). The artists even threw Scout and Mabel a coop-warming party, which fifty or sixty friends and neighbors attended.

In designing the coop for the museum installation, Knierim got advice from Halvorson about what would make the birds most comfortable-the materials to use, the choice of bedding, the placement of perches for roosting, and so on.

Before they arrived at the museum, both Scout and Mabel received thorough exams from Halvorson to ensure their health. Fresh food and clean bedding will be given to them daily by the artists for the run of the exhibition.

As Knierim and Lawrence explore the relationship between what is real (chickens and corn) and what is represented (art), they embark on an interaction with living creatures they hold in the highest regard, believing in the integrity of all living things.

In focusing on how humans use the land, artists like Knierim and Lawrence help us "see" the landscape and implicate us in a variety of ecological and ethical issues. "If you let grow 99 percent of the hybridized corn that exists today and simply let the cobs fall to the ground, it would not be able to reproduce itself in the next season...or ever." says Lawrence. Knierim is "concerned that we are engineering ourselves right out of existence. We are designing for commerce, not for survival."

Indeed the family farm is fading fast and if not soon revived will exist only in our memories or in museum exhibits like the new working farm at the Minnesota Zoo. Certainly people are capable of making different choices. There is a growing movement devoted to saving heirloom plants; and some small farms supported by independent shareholders, and also some food coops, are committed to providing organic produce.

In reflecting on the process of preparing for the exhibition, Knierim acknowledges the potency of his daily chores-feeding the chickens and checking on the corn. A far cry from actual farming, perhaps, but nevertheless essential to the well-being of these living beings-simple gestures that transform artist into steward. "Remember 'All flesh is grass'," says Lawrence, acknowledging the interconnectedness of life.

Through their reverence for the landscape and their scrutiny of human behavior, artists like Knierim and Lawrence reexamine the world, helping us think about the land and reconsider the patterns that we live by. Through efforts like theirs, there is hope for the future.

(To learn more about "An Acre of Art," visit the Acre of Art Web site at

Cynde Randall is an artist and the senior program associate for the MAEP.

The gallery exhibition will be on view at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts from September 29 to November 19, 2000. "An Acre of Art" will open with a free public reception on Thursday, September 28, 2000.

Mark Knierim received his M.F.A. from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1995. He has exhibited his work widely throughout the Midwest and has been awarded grants and residencies, most notably with master artist David Nash. His most recent collaborative work with Robert Lawrence was featured in "Art as Village, Village as Art," an invitational group exhibition at YATOO, in South Korea. Knierim serves as the Facility and Technical Coordinator for the Department of Art at the University of Minnesota. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Robert Lawrence received his M.F.A. from the University of California at San Diego in 1987. He has widely exhibited his work, both regionally and nationally, and is the recipient of numerous awards including the Minnesota State Arts Board grant, the Jerome Foundation Grant for Media Arts Installations, the Bush Artist Fellowship, and an NEA/Rockefeller Grant for Interdisciplinary Projects. Lawrence serves as an instructor in the Media Arts Department at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

"Open Land," the "Acre of Art" site near Monticello, Minnesota, will be open to the public Saturdays-September 30, October 7 and 21, November 4 and 18, 2000-from 1 to 4 p.m. Directions are available on the "Acre of Art" Web site.

An Acre of Art is presented by the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP), an artist-run curatorial department of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

The MAEP is made possible by generous support from the Jerome Foundation.

Citation: Cynde Randall, An Acre of Art,Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2000.