Tue Greenfort is an artist and environmentalist who drives a bus fuelled by vegetable oil and makes sculptures from recycled materials
A ring of disease-resistant scrubbed potatoes sitting on Danish artist Tue Greenfort’s desk, linked with wires to a low-voltage electric light bulb, flatly refused to light up. Even though a quick double-check with a voltage meter demonstrated that, theoretically, his vegetable battery was giving off enough charge to do the job, for now, the technical glitch remains a mystery – one that will need to be solved before the artist can carry out his project to photograph the sun at an observatory in Cork using the energy produced by the process of photosynthesis. Undaunted – for art and experiments in alternative energy both require a degree of dogged optimism – the conceptual artist and environmentalist suggested we move on and take a ride around Berlin in his alternative-fuel bus. The no-frills vehicle is the kind that idealistic groups heading to a protest might typically drive. It is adorned with homemade bumper stickers by the French artists’ group elshopo.com, that send out mixed messages like ‘Drive on plant oil, destroy the planet’ and was partly inspired by Nils Norman’s bio-diesel, mobile library Geocruiser (2001). Although Greenfort still uses his bus daily, he originally devised it as a means of providing a free-of-charge service that travelled through rapeseed fields to connect the various venues of the regional art exhibition ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ (2005). The artist discovered a guy in the sticks who converted motors to run on household vegetable oil quite inexpensively. To be fair, you have to warm up the engine first with normal diesel, but then you flick a switch and, as Greenfort noted, ‘You can’t even feel the difference’. The smell, however, is quite different. Free of nasty emissions, this particular odour – a bit like deep-frying – is unfortunately a give-away when driving past vigilant traffic police. Vegetable oil motors aren’t really legal in Germany; if I understand correctly, this is mainly because they take advantage of a taxation loophole that will soon be closed. Vegetable oil is officially classified as a food not a fuel, and there is more than semantic pedantry at stake: if you drive around on crushed plant juice you don’t pay the fuel levy, and it’s considerably cheaper per litre than regular fuel.
Greenfort candidly admits that vegetable oil is not really a viable alternative energy source. He says that even if everyone in Germany drove cars with three-litre engines – and the thought of seeing citizens of that nation putt-putting down their Autobahns seems unimaginable – the mono-culture fields required to supply the necessary fuel would need to cover the entire landscape many times over. The real point for Greenfort, as in most of his projects, is proving that there are viable alternatives. He wants to highlight how these alternatives aren’t given serious consideration, while the insatiable thirst for oil causes wars, injustice and environmental degradation. Greenfort’s conceptual work is an engaging mix of quirkiness and direct action. It’s not about perfect solutions, or a crusade, or dogmatic insistence. But it doesn’t shy away from making a point. For him, environmental issues and art meet like cohorts not contradictions.
Before driving very far in his bus, the artist pulled up at a supermarket to buy a big box of bottled vegetable oil. While walking around the aisles, Greenfort made a sweeping gesture with his hand as he passed the bottled drink section and confessed: ‘This is where I get a lot of my inspiration.’ The supermarket was one of those charmless, bulk-buy chains where the products are crappy and just get plonked in their boxes or crates on the floor or shelves – the sort of place that gives the impression of being cheap, but probably isn’t. As Greenfort filled up the vehicle with the oil, getting sticky fingers in the process, I was conscious that we looked suspicious or like hippie freaks – the instant effect whenever you do anything slightly differently.
Greenfort’s work has a love-hate relationship to packaging: he often uses it in his works while finding it completely reproachable. For example, the litres of vegetable oil he has bought for the bus over time have led to the problem of what to do with the piles of empty bottles and cardboard boxes left over. Art, for Greenfort – as it is for an artist he sometimes cites as an inspiration, Dan Peterman – is as good a place as any for a bit of recycling activity. Accordingly, some of the vegetable oil boxes turned up at an art fair as a seat for visitors – 1793 Km Bench (2005) – although it wasn’t a particularly stable or aesthetic one, other than in a Franz West-ian sense. For Greenfort, his proposals don’t necessarily have to work; they just have to be possible, hopeful and preferable to our voraciously consumptive norms.
Harmless-enough-looking bottled table water has been another bugbear for Greenfort, one that has led to a number of works. Producing 1 kilogram of PET plastic requires 17.5 kilograms of water and results in air emissions of 40 grams of hydrocarbons […] (2004), for instance, consists of a one-and-a-half-litre PET mineral water bottle, melted in an oven to the size of a half-litre bottle, and then filled with tap water. As the title declares, this now globally ubiquitous form of packaging involves a disproportionate use of the same precious resource that it is often destined to contain – hence the dire need to recycle. In the same vein, the work BONAQUA Condensation Cube (2005) is a homage to and reinterpretation of Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (1963–5), a closed system responding to fluctuations in room temperature. Greenfort’s version adds the metaphorical dimension of the global trading of a limited resource. Coca-Cola apparently caused a scandal when their table-water, Bonaqua, which is bottled and packed in Southern India, depleted local wells to such an extent that, perversely, drinking water had to be shipped in for the local inhabitants. Greenfort’s revulsion at the perversity of food marketing is also expressed in his trashy looking and smelly ‘special edition’ yoghurt work, Ecke des Monats (Corner of the Month, 2005), which consists partly of a dirty fridge with a toaster inside it. On top of the fridge are melted-down yoghurt tubs – the fruity contents of which the artist and his Berlin gallerist had eaten together. The ugly, deflated packages were then positioned in a limp arrangement, like an abstract composition in plastic. Obviously the analogy to the art world – to the way in which artists’ editions are produced as a means of promoting and adding market value – was wholly intentional.
Over the last few years, Greenfort’s art has addressed all kinds of environmental issues in practical, impractical and absurd ways. He has collected rainwater from a gallery roof for the duration of an exhibition, helped art institutions save on their energy costs and satirized global marketing and production practices. In a number of interviews, Greenfort has pointed out that his environmentalism is not a fad, nor is it new to him. His parents tried organic farming, he watched naturalist Jacques Cousteau on television in the 1980s, he grew up near a lake that he watched gradually become unfit for swimming, and he was a member of various environmentalist groups and a lover of birds and butterflies long before he enrolled at art school. He first became known for his near-to-nature photographic series, ‘Daimlerstrasse 38’ (2001), which depicts suburban foxes being lured by sausages towards a hidden camera. He has since made other photographic works along the same lines, such as ‘Out of Site’ (2002), an exhibition including an installation of a camera hidden in a birdhouse triggered by the slightest weight on a branch, and ‘Partitur einer Fliege’ (A Fly’s Composition, 2004), capturing fly tracks on windowpane condensation. The latter were inspired by the writings of Jakob von Uexküll, a biologist who developed theories on the subjective Umwelt (environment) of all organisms, however lowly, and their interlinked place in Nature’s grand design.
Amongst his most recent and effective works are those that, by making only imperceptible local changes, constitute hard-hitting statements on the issue of electricity consumption. The best example is his project Exceeding 2 Degrees (2007) for this year’s Sharjah Biennial 8. Greenfort negotiated to adjust the host museum’s air-conditioning thermostat to allow the building to remain slightly warmer than usual. The artist arrived at a temperature increment of two degrees from the 2006 Stern Report, which concluded that if no action is taken on carbon emissions then there is a more than a 75 percent chance of global temperatures rising between two and three degrees Celsius over the next 50 years. Gaining permission for the intervention was no simple task, however, as conservation experts were concerned about the potential harm that changes in temperature and humidity might make to the ruling Sheik’s collection of Western Orientalist painting. The artist wants the money the museum saved on running costs donated to the forest-focused environmentalist organization Nepenthes, which buys rainforest for preservation in Ecuador, at the frighteningly cheap price of around 30 pence per square metre. In the museum, Greenfort placed polythene over the entrance to the space so the pressure of the air conditioning vent created a balloon. On a table in another room he positioned a clockwork thermohygrograph, which uses strands of human hair as a receptor: Greenfort used locks shaved from his own head. In a similar work for a group exhibition in the Frankfurter Kunstverein, ‘Fresh and Upcoming’, the artist installed Schalter (Switch, 2002) on a street lamp, enabling people to turn it on or off. His 2006 exhibition ‘Photosynthesis’, at Witte de With in Rotterdam, included the work From Gray to Green (2006), in which the institution was to change to an environmentally friendly electricity provider for the duration of the exhibition. However, following discussions with the energy company, it turned out that this wouldn’t be possible until 2007, and then only for a minimum contractual period of a year. In response, Greenfort left one of the exhibition spaces empty except for printouts of the relevant correspondence. He also left the lights blazing provocatively. Here, as in Sharjah, Greenfort has put his faith in the institution’s organizers, in the hope that they will follow up on his project after he has gone – or live with their bad consciences if they don’t. Hopefully the Witte de With work will eventually be realized in the future without anyone really knowing and while other exhibitions are taking place.
From the invisible to the rendered visible: for his contribution to this year’s Munster Sculpture Project, Greenfort plans to make a fountain using a truck and a pump that adds ferric chloride to Muenster’s picturesque artificial Lake Aasee. The truck will be parked near a romantic spot where lovers, not chemicals, usually meet. In the last decade or more the lake has suffered from eutrophication due to intensive meat farming in the district. Excess phosphates in the water that runs off the treated fields result in a proliferation of toxic algal blooms growing in the local waterways. The chemical additive Greenfort plans to introduce to the water binds with the polluting phosphates making them sink. Greenfort’s fountain simply renders the purification process, which normally occurs anyhow out of sight, visible.
The big question that crops up around Greenfort’s endeavours, like a nagging friend, is whether or not art can change the world. Is the artist playing at being a green Don Quixote who would rather erect windmills than fight them? Greenfort isn’t pessimistic about the role and potential of art to effect gradual, though not revolutionary, change. He has noted: ‘Art has the ability to elaborate and open up discourses without being labelled and categorized as this or that political faction. It can draw on a more complex system of references and the interdisciplinary than a purely politically defined activity.’
That said, it’s hard to get around the fact that most art just isn’t particularly ecologically friendly. Of course, in principle, everyone could start making art using only a pencil, or by recycling old rubbish, or to pursue an environmentally sound, non-resource-consuming idea. But we don’t. (Although it could be argued that an aversion for material excess was one of the factors behind the development of ‘found objects’, Arte Povera, Conceptual and performance art.) And what difference would it make anyway? Big money and the omnipolluting mega-corporations would be quite happy to see system-critical contemporary artists argue themselves out of existence so they could landfill contemporary art spaces with flash marketing events instead. Perhaps his work Happy Meal (2005), a frank visualization of the phrase ‘Eat Shit’, nicely satirizes the situation. It consists of blown eggshells dotted with white tic tacs – like a model of a virus or a molecule – topped with a plastic spoon holding a portion of grey papier-mâché faeces, which to date has remained unsold.
Dominic Eichler is a contributing editor of frieze.
frieze is now accepting letters to the editors for possible publication at firstname.lastname@example.org.