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.