This work brings together two interventions Oppenheim created on a field owned by farmer Albert Waalken in Finsterwolde, north-eastern Holland, in 1969. It comprises four distinct elements mounted on board: a colour photograph of a wheatfield being sowed by a tractor in parallel curving lines seen from high up; a negative image in black and white of a map of the area of Finsterwolde onto which two sections of text have been collaged; and two black and white aerial photographs of the same field being traversed by a tractor cutting an X into the wheat. The first two elements relate to the action Directed Seeding. For this the field was seeded according to a line plotted by following the road from the village of Finsterwolde, the location of the field, to Nieuweschans, another village where the farmer’s storage silo for wheat was located. Oppenheim reduced this curved line by a factor of six in order to direct the trajectory of seeding. The tractor then carved a series of curved parallel lines on the surface of the field as it dug up earth and scattered seed. From an aerial perspective the patterning of parallel lines may be viewed as a form of line drawing on the landscape. The precise location of the field and the silo are indicated on the map, showing the trajectory of the road. The two sections of text collaged onto the upper portion of the map briefly describe the two interventions. Explaining the action Cancelled Crop, the artist wrote:
In September the field was harvested in the form of an X. The grain was isolated in its raw state, further processing was withheld. This project poses an interaction upon media during the early stages of processing. Planting and cultivating my own material is like mining ones own pigment (for paint) – I can direct the later stages of development at will. In this case the material is planted and cultivated for the sole purpose of withholding it from a product-oriented system. Isolating this grain from further processing (production of food stuffs) becomes like stopping raw pigment from becoming an illusionistic force on canvas. The esthetic is in the raw material prior to refinement, and since no organization is imposed through refinement, the material’s destiny is bred with its origin.
(Quoted from artist’s statement in Tate acquisition file.)
Directed Seeding and Cancelled Crop are two separate works, brought together in several different versions of which Tate’s is one. The collage presents three ways in which human action may marks the land. For the first two, agricultural machinery is used to create straight lines, in the process of harvesting as in the X of Cancelled Crop, or curved lines, during the process of planting seed in the contours photographed for Directed Seeding. The map shows a third (and more ancient) way of marking the land, through the construction of roads. The use of the landscape – natural, industrial or urban – as a canvas on which to act is typical of Oppenheim’s work in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In a related action, Directed Harvest, 1966 (Tate T07590) and Directed Harvest 1968 (Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands), the artist caused a field to be harvested in linear patterns which he then had photographed in its progressive stages. In Reverse Processing: Cement Transplant, East River, NY, 1970, 1978 (Tate T07591) Oppenheim drew large crosses on the roofs of barges transporting raw cement that he found moored on the New York East River banks. All these works centre on process as an agent of change and utilise materials, elements and locations on which the artist can have no permanent claim, making them deliberately ephemeral. Such actions as seeding a crop and harvesting it several months later operate within time parameters dependent on the cycles of the seasons rather than the will of man, mixing human processes with those of nature. Oppenheim’s analogy between the prevention of a crop from entering the food chain and the halting of the expressive, ‘illusionistic’ force of paint deconstructs the sophisticated processes of art-making and the food industry to the elemental notion of making simple marks on the environment. In this way, the artist highlights contemporary man’s dependency on complex chains of processes increasingly removed from direct human agency through the use of machines. Oppenheim’s use of the section of road to plot the trajectory of seeding recalls an important early work by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). For his 3 Standard Stoppages, 1913-14 (see Tate T07507), Duchamp dropped three one-metre lengths of string onto sections of canvas, fixing them as they fell and using the curved lines they delineated as the bases for three new ‘metre’ lengths. He subsequently utilised their contours to map trajectories of various elements in his most famous work, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-23 (see Tate T02011).
The photographs appearing in Directed Seeding – Cancelled Crop were taken by Joshua Kalin who also photographed Oppenheim’s early body action Parallel Stress (see Tate P12403).
Alanna Heiss and Thomas McEvilley, Dennis Oppenheim: Selected Works 1967-1990, exhibition catalogue, Institute for Contemporary Art, PS1, New York 1992, pp.17, 20, 27 and 34-5.
Germano Celant, Dennis Oppenheim: Explorations, Milan 2001, pp.14 and 116, reproduced pp.84-5 (detail).
Patricia Norvell, Recording Conceptual Art, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London 2001.