Wheatfield - A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan, 1982, by Agnes Denes

Agnes Denes plans artificial islands to protect NYC

The pioneering land artist believes she can solve the city's storm challenges with a series of barrier islands

When an octogenarian artist draws up plans for a series of  geo-engineering islands to be set into the coast of New York City, any prudent planning officer would be wise to think twice before signing it off. However, the 82-year-old land artist, Agnes Denes, has something of a track record. She is perhaps most famous for Wheatfield — A Confrontation, a 1982 work in which she planted, grew and harvested wheat in a field on a former landfill just one block from Wall St.

Yesterday, (Sunday, 21) she ran through her career to date during a talk at MoMA PS1, including  Wheatfield - A Confrontation, while also outlining her latest plans, inspired by her own experience in the city during the Hurricane Sandy floods last autumn. While many in the art world were wondering how to preserve and save flood-damaged works, Denes was drawing up her own scheme for a series of “mega-dunes” set into the near shore beside Rockaway Beach, which would work in concert with a set of barrier islands, built further out into the sea.


Art on the Edge, Mahtesh Ramon Crater, Mitzpe Ramon, Israel 1995 by Agnes Denes
Art on the Edge, Mahtesh Ramon Crater, Mitzpe Ramon, Israel 1995 by Agnes Denes

The proposed works - neither really simple flood defence, nor ephemeral artwork - exemplify her career, as something of a one-woman Christo and Jeanne-Claude, with added environmentalism. Other pieces by Denes range from a poetry garden through to proposals for an endangered-species sperm bank and pyramid-shaped off-world colonies; each of which are designed to inspire us to question both the world we've created and the world we could create.

Denes said that she seeks no personal gain for overseeing the project, and has consulted with a wide range of scientists and experts. Anyone curious to see how the city might benefit from her huge dunes and islands should visit PS1's Expo 1, to see more of her drawings, as well as other works examining environmental survival and catastrophe. To watch the talk in full, click the video below.

To read more about speculative ecological theory and practice, consider pre-ordering The World We Made: part history, part personal memoir, it reveals how it's possible to reach a genuinely sustainable world by 2050. For more great works outside the gallery system, please consider Wild Art, our celebration of art from outside the established art world. Also, to learn more about Denes (and some of her colleagues' practice), buy our book, Land and Environmental Art. Finally, to gain points and access to exclusive offers and events, do sign up for Phaidon Club.