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reed magazine logoSummer 2008

Canyon Meets Artist

Haeg in studio

Photo by Meghan Quinn

By Stephanie Snyder 91

Last March, I traveled to New York City for the opening of the 2008 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Established by museum founder Gloria Vanderbilt Whitney in 1905, the Biennial (it was an annual then) is organized by a revolving selection of Whitney curators, and possesses a well-deserved reputation as the country’s most comprehensive, definitive survey of American art, both established and emerging.

The Whitney Biennial is always controversial and is predictably trounced by at least several prominent art critics. This was my first time at the Biennial’s VIP pre-opening; I was the guest of Henriette Huldisch, one of the exhibition’s two curators, who had visited Portland one year earlier as part of her cross-country survey of American art. Huldisch and other Whitney curators travel the country for at least a year, engaging hundreds of artists in studio visits, conversing with local curators, and eventually selecting the work of 80 to 100 lucky artists to participate in the Biennial.

I had one particular reason for attending the opening: it included the work of Los Angeles artist Fritz Haeg, who comes to Reed’s Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery this August for a month-long residency. While living on a Johnson Creek “kibbutz” owned by a crew of Reed alumni, Haeg will create and exhibit a new manifestation of his Animal Estates project for the exhibition suddenly, which will be on view at the Cooley (and points beyond), August 26–October 5.

Haeg inaugurated Animal Estates at the Whitney Biennial. Animal Estates in turn evolved from the artist’s Edible Estates project, in which Haeg worked with individual homeowners and other communities (such as a London Council Estate) to transform lawns and disused parks into beautiful—and permanent—edible gardens. Though site-specific like Edible Estates, Haeg’s new work, Animal Estates, explores the history of vanishing and vanished animal species—life forms impossible to grow but possible to rescue, if done with knowledge and care.

For the Whitney, Haeg investigated animals that have historically thrived on Manhattan Island (both before and after European settlement), and installed 12 related animal dwellings at the museum. Each of these homes was artfully crafted and ready for occupation. For example, on a concrete beam protruding from the edifice of Marcel Breuer’s stark facade, Haeg constructed a life-size bald eagle roost; in the museum courtyard he installed gourd houses for purple martins. The other 10 species Haeg invited back to the neighborhood were barn owl, wood duck, big brown bat, mason bee, opossum, Northern flying squirrel, bobcat, Eastern tiger salamander, Eastern mud turtle, and beaver. The nests, dens, and other dwellings remained empty for the duration of the exhibit.

To encounter the presence—or, rather, the absence—of these quintessentially American animals in the context of a major American art museum was disarming, if not vexing. Not simply because Haeg’s project resembled so little of what we commonly understand as art, but also because amidst the intellectual and aesthetic utopia of the Biennial, Haeg’s unpretentious call to action brought a lucid, well informed discussion of the fragile state of the planet’s ecologies into an ordinarily theoretical universe—the universe of academic art criticism. For me, and others I know, it was like having cold water thrown in your face.

Haeg is a masterful communicator, and this quality shines through his many creative occupations—he is a licensed architect, as well as a dancer, artist, and educator. He takes a compassionate approach to human error, embracing it as an opportunity for insight and reparation. In Haeg’s words, “Animal Estates explores the relationship between human and animal existence, creates dwellings for animals that have been unwelcome or displaced by humans. As animal habitats dwindle daily, Animal Estates proposes the reintroduction of animals back into our cities, strip malls, garages, office parks, freeways, front yards, parking lots, skyscrapers, and neighborhoods. Animal Estates intends to provide a provocative 21st-century model for the human-animal relationship that is more intimate, visible, and thoughtful.”

reed magazine logoSummer 2008