October 16, 2023

Last of the Animal Builders at the Edith Farnsworth House

The Edith Farnsworth House—a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation—is known for its creative installations and exhibitions that consider the ways in which the house engages and interacts with the landscape on which it sits. "The Last of the Animal Builders" is no exception, bringing new perspectives through art to this well-documented cultural landscape.

For his 2023 curatorial residency at the Edith Farnsworth House, Alberto Ortega Trejo framed his exhibition after a quotation by architect Sibyl Maholy-Nagy. She called Ludwig Mies van der Rohe the “last of the animal builders,” by which he stripped architecture down to its essentials of structure seen in the animal world, versus the more elaborate and decorative designs distinctive to human civilization.

A wide view of an artwork featuring the roots of a sugar maple tree at the Edith Farnsworth House.

photo by: Joshi Radin

View of "The Roots" by Selva Aparicio at the Edith Farnsworth House as part of "Last of the Animal Builders."

This quote, and Maholy-Nagy’s catalog of work merging ecology and architecture, led to an exhibition that allows us to think about the complex relations established between the human, the animal, nature, society, and economy having architecture as its mediating and determining mechanism. Ortega Trejo crafted this exhibition as an exploration of Maholy-Nagy’s themes instead of a direct response, playing on bodily and animalistic metaphors for architecture framed in the work of Mies, an architect who consciously took to nature for inspiration.

As a contemporary reinterpretation of the sculpture walk that occupied the property during Lord Peter Palumbo’s ownership of the house, this temporary exhibition brings artworks selected from Thoma Foundation’s Art Collection and works by contemporary artists to the Edith Farnsworth House and its landscape.

Selva Aparicio:The Roots (Acto de Fe)

Inspired by a tour of the house before the exhibit’s opening, Aparicio’s site-specific piece uses the original roots and wood of the black sugar maple tree that stood on these grounds long before the house was designed. Mies chose to build the house under the space created by the immense branches of the maple tree, but due to floods, the already ill maple had to be cut down as it threatened the structural integrity of the house. Aparicio pays homage to the history of this tree, its legacy, and enables a new kind of afterlife to its remains with her delicate placement of dandelion seeds.

A closer up view of an art installation called The Roots at the Edith Farnsworth House. What you can see are the roots of a sugar maple tree on a black background.

photo by: Joshi Radin

Detail view of "The Roots."

Ragnar Kjartansson: Burning House

One of the pieces selected from the Thoma Foundation, Kjartansson’s iconic image of a European cottage engulfed in flames, nestled in the house’s wardrobe, is both a mirror and a warning to the Edith Farnsworth House. Like the cottage in the video, the Edith Farnsworth House too is a house isolated in nature, and it too is threatened by natural phenomena (in its case, flooding). Ortega Trejo loved the connotations of the cottage itself; it was a a highly detailed, full-scale model of a cottage that enthralled architects—much like the Edith Farnsworth House—and Kjartansson set it on fire. This notion of destruction and regeneration has a new context in this setting and adds another layer to Kjartansson’s illumination of the decadent excess of western societies.

A view of a art installation of a house burning in a video that is a warning of the threat of natural phenomena on structures. The installation is at the Edith Farnsworth House.

photo by: Joshi Radin

View of the "Burning House" in a wardrobe at the Edith Farnsworth House.

Faysal Altunbozar: feeder no.7 (à rebours)

Another site-specific piece, Altunbozar responds to Mies's furniture design process. By using the sleek, metal hallmarks of the house’s furniture to create a bird feeding sculpture for the upper terrace, Altunbozar speculates on how other-than-human users can be invited to inhabit the space. This is encouraged further with the incorporation of bird seed into the installation. Ortega Trejo also wanted to give a nod to one of Mies’s personal influences: the philosophy of botany that nature’s goal is to achieve optimum shapes. Mies used this influence in the geometry of his own work, and Altunbozar’s sculpture takes this premise back into nature.

A metal bird feeder on the upper terrace of the Edith Farnsworth House.

photo by: Joshi Radin

View of "feeder no. 7" on the upper terrace of the Edith Farnsworth House.

Located in a daffodil patch at the Edith Farnsworth House, this sculpture shows a single drop of water coming out of a bronze ear, representing the idea of slow listening.

photo by: Joshi Radin

View of "Murmur" in the daffodil patch at the Edith Farnsworth House.

Daniel Baird: Murmur

Nestled in one of the daffodil patches on site, a single drop of water slowly flows out of a sculpted bronze ear. Ortega Trejo selected this piece as a representation of slow listening—pausing both in nature and in life and taking time to experience what’s around you. He also loved that the piece requires constant recalibration, which extends to people having to check in on themselves and their surroundings instead of mindlessly existing. Interested in the poetics of geological formations in his work, Baird invites visitors to a sensorial engagement with time when taking in his fountain, the pause both grounding and contemplative.

Thiago Rocha-Pitta: Danaë nos jardins de górgona ou nostalgia da pangeia

Another piece selected from the Thoma Foundation, visitors come across Rocha-Pitta’s piece in the garage up on a hill overlooking the house. Ortega Trejo wanted to activate all parts of the property, including places that weren’t part of the original house design like the garage. For this piece, he was struck by the title’s nod to Pangaea—the supercontinent that made up the earth over 200 million years ago. The continuity of honey over surfaces of different textures and materials reframes the fragmentation usually associated with the pre-modern world. Surrounded by the rustic innards of the garage, the film’s hypnotic loop of is a mesmerizing experience in an unexpected setting.

Located in the garage at the Edith Farnsworth House, this video installation is a view of honey moving over different textures and materials.

photo by: Joshi Radin

View of an installation called "Danaë nos jardins de górgona ou nostalgia da pangeia" in the garage at the Edith Farnsworth House.

The exhibition also includes works by ASMA, Renée Green, Claudia Hart, Joshi Radin, and Michael Rakowitz. As a collection, the art works of The Last of Animal Builders offer not only a new rendition of the site’s long history with art, but precise commentary on how architecture, nature, and modernity intersect.


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Arianna Kiriakos is the senior assistant, exhibitions and programming at the Edith Farnsworth House. She received her Master’s in modern history from King’s College, London, and two Bachelor’s degrees in history and criminology from the College of William and Mary. Her research specialties include the preservation and destruction of culture through war and other phenomena.

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