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Why did Agnes Denes grow a field of wheat in New York?

In the 1980s, Artist Agnes Denes created a wheat field in central New York, protesting the imbalance of wealth, global warming, and the patriarchy. In the midst of this unprecedented heatwave, her work feels more relevant than ever.

The idea of creating a two-acre large wheat field in central Manhattan probably sounds like ludicrous fantasy in 2022, yet artist Agnes Denes did just that forty years ago.

Titled ‘Wheatfield – A Confrontation’, Denes planted and harvested huge amounts of wheat in the very heart of New York in 1982, growing crops over land that was worth $4.5 billion at the time. It was intended as a free-flowing art installation, a work deliberately existing outside of conventional spaces and institutions.

The resulting produce four months later was a striking contrast to the urban metropolis backdrop, encouraging us to ask questions about our eternal push for human progress.

In fact, the stunt was conceived specifically to challenge the patriarchy of modern city living, and to demonstrate how far-removed from the natural world we had become.

No longer were we prioritising a balanced, sustainable way of living that respected the natural formations of our land, instead pushing for maximalist, overbearing urban development that ultimately benefited the rich over the wider population.

Denes’ stunt was unconventional and surreal even back then. Four decades later, after exponential growth and increased financial division, it has simply become an impossibility.

Denes was clear on her intent from the outset. At the time, she commented that ‘my decision to plant a wheatfield in Manhattan […] grew out of the longstanding concern and need to call attention to our misplaced priorities and deteriorating human values’.

She selected an area of land opposite Wall Street, where goods such as wheat are regularly traded to make big bucks for stock brokers and shareholders.

The work was funded by the Public Art Fund, who commissioned Denes to create a massive public art piece in whichever way she preferred. The chosen site was cleared of debris and trash, as it was originally a city landfill.

After the four months was up, the harvest yielded over 1000 golden grains. Most were given to 28 cities from all over the globe as part of The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger.

As the UK faces its hottest days ever on record in the midst of a new, rare red heat warning, and as Europe sees wildfires spread across Southern France, Denes’ work is more relevant than ever. Her cautionary comments of erosion no longer feels alarmist or even off centre, but rather a preface to the reality we all must now face in the coming days, years, and decades.

She was a pioneer of environmental art, raising issues of climate change and human destruction well before it became part of our public consciousness.

‘Wheatfield – A Confrontation’ is uniquely apt to modern life, a prophetic summary of the twenty first century’s greatest crisis. While we continue to push for bigger cities, better housing, and technological leaps, we are still neglecting the natural world from which we pull all our resources.

We’d do well to head the warnings from artists that are quite literally on the doorsteps of the most influential companies and world leaders. Time is running out to change things for the better.

Interested in learning more about Denes and her work in New York? Check out this article by Public Delivery for more information.