“It is often said that all the wonders of art pale in comparison to the wonders of nature. In terms of aesthetic experience, no art work can stand comparison to even an average beautiful sunset. And, of course, the sublime side of nature and politics can only be fully experienced by witnessing a real catastrophe, revolution or war ― not by reading a novel or looking at a picture.“ (Boris Groys, Going Public, 2010)
We can trace back the concept of democratic art since the birth of democracy itself, in ancient Greece, where artists did not distinguish themselves as creative forces, opinion makers nor famous figures, but mere craftsmen in the service of higher political or religious interest. Art was intended to make a powerful impression upon the masses and to convey within certain ideological contents. Today we can talk about true democratic art as the artist must deal with public topics of interest, meant to cater to the sensibilities and move the mainstream audience, but doing so at his own will and risk. This can also be seen as an antidote to the prerequisite of an aesthetic education necessary for decoding artistic concepts, traditionally associated with the upper echelons of society. And public art consciously detaches itself from an elitist discourse and takes on the responsibility of forming and educating the public.
However, addressing a broader audience demands a more universal language of expression which, at its worst, can translate into hideous state commissioned public art or grossly expensive institutionalized art with sprawling installations that are impressive only through sheer size. And as much as public art renounces hermetic instances of both aesthetic and conceptual quality, it gains an undeniable political dimension that can often take on a life of its own. Stuck between having to dilute conceptual content and maintaining an awe inspiring aesthetic dimension, can public art truly surpass its status as a mere visitors’ attraction and can it successfully stand up to public scrutiny as well as being judged according to contemporary art criteria?
FOR FOREST – The Unending Attraction of Nature, a temporary art intervention by Klaus Littmann and Austria’s largest public art installation to date aims to do just that. Situated in Klagenfurt, the capital of Carinthia in Austria, For Forest is a bold public intervention by art mediator Klaus Littmann, which involves transplanting a literal forest onto the Wörthersee football Stadium. Open daily and with free entry to the public until October 27th 2019, visitors can only access the tribune and observe the forest from afar, under natural light during the day and by the stadium’s floodlights at night, with the season’s change.
The pristine and manicured forest, overseen by Enzo Enea, one of the world’s leading landscape architects, consist of 299 specially selected trees, covers 7000 square meters, and it invites viewers to contemplate nature as a spectacle. With the blazing fires of the Amazon and the deforestation crisis of nowadays, For Forest sends out an obvious environmentalist message which, despite being years in the making, seems to have favorably arrived at the right time. The installation is a physical rendering of a drawing by Austrian Max Peintner and, as it stands, it is quite remarkable. Not only does For Forest look eerily similar to Peintner’s dystopian vision from thirty years ago, it undoubtedly has the potential to struck awe in any spectator, regardless of their background.
Klaus Littmann is the man behind it all, although it wouldn’t be entirely correct to refer to him as an artist, nor is he a curator, but rather an art mediator. Having studied in Düsseldorf with the likes of Joseph Beuys, he now lives and works in Basel, Switzerland, art capital of the world. After years of working in art galleries and museums, Littmann turned to the public space and, through the efforts of his cultural foundation Littmann Kulturprojekte, engaged with everyday culture, walking a fine line between contemporary art and the urban landscape. He has an entire repertoire of large-scale public space projects produced all over the world, with For Forest being the largest to date and also the most talked about.
This is what public art initiatives are meant to do, to open a dialogue, to critically engage the public beyond beauty or technical virtuosity. For Forest really is a sight to behold, it is impressive through its monumental scale, the type of art that is admired by the mainstream audience, in part, because it is incapable of reproducing it. The forest itself looks rather fragile, man-made and this was, after all, Peintner’s concept, nature as a spectacle, trees and plants on display like a kind of zoo, a forest without its luster or magic, weakened by captivity and artificial lighting just like an animal within a cage. Conceptually, For Forest, holds up, it is a relevant piece of contemporary art for recent times, and while the timing couldn’t be better, the place may not be the best choice.
Surrounded by lush greenery, actual forests and fresh mountain air, Klagenfurt seems like an odd choice to make a commentary on the dangers of global warming. The very positioning of the Wörthersee football Stadium near the mountains and the woods, near the city’s periphery challenges For Forest’s rationale ― Austria is one of the leading countries in Europe in the field of environmental policy. Surely For Forest would have looked that much more spectacular and dystopian if it were placed in a more fitting context, such as the Arena da Amazônia in Manaus (Brazil), an abandoned football stadium commissioned by the Brazilian Government that was only used for four matches in the Brazil 2014 World Cup. When putting For Forest together, Klaus Littmann had something very specific in mind: “I am satisfied if you are not left with the impression that a forest is in a stadium, but that a stadium was built around a piece of forest.” Unfortunately, with a proper forest just outside the stadium in stark comparison, it is evident that this is not the case.
Opting for Wörthersee Stadium was more of a logistical move ― years ago, when Littmann was hunting for suitable locations, local Klagenfurt football team Wolfsberger AC were doing quite poorly and so the stadium was out of use, prompting the mediator to quickly set up a timely agreement with the mayor and the governor. Meanwhile, Wolfsberger AC managed to overcome adversity and entered the Europa League, but is now unable to use stadium because of the already-scheduled art installation.
The stadium itself is strongly tied to conservative policies and is considered part of the legacy of the late right-wing populist politician Jörg Haider. Even before the installation was open to the public, heated discussions were already taking place online, with many expressing their dissatisfaction with how the stadium is being “misused”. There was worry that the trees could damage the precious field. Things rapidly degenerated after the inauguration, when right-wing politicians and supporters started a veritable campaign against For Forest. The Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) have publicly criticized the installation, and one party even organized a rally outside the stadium on opening day, where members wielded non-functional chainsaws.
However, right-wing opposition has nothing to do neither with the content of this art piece, nor with the stadium’s use for something other than football. In truth, the entire backlash is born out of ideological resentment after mayor, Maria-Luise Mathiaschitz, who is a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) agreed to support this endeavor. Now, the stadium is guarded day and night and Littmann himself has also been subjected to verbal and physical violence on the street where he was pushed into traffic by an unknown assailant.
Despite this unpleasant situation, I would bet that all this controversy and talk around For Forest was intended and very much welcomed. Klaus Littmann, although involved in producing other monumental and breathtaking public art pieces throughout his career, and despite living and working in Basel, is relatively unknown in the art world. For Forest was highly advertised, sponsored adds could be seen all over social media platforms long before its inauguration. The press conference hosted no less than 100 national and international journalists flown in specifically for this occasion and, later on, the story was picked up by major news outlets like CNN, The Guardian, and famous celebrities, such as environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio.
And this begs the question: how engaged is For Forest with climate change, really? Funded with money from private donations and investors, despite right-wing rumors of public money being at stake, producing For Forest involved employing the Enea landscape architecture company to oversee the technical planning, the construction and sustainability of the trees. As landscaper Enzo Enea explains, these trees were not simply uprooted, they come from tree nurseries in Italy and Belgium where they were “schooled”, having been dug up and relocated several times throughout their lifetime. While the plants involved appear to have been treated with the upmost care, details about transporting them, the machinery involved and the carbon footprint remain unknown.
Ultimately, For Forest makes a strong commentary on both a political and ecological plane and it definitely opens an engaging dialogue among various categories of audiences. The installation was well received by the mainstream public on inauguration day. It’s interesting to see how For Forest will evolve in the coming months. Only time will tell if the transplanted trees will properly adapt to the stadium soil as October sets in. After the intervention reaches its conclusion, the forest is scheduled to be replanted somewhere close and remain a living “forest sculpture” with plans for extensive documentation. I for one am looking forward to keeping up to date with For Forest and its evolution. After its grand opening on September 8th, For Forest kicks off with a series of related art events throughout Klagenfurt, including exhibitions, performances, concerts and more.