For more than 50 years, artist Agnes Denes has dedicated herself to unifying disparate trajectories of knowledge across the arts and sciences into radically new forms of seeing and engaging with the world. Her work spans a range of media and scales, and engages a variety of academic disciplines, including philosophy, mathematics, and the natural and social sciences. Denes’s large-scale ecological interventions are among her most well-known projects, in particular Wheatfield–A Confrontation (1982), the now-iconic work in which she planted a two-acre wheat field in what was then a derelict lot in Lower Manhattan. No less impressive and important are her conceptual prints, which have explored among other things variations on earth’s mathematical form and visual experiments with Pascal’s Triangle. In Spring 2019, Harvard’s Graduate School of Design invited Denes to give a lecture as part of its Rouse Visiting Artist Program. When schedules did not align, she offered instead to address students through a piece of writing.
Below is her address to students, written in April 2019. To accompany the piece, Denes created an original object, a six-foot-long scroll of the manifesto she composed in 1970 and which has guided her practice ever since. An artist edition of 1,000 copies of the manifesto was designed by Zak Group and is offered as a gift to students from Denes.
“Hello you brilliant young people ready to change the world and make it a better place because you are in it, saving it from its self-inflicted wounds and self-propelled doom.
Ask yourselves: Where are you, at your age of wanting to change things?
A few words as you go on your journey:
Every word uttered today is political. There is no escaping it. The atmosphere has become contaminated.
People are fighting to be heard, using big words, tugging at heartstrings, fighting for some truth, while language itself is losing its precision.
Saying something meaningful is difficult when everybody says some of it to a degree, when all has been touched on or becomes meaningful by who says it—someone with power or a famous person. You listen to a friend, a relative, someone you trust and admire.
I am not sure how well you know me, because I am not a self-promoter, abhor politics and because we are separated by disciplines, even though we shouldn’t be. Art, science and philosophy should be together and part of all else in spite of specialization, which is the subject of one of my books.
I’ll try to offer you one true language of communication that cannot be corrupted. My art and philosophy.
When I set out on my journey I wanted to change the world, re-evaluate all knowledge and put it into visual form for better understanding. This process of evaluation and visualization would probably have taken 1,000 humans and at least as many libraries to even begin. An impossibility, so I began. This was the onset of my Early Philosophical Drawings and became my art of Visual Philosophy.
As I worked, I came to realize that my task was a little more complex than what could be accomplished by a single mind without help or funds. This did not faze me a bit and I kept going, setting and reaching milestones as I went.
I was inexperienced and fearless, willing to give up all else but my goal.
Many people do that. Scientists wanting to discover, writers educating in special terms, inventors, leaders whose motives are still pure, a few artists.
It was only when I got much older that I realized I had changed very little, that some of what I wanted to change had changed by itself. Not to say that I was useless or unneeded, just that this is the way of things. You don’t move a behemoth, it moves by its sheer volume.
Change is the only thing you can count on. You learn how to walk without crutches, and with very little to depend on.
Even the truth, that great challenger, because it is beyond the long end of your telescope even in the land of ultimates, changes meaning, leaving many truths, and nothing to depend on.
Wanting to change the world morphed into a unique artistic output of a lifetime of creation, and the visualization of invisible processes, such as math, logic, thinking processes, and so on.
This process of re-evaluation and visualization became a process of offering humanity benign solutions to some of its problems and involved a multitude of disciplines.
So now ask yourselves, where are you at your age of wanting to change things? What mountain is left to climb, move over or eliminate?
I will not pretend to tell you ultimate truths or aims, only that you should seek them. It is this seeking that is the journey, and it is as precious as the destination.
Even if the words we seek to describe our condition have already been worked over. Even if your hope is already waning, and your innocence has already been lost, many of you still might believe you can change the world. And some of you might. A little.
Question everything. Not just because you should, but so that you might hone your ability to do so. The best creativity comes from questioning the status quo.
While you’ll never be fully free of the influences of your environment and your upbringing, deep thinking and evaluation are a necessary part of the development of your own mode of thought, be that good or bad.
Your mind will be your salvation in a troubled world, and there will never be a time when our world is not troubled.
But don’t just live within the walls of your own mind, but also DO, because overthinking can also bring downfall. Abused, unused or overused organs offer little benefit.
Read my Manifesto that accompanies this writing. I live by it and hope you will too.
Good luck, dear future and fellow travelers on our journey of life.
Have you guessed yet what that ultimate language of communication is?
Go find your goal and create.”
April 19, 2019
The first ever retrospective of Agnes Denes’s work to be organized in New York City—Agnes Denes: Absolutes and Intermediates—will open at The Shed on October 9, 2019.
Top photograph: John McGrail. All artworks © Agnes Denes & Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York. Introduction by Ken Stewart. Photographs of “Manifesto” by Maggie Janik. Special thanks to Penelope Phylactopoulos.