The 1980s was a weird time to be in New York. Punk and rap were flourishing, but so was crime. There was creative energy was in the air everywhere, but it was also tumultuous, and for many, the living conditions were far from ideal. But in the summer of 1982, one artist gave a breathtakingly simple and wonderful reaction to that reality: in the face of the grim, let’s create a golden, sprawling wheat field in the middle of Manhattan.
Before the high-rises, condos and financial centers of Battery Park City, the area behind the Twin Towers was a landfill. In 1982 artist Agnes Denes was commissioned by the Public Art Fund to create one of the most significant pieces of public art Manhattan has ever seen. Instead of designing just another public sculpture, she planted and harvested two acres of wheat just two blocks away from Wall Street and the World Trade Center, facing the Statue of Liberty. The land was created using dirt excavated during the construction of the towers, and would later become the modern neighborhood of Battery Park City.
Planting and harvesting a field of wheat on land worth $4.5 billion created a powerful paradox. Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept; it represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, and economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns. It called attention to our misplaced priorities.
The harvested grain traveled to twenty-eight cities around the world in an exhibition called “The International Art Show for the End of World Hunger”, organized by the Minnesota Museum of Art (1987-90). The seeds were carried away by people who planted them in many parts of the globe.
(Photo credit: All photographs by Agnes Denes).