August 2010

Everyday Radical


fritz haegPhoto: Jason Schmidt / Dome interior painting by Kate Wall on the occasion of Sundown Salon #27, 2006

Fritz Haeg stands ready to change the world—one garden at a time

Fritz Haeg is a peculiar kind of artist. He doesn’t work in a traditional studio, and he doesn’t show in a gallery. He just may represent a new breed of artist perfect for our slowly recalibrating economy, because in an era of art stars and wild market fluctuations, he doesn’t even sell his work.

Haeg creates on the road and often outdoors, occasionally colonizing people’s front lawns and turning them into vegetable gardens. He’s an intensely social being whose process is fueled by interaction.

Trained as an architect, Haeg moved to Los Angeles in 1999 to set up his own art and design practice and teach part-time at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design. He didn’t have much of a plan. Having already worked for architects in New York, he jettisoned the conventions of the profession and, for the most part, said goodbye to clients, budgets, schedules, contractors and the like. Instead, he just let his varied interests—gardening, ecology, food, animals, futurism and movement, to name a few—percolate while he settled into his new environs.

In a city as sprawling and fragmented as L.A., one needs to cultivate a vibrant social scene. In 2000, when Haeg bought his first home—a 1984 structure topped by a geodesic dome in the hills of Glassell Park—everything started to come together. The dome, with its open, welcoming spaces, quickly became the locus of unusual—and unusually creative—activities.

Haeg, a ringmaster par excellence, recognized the spark that ignited when his friends to knit, dance, watch films, cut hair, make clothes and garden. To harness that energy, he launched the Sundown Salons, a series of weird and wondrous happenings that ran through 2006.

“Because all of my work is about home and community,” says Haeg, “it wasn’t until I had a home of my own that I could really go deep into my work. Self-expression and novelty—two of the big assumptions of architecture school—weren’t really my thing. I’m more interested in responding to ideas, to instincts and to pleasures.”

Artists and art collectives such as Andrea Zittel, Katie Grinnan, My Barbarian, Anna Sew Hoy and Assume Vivid Astro Focus passed through the dome, simultaneously experiencing and influencing the wonderful world of Haeg. The salons spawned the Sundown Schoolhouse, a more structured environment in which invited guests came to lead workshops on subjects ranging from animal habitats to food culture.

The most widely known of Haeg’s endeavors is his ongoing Edible Estates project. Dismayed by the energy and resources consumed by the front lawn—that great American symbol of plenitude and domestic stability—Haeg decided to encourage homeowners to exchange their swaths of grass for vegetable gardens. His first Edible Estate, in 2005, reclaimed a front lawn in Salina, Kansas. It also cannily tapped into a burgeoning global eco-consciousness.

Curator November Paynter commissioned Haeg to create an Edible Estate in London for Tate Modern’s 2007 Global Cities exhibition. For Paynter, it was vital that a “real-time” project be included in the exhibition. “Fritz has an incredible way of encouraging others to participate and believe in the possibility of change,” recalls Paynter. “His tireless energy allowed the Edible Estate we created to be the one project that both outlived the exhibition and physically changed something in the world.” This year, Metropolis Books released an expanded second edition of Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn, a monograph that documents eight of his prototype gardens across the country.

When he was invited to participate in the 2008 Whitney Biennial in New York, Haeg summoned his architectural skills to create model homes for a different breed of client: beavers, bald eagles, owls, turtles and assorted animals and insects that had once lived on the Whitney Museum site. His Animal Estates have led to similar projects around the world. This fall, as a newly appointed fellow of the American Academy in Rome, Haeg will have an opportunity to investigate the habitats—and habits—of Italian animals and humans alike.

He has also not completely abandoned architecture, clients and contractors. He recently designed a house for film producer David Bernardi in Silver Lake, complete with closet-size terrarium, color-coded living spaces, shag-carpeted screening room and curved cutout walls—not far from one of Rudolf Schindler’s forays into communal living.

Haeg’s work—he calls it “social acupuncture” because he can make a point exactly where it is most needed—is about altering the way we see the world. From happenings to workshops, edible estates to animal estates, this desire for cultural change unifies what has become a multivalent creative practice. The threads recently came together in Something for Everyone, a series of installations, performances and activities currently unfolding at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Mark Allen, founder and director of the Echo Park community-centered Machine Project, notes Haeg’s efforts occupy the space between real and symbolic. “Because the purpose of much of Fritz’s work is to start a conversation, it has the power to change thinking on a broader societal level,” says Allen.

On this point, Haeg is fond of quoting Jane Fonda quoting dramatist David Hare: “The best place to be radical is at the center.”