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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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