Contemplation: Growth And Decay In Art

What is meant by the terms ‘growth’ and ‘decay’ in relation to art? Growth can indicate the effect of life processes or simply a perceived increase in volume or presence of a consciously created artefact. Decay can be perceived as the opposite, where life processes decrease the volume or presence of the artefact. Neither one is possible without the other also occurring.


Andy Goldsworthy’s Strangler Cairn

Andy Goldworthy’s ‘Strangler Cairn’ is a pear shaped structure of stones constructed in the heart of the rain forest of Australia. At the top of the structure a strangler fig sapling is growing – this species of tree is well-known to first climb and then envelop the tallest trees in the canopy usually resulting in the death of its host. In this ying-yang dynamic of opposing energies the fate of the inert manmade structure is unknown. It will remain unchanged, or slowly succumb to decay as the growth of its symbiotic partner challenges its form and structural integrity. The artist plays no role in the outcome of the piece – neither to safeguard the life of the young fragile sapling, nor to prevent the collapse of his state-funded diamond-cut granite stone cairn.  It’s a fantastic piece that deliberately explores the unknown effects that a living agent can effect upon an  inert manmade object.

Image shows an underwater coral encrusted cast from Jason deCaires Taylor’s piece

Following in this tradition is Jason deCaires Taylor‘s piece comprised of 65 casts of the population of Grenada in the West Indies. These forms have been submerged into the island’s Moiliniere Bay where they function as the beginnings of a new reef.

Each life-size cast is seeded with young corals, and many other corals arrive through natural processes. Eventually the sculptures become encased in a living shell that distorts the original dimensions and colours. The human shape loses some of its mortality as it gradually turns into living rock, the only trade-off is that as time passes it increasingly loses its original shape until eventually it vanishes back into the background of the reef entirely.

He describes his initial inspiration as coming about after seeing the devastation wrought upon the natural reefs by over-enthusiastic divers, and so he created this piece as an alternative destination for underwater visitors.


Detail from Yanagi Yukinori’s ‘World Flag Ant Farm’

These two pieces are sublime examples of art that uses life processes to enhance its own meaning.  A third – no less fascinating – are the works by Yanagi Yukinori whose  art farm flag series which used the movement of ants through the images of national flags to mix the forms together in ways that were often interpreted as controversial and subversive.

Decay processes are only different from life processes because of how we perceive them, not because of an intrinsic difference in what is going on. Micro-organisms might be invisibly changing the visual qualities of a material or the artefact might be consumed by organisms but at the end of the day the manmade object is transformed through the day-to-day actions of other living organisms.

Some examples of works that garner their identity and value through decaying, or by being consumed include Dieter Roth‘s chocolate pieces, Richard Shilling’s ‘Rowan Berry Swoosh’, and Janine Antoni’s ‘Lick & Lather’ series.


Dieter Roth’s ‘Basel On The Rhine’ 1969 – Chocolate & Steel

Dieter Roth’s ‘Basel On The Rhine‘ is a steel sheet brushed with chocolate. The metal is in a constant state of reaction with the air, the chocolate too changes in appearance as temperature and humidity go up and down, and importantly (for our focus) small bugs nibble and explore the sweet surface leaving tracks to evidence their journeys. The piece is expressly concerned with its own disappearance through decay, as well as the use of a delicious food material in often questionable roles.


Janine Antoni’s ‘Lick & Lather’ busts

Janine Antoni‘s ‘Lick & Lather‘ busts are made either from chocolate or soap (some of her other works  use lard in addition to chocolate and soap). Her works explore desire, and the materials’ strong smelling qualities are deeply seductive. The pieces are first cast and then re-worked using the techniques described in the work’s title.

“There’s not a lot of time between smelling and biting,” concedes the artist, whose heads have been attacked that way on several occasions. “It’s a funny thing when you make pieces about desire and people succumb to their desire.”


Richard Shilling’s ‘Rowan Berry Swoosh’ series

Richard Shilling‘s work ‘Rowan Berry Swoosh‘ is part of a body of work that holds up the naturally occurring changes brought about by decay as the focus of the work. It is a mirror for us to see our own lives reflected.

There is a point a sculpture reaches where it is at its most vibrant and it is then that I take the pictures and it is often just before it completely falls apart. There is a tension and vividness revealed through their delicateness. I think this is an analogy for life. Life creates order and beauty from basic building blocks and then they return back to dust once again.

The piece is a part of a series of similar works. Natural objects are collected, organised and placed onto a  slab of mud and then photographed repeatedly over days, weeks and months. These photographs are then edited so as to best visually explain the processes of change that have occured to the artefact. Often the colours fade and the mud cracks until very little remains of the first form.

What is most poignant and striking about this work is the importance the artist gives to relinquishing control over their creation. It seems a very long way away from anything that was considered art in the past, and perhaps is a sign of a deep existential and secular shift in our understanding of our place in the world. The sun no longer orbits the earth, we are no longer a mirror-image of a single all-powerful god, an afterlife no longer awaits us, and so the effect of time is accepted and welcomed into our work. In addition to simply welcoming time into manmade work, the invitation is extended further to other organisms so that a symbiotic artist creates pieces that are aware on several levels of various goals and aspirations. It seems a very positive way of imagining and creating work which far from making us shy or weak seems to be a root of self-confidence about the true nature of our essence and being.

My work is heavily connected to ideas contained in this short dissertation. The Earth Antenna is a device that grows itself – by mimicking some of the techniques used by sand worms to grow tall towers underwater. The building substrate is mixed with seeds that will eventually sprout and grow and inevitably influence the stability of the overall structure.

Some alternate imaginings of the Earth Antenna also include working with materials that are directly edible (experiments using toffee and wax, and sketches of possible variants that use chocolate as the building material) for the express purpose of attracting insects to the structure.


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