The six cast-concrete boxes contain soil and crop samples from Africa, Asia, and South America, areas where monoculture--the widespread cultivation of a single cash crop--has become a common practice. Bickerton compares this restrictive farming method with the aesthetic of Minimalism, in which the singular use of primary forms to create works whose impact depends on their sheer physical presence outweighs any allusions to the outside world.
Bickerton critiques what he sees as the single-minded thinking underlying both Minimalism's relentless pursuit of pure, efficient form and monoculture's emphasis on specialized crop production. In the narrow pursuit of a single goal, monoculture willfully ignores the harmful implications--dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, hybrid crops with a diminished resistance to weather and disease, and the depletion of the agricultural gene pool.
"To me Minimalism suddenly revealed itself as a progenitor or accomplice to the same logic that produces monoculture row planting in national forests, and saturation bombings . . . . I wanted to do an acrobatic leap between the piety of the Minimalist project and the real-world effects of that kind of thinking."
--Ashley Bickerton, 1989
Minimalism's Evil Orthodoxy Monoculture's Totalitarian Esthetic #1 is a complex wall sculpture of six rough concrete boxes containing soil and crop samples (peanuts, coffee, and rice) from Africa, Asia, and South America. These are areas where monoculture--widespread cultivation of a single cash crop--has become common practice.
Minimalism was an art movement from the 1960s that dominated much of the art practice in the United States, especially New York. Minimalists sought to create pure, geometric, abstract art in which the physical properties of space, scale, and materials were explored as ends in themselves rather than as metaphors for human experience. Bickerton critiques what he sees as the single-minded thinking underlying both Minimalism's relentless pursuit of pure, efficient form and monoculture's emphasis on specialized crop production.
With its narrow pursuit of a single homogenized crop, the practice of monoculture has harmful implications: dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, hybrid crops with a diminished resistance to weather and disease, and the depletion of the agricultural gene pool.
Conventional farm regimen in the United States
1. Fumigate soil with chemical to destroy soilborne diseases
2. Treat soil with herbicide to clean away weeds
3. Plant one variety
4. Treat soil with insecticide, to be absorbed by young plants
5. Spray plants with second insecticide
6. Spray weekly with fertilizer
7. Spray fungicide to control blight
Expense: $1,950 an acre. Labor: Little. Yield: $2,000 an acre
Organic farm regimen (prevalent worldwide, especially where farmers can't afford chemicals)
1. Rotate plantings to avoid pest buildup in one area
2. Spread cow manure from local dairy as fertilizer
3. Plant dozens of variations of crop
4. Add companion plants to attract beneficial insects
5. Introduce ladybugs to control aphids
Expense: $897 an acre. Labor: A lot. Yield: $4,000 an acre
No one knows the exact origin of coffee. It is said that it was first cultivated in the province of Kaffa (hence its name) in Ethiopia, in the middle of the 12th century. Traders then brought the coffee bean to the Middle East, where it was roasted and brewed for the first time. In the 17th century, the drink took Europe by storm, and Europeans pressured their colonies in the south to produce large quantities of coffee.
European colonial powers structured the economies of their colonies around the export of raw resources. Goods such as tropical fruits, rice, coffee, minerals, and petroleum were sent directly to northern centers, which dictated the laws of the market. Today, even though former colonies have acquired political independence, the structure of their economies remains inextricably linked to the needs and whims of northern countries. This dependence on the international trade of raw resources is a direct outcome of their colonial past.
Coffee prices are determined at the New York and London stock exchanges, even though coffee grows exclusively in warm countries. Speculation often causes huge price fluctuations.
This artwork is on view in the Walker exhibition The Living Years: Art after 1989. The text below is the artwork's label written for that exhibition.
These cast-concrete boxes contain soil and crop samples from areas in Africa, Asia, and South America where monoculture—the widespread cultivation of a single cash crop—is a common practice. For the artist, this damaging farming method is not unlike the aesthetic of Minimalism, which since the 1960s has emphasized pure form and ignored geopolitical realities. “I wanted to do an acrobatic leap,” Ashley Bickerton writes, “between the piety of the Minimalist project and the real world effects of the kind of thinking embodied by that aesthetic.”