From the forthcoming book, Art Nature Dialogues, by John K. Grande.

A conversation with artist Reinhard Reitzenstein

Reinhard Reitzenstein has long been preoccupied with the nature-culture dialogue in his artmaking and sculpture. In 1991 when I first met Reinhardit was at the first Art and Environment Symposium at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He pulled out a bag of stones after the talk, handing each member of the audience a stone in a symbolic gesture of solidarity with nature. In the early 1970s, Reitzenstein excavated the entire root system of an ancient ironwood tree on family land near Ottawa in Ontario, Canada. The roots he uncovered had grown around obstacles, boulders and stones. The immensity and majesty of the tree, this ancient mythical symbol found the in writings of many ancient religions, was impressive. More interestingly, after the earth was infilled, the tree flowered better than it had in years due to the aeration of the soil. In Sky Cracking (1982) an early work configurations of lightning and the moon -heavenly signs that in mythical terms were part of the cyclical balance that characterizes male and female principles.

Hiking in the Yukon in 1988, Reitzenstein discovered a group of trees whose bark had been partially stripped by an act of nature – an avalanche – years earlier. Struck by the way nature had regenerated the bark around the scars, he applied a layer of clear beeswax over the scar in an act of identification with, and pragmatic support for the regeneration of this tree. In 1992, at the Biennial in Caracas, Venezuela, where he represented Canada, he created the controversial outdoor installation Compromise) Viriditas using blood, milk and a tree as elements to underline the political and environmental situation there. The Sound Lodge, an interactive sound sculpture built with David Keane in 1993, travelled extensively in North America and Europe. Most recently Reitzenstein has exhibited the Lost Wood Series at Olga Korper Gallery (1999), effectively outdoor seats with sinuous and undulating natural forms cast in bronze from sections of wild grapevine. At the Rodman Hall Arts Centre he made a direct cast from a Carolina Poplar, now on view there. His latest commissions include designing and elaborating on a walkway promenade for the Tridel Corporation in Toronto, a private fountain project, and for the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa. Most recently Reitzenstein held a major exhibition of his work titled Escarpment, Valley, Desert at the Hamilton Art Gallery in the summer of 2002 and he has created a Festival Walkway (2002) for Tridel Co. in Toronto, Canada. Upcoming projects include a commission for the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York, a show in Germany and a project in Finland in the summer of 2003.

John Grande: At the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ontario, a Six Nations native arts centre, you made a sculpture piece in 1992 titled Replanting T-his-tree. I guess you were the only non-native invited to participate there which is an honour. It also breaks the stereotypes of contemporary native art.

Reinhard Reitzenstein: That was the initiative of Jim Moses, a native journalist who was taken by my enthusiasm for trying to heal the rift between culture and nature. He introduced me to traditional medicine people who were very pleased that a white guy would ask permission to work on their land because to my mind physically and originally it is their land. Jim Moses introduced me to Tom Hill, the Director of Programming who invited me to participate in AS SNOW BEFORE THE SUMMER SUN, celebrating 500 years of resistance and survival in 1992.

JG: Amerindian natives say the trees are their books and the forest is their library. With Replanting T-his-tree, you have actually taken pieces of 19th century colonial history books – one story among many – and spliced them to a living tree.

RR: I actually pushed them through the tree in the hope that as the tree traces its wounds, it begins to reabsorb the entire contents of the books – the books themselves, the tree itself, a white spruce was used as a pulp tree.

JG: A kind of physics of materials is something that endlessly resurfaces in your works – the physics and energy of place and material. Many of your works lead to early metaphysics. In Displacement Viriditas (1992) enacted at the Art Gallery of Peterborough and Compromiso Viriditas (1992) in Caracas, Venezuela you were dealing in a sense with cosmic forces.

RR: And human forces. They were also very much about displacement. Nature is continuously displaced to make way for architecture, habitation, development, so-called progress. Compromiso Viriditas in Venezuela dealt with the ongoing danger to, and exploitation of, the rainforest. Viriditas refers to greening, healing energy, the grow energy of the Mother Earth which was first referred to by Hildegarde von Bingen in the 11th century in Germany. This goes back to my own cultural roots. The bridge I am trying to build with these works is to take the ethical and environmental position which indigenous people have always had to the land ideally. To bridge between the respect and care people historically felt to the land in my culture, as in native cultures the world over. What I am stating is the fact that ideally in indigenous cultures the reverence for the land and nature is as powerful as it is in art. This is not a Romantic notion, I think it is what we aspire to.

JG: In 1987 at Topsail Island near Sault Ste. Marie in northern Ontario, you upended eight 50-foot-tall trees, planting them upside down in the ground. The 60-foot-diameter circle configuration that resulted again refers to the native cosmology but the circle is likewise a Christian symbol.

RR: The circle is a universal form. This piece, called No Title, referred to the titling of land. I worked in collaboration with Dan Pine, an 88-year-old medicine chief from the local reserve there, to create a site where the appropriation of land, the ownership of place could be discussed. By inverting the trees and placing their tops in the ground I tried to address the inversion of priorities, of what the desire has been, to establish a balance. Consequently the piece became a tremendously controversial exercise in the cultural context of the area.

JG: There is also this aspect of ritual that resurfaces in your work. I am thinking of the ancient ironwood tree, whose root system you dug up in the Ottawa Valley in 1975. The root system of this immense tree was exposed, yet when the earth was replaced, the tree flowered better than ever. There is also Wound, which involved putting beeswax onto the opening scar on the bark of a tree in the Yukon in 1988. This artists action is pure ritual, a way of building a language of communication between the artist as human and the earth. As can so often be seen in your work, you address the actual site and place. This contrasts how early land artists like Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson displaced land to the maximum to establish a concept, to leave a mark in the 1960s and 1970s. I feel that the great difficulty you had working in that era was that you were dealing with mythology, and art and ecology had not yet linked in any strong way other than as a conceptual or Minimalist-inspired land art. The land art era historically paralleled the NASA space program where the notion of escaping the earth, of leaving the earth to leave a mark on another planet (site), to bring earth garbage to another planet, was as conceptual in its attitude as land art. Your work has to do with a kind of re-linking of the human with the land.

RR: I use the word Viriditas in the titling of several works, a word used by Hildegarde von Bingen in the 11th century, based on the colour viridian green. She talks about the earth sweating green and that the earth embodied viriditas, draped in viriditas, which is a very erotic and compassionate percept. She felt that eros and compassion were connected, not in the sexual sense necessarily, but in the passion sense. The concepts that she developed in her time are out of step with her era, but are really pertinent to our time.

JG: In some of your cast metal sculptures like A Gathering of Spores, exhibited at Carmen Lamanna Gallery in 1989, the symbolism and quasi-scientism is almost too apparent. Some people saw your work becoming too conceptual or ideational, embodying a kind of foggy scientism.

RR: I have been accused of eclecticism and a kind of diverse vision. I celebrate the fact that the perception of my work is problematic. In the contemporary life sciences we talk about the body when being reduced to matter in very essential form in these terms: Bacteria being the fauna and the flora being the plants. That is in the body’s essential form. That tells me something that native people have always said: “The body and the land are the same place.” There is no separation between the inside and the outside. We have now learned that our bodies are composed of flora and fauna. The land around us is an extension of our bodies and is composed of parallel elements in varying scales and intensities. There is a conduit between these so-called separations. Separations are caused by language. In Western European language cultures we tend to create objectified separations in order to identify specific primary elements, but as you name things, you also control them, compartmentalize them, take them out of relational process.

JG: There is a lot of objection to this notion that science, so-called objectivity, this process of measurement alters the elements being measured. They change as they are being observed. Isn1t it strange that we see ourselves as apart from what we are observing and measuring. There is this distancing going on.

RR: I think it is a product of language again. If we understand culture is linked to language, the lens of a culture is their language. If this disappears then the entire construct around which that language has evolved is gone. That is why I am using the verb-based thought process in language to offset the hegemony of the noun. It is ironic for an object maker to try to heighten the relational aspect of what I make as opposed to the object aspect. If you make an experiment as an anthropologist and move into a community that community is forever changed. It is very disrespectful to not acknowledge that you may be affecting that which you are studying.

JG: Arbor Vitae, exhibited at the Toronto Sculpture Garden, was a bronze piece representing a human backbone fused to a tree trunk, an incarnation of the interdependence of human culture and nature. Fused together they support each other. Our ideas of economy are somewhat abstracted from the real economy which is ecology. We say the economy is going well in today’s world, yet Arbor Vitae suggests that nature actually provides the substance and support for human culture, something we are not often made aware of due to the prognostications of the New World Order.

RR: No question! If there’s a plea in my work, that would certainly be to understand more deeply and significantly the symbiosis that is shared between natural systems because we are one aspect of a natural system. Increasingly, we can actually direct the look and the evolution of living things. There is a responsibility that comes with this knowledge that has to be addressed. We need to better understand what it is that we are actually dealing with. It is an area that culture can address – the areas of proof and exploration.

jG: Are we really looking at an extension of the human mind when we look at the physical environments our civilizations has produced?

RR: If we make a distinction between body and mind, we chose mind over body. Artists have been trying to push ourselves back into our bodies. In the Buddhist tradition, for instance, the body and mind are not separate and in fact the mind is connected to the heart. The body is actually the brain. The head, the mind is related to the body. True intelligence forms a kind of loop between the mind and body.

JG: A linkage, a fragile balance…

RR: If you look again at language, you realize that Western European languages are noun-based, object-based and consequently conceptually based. The more traditional verb-based, perceptually-based languages involve relational thinking.

JG: For Memory Vessel in Chile, you actually made a circular cutting in a 70 foot long eucalyptus tree. How strange!

RR: Eucalypti were exported from Australia to South America and Asia by colonials to produce fast growing lumber. They grow quickly, create a shade canopy and do not attract insects. What the colonials didn’t see was that in order to grow so hugely they tap all the water under the immediate surface area. The leaves are so highly toxic they discourage any other plants. Southern India, Latin America are full of these forests which have become semi-desert and people have little local water. If they are left to grow ground water levels are tapped dry if they are cut down there is massive erosion. This piece is about that dilemma. I carved 12 bowls into the trunk of the tree and lined the bowls with beeswax because bees encourage and embody diversity in the plant kingdom. Then I put milk and blood alternately in each bowl to evoke this sort of nurture torture dichotomy. Being exhibited in Chile, Memory Vessel also alluded to the post-colonial dilemma of the years leading up to the Pinochet regime. It is a far reaching piece, and so outrageously in your face. Blood and milk stink after a couple of days! You can’t escape the stench of life.

JG: Supporting this eucalyptus are other tree sections, like the colonial system.

RR: That’s right. Propping itself up. I had to put it into pieces to put it up in the gallery…even to get it into the building.

JG: The bowls with milk and blood cut into the eucalyptus tree in Santiago. Again you have bowls in spun aluminum and steel with steel supports in Natura/Cultura at Carmen Lamanna Gallery in 1988. You incorporated olfactory elements to allude to the unconscious revivifying itself. The other Natura/Cultura containers are placed in a circular configuration around the central basin with these different sensory olfactory effects coming from the bowls.

RR: Three aluminum bowls, each 20 inches in diameter contained oil of cedar, oil of lavender, oil of wintergreen that respectively referenced the forest floor (wintergreen) the mid ground (floral) and the canopy (cedar), essential forms of oils. One huge steel bowl 36 inch in diameter, contained black india ink. The olfactory dimension takes sight and vision into the memory level, goes much deeper into the individual and collective memory. I want the multi-level experience to be very sensory. Odours transmit a catalytic memory provenance of the senses. You conjure up all kinds of things which you ordinarily wouldn’t that you can’t do with the logical circuits of your brain.

JG: Tree of Life symbolism can be found in a lot of your work. Does this symbol itself work against your search for pre-historical origins and symbols?

RR: They can if they become didactic or ideological symbols. With the tree of life you get a symbol, that is universal, cross-cultural. The symbol, in that case becomes analytic rather than absolute. So when I deal with trees it is because they are essential as a system, a system that has to do the origins of architecture, the origins of the university. According to Socrates they gathered in the forest to talk to the students. So around the idea of culture – the forest – symbolically mythic – and one’s encounters within these places of solitude or grandeur are catalytic multi-level experiences.

JG: In fact you are alluding to the symbiotic body and its relation to gardens. Is this the original Garden of Eden or a symbolic garden or just any garden?

RR: I certainly am not going the Biblical garden route. I think that is symbolic again of our relation to nature in general. The works referred to in your questions were specifically oriented to the garden all gardens. I called them, orthogonally through the garden. These seed-like structures are made of components of nature – vines and cedar leaves – that are actual models based on what I have seen in sense organs in the body at the micro-level. Their titles are reminiscent of…an olfactory cell, a motor nerve etc.

JG: Your work communicates so viscerally and is so obviously visual it brings an immediate response from the public. I am thinking of the Transformer piece where you inverted a 55-foot spruce tree between two hydro pylons above the La Gabelle hydro dam in Three Rivers (2000) and The World Tree where this inverted ghost of a tree hangs inside the conventional 1960s-type architectural well inside the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. The two contexts are diametrically opposed, but the tree is a constant. The inversion of the subject. One thinks of Baselitz paintings where he inverts the body subject. What does inversion mean to you?

RR: The initial response that inversion creates is that first of all it arrests your attention. It is perceived as extraordinarily unusual. Inversion stops you no matter where you are. Inversion talks about the fact that there is another reality. There is a parallel reality and the reality is where we all meet. It is subcutaneous, it is cultural, it is sub-cranial.

JG: Nature confronts ideation, human-built structures and energy transmission systems. The public can immediately respond to the visual aspect of your work and yet maybe that is all we need. Maybe good art only has to do that. Why do so many artists try so hard to develop an intricate and complex, even inaccessible language?

RR: There are many ways to answer that question. The hegemony of academe has forced itself upon art, allowed art to become part of its matrix, to justify its relationship it develops a language-based response. This academic response has to prove itself within the diachromatics of language, whereas I am involved in a catalytic responses to things. My work exists catalytically in order to create a parallel visceral response in your body, in your person. Whatever your cultural baggage may be, you cannot escape the reality of what it is I face you with and that reality exists in something as tangible as yourself.

JG: The New Global Economy seems to be encouraging wholesale abuse of resources and overproduction without considering natural capital as a fundamental principle of economy.

RR: Unfortunately that directive is a very linear one.

JG: Where’s the democracy in that?

RR: In the forest!

JG: Nature is democratic and more powerful than human culture.

It is denied by the world leaders… Japan, America, any country that is performing at a high economic level will deny that because it is antithesis to the very notion of overproduction, or so-called high performance economy.

RR: If you deny that you are in control, you lose control. Hierarchically, practically, and ideologically you can’t survive by admitting this. We know that our allies are not the people who are in control because they will not admit this.

JG: Your Lost Wood series of benches cast in bronze from grapevine assemblages made for the Loblaws’ Dream Garden have a wildness aesthetic to them that is immediately appealing. Wildness has always been an important facet of your work, as is the incorporation of active chaos into artmaking, something that links it to nature1s own processes.

RR: Wildness is the one thing we cannot track. It cannot be measured. I am learning to allow my mind to be open to its own intuitive process and earth-based realities rather than the definitive rule.

JG: The problem with capital “H” History and capital “A” Art persists. We are still trying to wrestle art out of the museums, to remove the walls that confine artistic practice.

RR: That’s right. We talk about diversity in art, as in nature and I celebrate diversity. The edge at which life forms come into contact with each other – the edge of the river, the edge of the ocean, of the forest, that riparian edge is the place where there is the most activity, ther most fecundity. If my work is going to be located as being marginal than I interpret marginality as the riparian edge.

JG: That gives you a great advantage!

RR: It also allows the greatest amount of freedom.

JG: I am impressed by the innovations of an artist like Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who created a whole language of organic architecture, now imitated by architects. Putting trees on building roofs, refurbishing the exteriors of industrial buildings with colour, form, decorations. Regenerating buildings rather than destroying them, making organic living spaces, with walls and floors that are curved, not flat, roof gardens. A whole new area for artists to explore in the real environments we live and work in. This idea of developing an organic city state out of organic living space.

RR: I am interested in this possibility of organic systems, of biological shelters, cavities that can be seen as architecture, a symbiotic response that innovates and integrates without destroying nature… the living house idea.

JG: The combination of new technologies and organic design using living materials could be a way of approaching this. Friedrich Kiesler’s endless house was a prototype for this. Correalism, for Kiesler, circumscribed artistic activity as the mutual competition between species for energy, food, shelter. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if we built a world where nature was celebrated rather than denigrated. Parks in our cities with wilderness integrating indigenous tree and plant species from the immediate regions.

RR: At the root of these quandaries is our lack of relational understanding.

JG: Something unprotected survives better than something that is protected.

RR: The more likely it is to produce superior life forms. Viral bacterial cultures are decimating populations to remind us to be humble. Being humble in relation to something else is healthy. In all of my works I try to heighten the experiential aspect of the relationship you suddenly feel between you and what you see as something else.

John Grande’s reviews and feature articles have been published extensively in Artforum, Vice Versa, Sculpture, Art Papers, British Journal of Photography, Espace Sculpture, Public Art Review, Vie des Arts, Art On Paper, The Globe & Mail, Circa and Canadian Forum. The author of Balance: Art and Nature (Black Rose Books, 1994) and Intertwining: Landscape, Technology, Issues, Artists (Black Rose Books, 1998), Grande’s next book, Art Nature Dialogues, will be published by SUNY Press in 2003. He will be giving a talk January 23 at 7 pm at the Urban Ecology Centre located at 3516 Park Ave. in Montreal.