New Eco-Art's Short Shelf Life

Garden sculpture in marble, limestone and bronze lasts for thousands of years but the latest eco-art barely survives a single decade.

Case in point: a scant four years ago, the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh commissioned Hudson Valley artist Steven Siegel to come up with an environmentally correct sculpture for their extensive 160 acre park. In response, he created "To see Jennie smile," 2006, 24 feet high and ten feet across constructed of newspapers donated by the local Raleigh News and Observer. With today's emphasis on inclusivity, the artist worked with NCMA volunteers to complete the work from several tons of discarded newspaper built around two trees forming a natural internal armature.

Well last week, that environmentally sound sculpture was listing precariously and after consultation with the artist, it was dismantled, reports a museum spokesperson.

"Steve thinks of his work as being temporal, ephemeral, so it wasn't unexpected," says Linda Dougherty, NCMA chief curator and curator of contemporary art, of the recent deconstruction. In the past decade, an increasing number of artists like Andy Goldsworthy have focused on creating work out of natural materials, which typically endures the brunt of nature from hurricanes to wind storms.

"After exposure to the elements, the sculpture weathers and changes, eventually decaying and deteriorating, mimicking the cycles of the natural world," says Dougherty.

"Because they are ephemeral, they go away," says Siegel, who is based in Rhinebeck, New York, of such work. He began making site-specific sculpture out of paper in 1990 and to date has created more than two dozen such installations as far afield as Italy. "About seven or eight are still standing," he says. The DeCordova Sculpture Park outside of Boston in Lincoln, Massachusetts boasts one of the largest and is 35 feet long and ten feet deep. "It's got plants on top," says Siegel.

"Paper is a material that never fails to capture the imagination," says Siegel. These days, Siegel is working on a large studio piece, "Biographies," that consists of far more materials than just paper.

But sculpture like Siegel's that doesn't endure is no stranger to the museum in the South.

"We've had other similar examples like a Patrick Dougherty work made of woven saplings disintegrate," says the NCMA curator. That artist's particular work only lasted through two years.

Dougherty is not totally missing on the museum scene. Last year, the NCMA commissioned him to create a work for within their hallowed halls. The artist's new work "Out of the Box," 2009, is practically trailer sized and stretches over 75 feet across and just over 15 feet high.

Unlike marble and bronze works, which can cost in the millions, "natural" garden sculpture prices range from only a few thousand dollars to the $20,000 range and beyond, reports the North Carolina museum curator.

"Siegel brings the newspaper back to its point of origin, the forest, returning it to the landscape," according to a museum spokesperson. "After exposure to the elements, the sculpture weathers and changes, eventually decaying and deteriorating, mimicking the cycles of the natural world."

What will go in the place of Siegel's sculpture? "I haven't decided yet," says Dougherty.