Artistic activity in the International Year of Soils

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In the winter darkness of Chicago in mid-January, several photographs from Sally Mann’s “Body Farm” series, showing corpses in different stages of decomposition on the soil were installed at the DePaul Art Museum for the exhibition Rooted in Soil, featuring 15 contemporary artists working with soil materials. Around the same time another exhibition delved into the visual rhizosphere, quite literally, with photographs and sculptures of root structures by Jim Richardson and Steve Tobin. Both Rooted in Soil at DePaul and Exposed – The Secret Life of Roots at the US Botanic Garden were conceived especially for the International Year of Soils. A few months later, on April 22, 2015, a team of white-clad performance artists unfurled a shiny black “carpet” of vinyl sheeting over the lawns of Berlin’s Park Gleisdreieck. Symbolizing the amount of soil sealed under asphalt every 20 minutes in Germany, the action was one of several performances at the One Hectare exhibition, an artistic publicity event for the third Global Soil Week.

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Two months later, on June 13, 2015, a group of Norwegian farmers and artists led a lively parade, or rather Soil Procession, into Oslo with colorful handmade flags, music, tractors, horses and sheep, and wheelbarrows full of soil from farms as far north as Tromsø and as far south as Stokke. The Flatbread Society, as the group has come to be known, proceeded to make clay vessels out of the donated soil, erect a bake house and prehistoric earth cooking pit, host seaweed fertilizing workshops, and sign a symbolic “Declaration of Land Use” drafted by the artist collective, Future Farmers.

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Meanwhile in the UK, Touchstone collaborations launched a summer program of Soil Saturdays at the Create Centre of Bristol to appreciate the living soil with all senses. As part of the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World’s Soil Culture program, the very first Saturday on the 4th of July, was appropriately billed as a “Soil Interdependence Day Celebration,” featuring “Earth Music,” art performances, food happenings, and botanical cocktails by the Soil Sisters. Finishing out the year, the Carlton Connect Initiative of the University of Melbourne launched Dirty Secrets, featuring paintings, installations, animations, and soil monoliths by artists and scientists focused on “the hidden curiosities” of the soil. With each new season, a harvest of artistic activity devoted to honoring the soil may be registered as independently creative moments in an International Year of Soils.

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When the UN General Assembly declared 2015 the International Year of Soils (IYS) on December 20, 2013, government and non-governmental agencies across the globe mobilized to organize activities to observe the Day and the Year of soils. Scientific conferences on soil security, digital mapping, and other pressing topics were designated as official IYS events. Brochures were printed and promotional videos were shot. Scientific organizations fortified their social media outreach. As specified by the UN, activities should deploy “the best available scientific information” to “raise awareness… of the limited soil resources.” The question arises, however, as to what kind of information is necessary for meeting the needs of the UN’s invitation, and further still the needs of a growing human population on the planet.

In addition to scientific information, strategies for touching the soul and awakening the heart are proving necessary to promote and protect the health of the soil. Contemporary artists facilitate appreciation and wonder, first hand stimulation of the senses, confrontation and empowerment, humor and play, and identification with place. Through visual, participatory, and transdisciplinary means, artists use diverse forms of expression to raise awareness among different audiences about soil issues. Soil-related art is a rapidly growing field of visual inquiry that encompasses a wide range of media traditions and social engagement practices. As reflected in the above examples, sites of artistic activity are also closely associated with universities, community centers, and other places of learning, where interdisciplinary collaboration already takes place. In looking forward, new strategies of co-authoring, co-funding, and co-presenting soil research between and across scientific and artistic disciplines must still be explored. How can transdisciplinary soil research be facilitated in the future? What challenges must still be overcome when the IYS has waned?

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