Past Exhibitions / The Forest: Politics, Poetics and Practice

October 2, 2005 - January 28, 2006

October 2, 2005 – January 29, 2006

The Forest: Politics, Poetics, and Practice, one of the museum’s inaugural exhibitions, included contemporary works of art by 30 artists from around the world who focused on the forest as a theme. The exhibition reflected–and inspired–a multidisciplinary response to the forest through art. The wooded landscape of the museum and the university’s 8,000 acres of forest provided a fitting backdrop. German artist Wolfgang Staehle premiered a new digital video project. Some of the works–including those by German artist Joseph Beuys and Rosemary Laing of Australia–examined issues of war, nuclear threat, colonialism and deforestation. Others, including Kiki Smith of the United States, Italian artist Giuseppe Penone and Yang Fudong of China, investigated the psychological, mythical, spiritual or literary aspects of the forest. A few, including Alan Sonfist of the United States and Simon Starling of the United Kingdom, were actively engaged in issues of ecology. Chapel Hill artist Patrick Dougherty enlisted help from volunteers to gather branches and saplings from Duke Forest and wove them into a large-scale sculpture outside the museum’s main entrance called Side Steppin’. The Forest was organized by guest curator Kathleen Goncharov and included drawing, prints, sculpture, photography, film, video and new media. The exhibition was co-sponsored by Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences.


Joseph Beuys anchored this section with a lithograph documenting a performance in which the forest is swept with brooms to protest its imminent destruction. Lothar Baumgarten and Stephen Vitiello addressed the rainforest and the plight of its residents, and Sergio Vega examined colonial fantasies about paradise. Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle dealt with the disconnect of scientists responsible for our nuclear age, and An My Lê told the story of the Vietnam War based on popular culture. Collier Schorr and Renee Cox dealt with war and insurgency, while Hope Sandrow questioned the decisions of politicians in an upscale community. Rosemary Laing viewed Australia’s natural landscape as a media construct and deplored the displacement of aboriginal culture. Zwelethu Mthethwa documented workers in South Africa’s ecologically destructive sugar industry, and Simon Starling’s project addresses the replacement of an indigenous forest in Trinidad with an artificial one.


The notion of “poetics” was used in a broadly inclusive way in the context of this exhibition with reference to a variety of cultural manifestations including legends, fairy tales, myths and religious narratives, as well as the more modern enterprise of cinema.

Jennifer Bolande had a grown-up take on imagining goblins in the wallpaper, and Petah Coyne’s Virgin Mary was an apparition in an enchanted forest. Kiki Smith viewed Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf as a champion of nature; Phyllis Galembo poked fun at the same story, and Anna Gaskell’s costumed girls also came from fairy tales. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s crime scene was influenced by film noir, and David Claerbout used cinematic conventions to tell a shaggy dog story. Wim Wenders, a renowned filmmaker, urged us to remember the importance of place. His photograph was set in a bamboo forest, as was Yang Fudong’s film, which was a contemporary take on an old Chinese legend.


The final section of the exhibition included artists who propose real-life solutions to environmental problems or who employed scientific methodology in their work. It also included documentation of art that is performance based, as well as the work of artists who were commissioned by the Nasher Museum to inaugurate the new building.

Alan Sonfist is best known for his Time Landscape, a replanting of an indigenous forest in Manhattan. Carsten Holler took a scientific look at a romantic story and taught love songs to birds. Rodney Graham’s inspiration for his upside-down tree was a camera obscura, and Joseph Bartscherer resembled a 19th-century naturalist researching typologies. Paul Etienne Lincoln’s loopy performance celebrated a lost tree, and Joan Jonas devised a makeshift theater in the woods. Pioneering cyber artist Wolfgang Staehle brought the local forest inside via the Internet, and Patrick Dougherty created a special sculpture from saplings found in the adjacent woods.

Image by Brad Feinknopf Photography