Interview with Artist Jorge Menna Barreto by Mel Ziegler

About Jorge:

Jorge Menna Barreto is a visual artist and professor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  He creates site-specific art that raises questions about the development of eating habits and their relationship with the environment, landscape, climate, and life on earth. 

What is your relationship to plants?  How has that evolved in your life?

I guess it started when I changed my diet in 2011. I was writing my PHD thesis, which is a very introspective job that makes you dive deep into the subject you are writing about, but also in yourself. As I would spend many days alone, concentrated on the writing, I also became very self-aware and began noticing that my writing would change according to what I ate. I then started experimenting with food to see how my body and thinking reacted and, after some research, a plant-based diet seemed to be the best fuel for me and my brain. What can apparently be traced back as autobiographical information ended up being the focus of my research. 

My thesis, as well as my artistic trajectory, is very much related to site-specificity in the arts. After I defended my thesis and going deeper into the food research I began reading about agriculture and how food is produced. I then realized that agriculture is among the human activities that mostly impacts the land and the planet. I came across articles which would think of food as the mediator between society and environment and from that it all started making a different kind of sense: if food is a mediator between humans and the land, then you could say that what we eat shapes the landscape where we live. In other words, conscious eating is a form of land art. 

What started apparently as a personal research ended up making so much sense in my research on site-specificity. After having that insight I started writing a project for a post-doctoral research that I would eventually carry out in 2014. That was when I came up with the idea of 'environmental sculpture' to describe the sculptural process related to our digestive systems, which is how I have been describing my practice since then, which I do at least three times a day ;-)

With site specificity at the heart of your practice, how has your time in the Sandhills inspired your work?

Before I came to Sandhills, I was very excited I would be working in the country where Land Art first came up. It always amazed me how North American artists, such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Nancy Holt and Walter de Maria reinvented the concept of art and sculpture by being out in the landscape and transforming it. I always wondered how this landscape also dictated the way they thought, or, to quote Smithson, "determined what they would build". I can relate Mel Ziegler's drive to go out and do work into the west and its amazing landscape to these more historic artists. That is really exciting, but times are different and so is our idea of space, which has gained more complexity. We can say that Land Art was very much related to the literal site, its geographical position and formal aspects. The Sandhills Institute's proposal focuses on the community, agriculture and complex environmental issues that are related to the landscape, but which also includes so many other layers that make up space, including all the species that depend on it to live. Once I got here I was blown by the beauty of the place and the surrounding landscape. Apart from the space itself, Mel is very integrated in the community, which generates a feeling of being welcome that extends to the artists in residency. The interns, Marguerite, Lauren, and Ashlin are also part of the whole experience, which enhances the collaborative aspect of the project.

Rushville is very rural and the whole idea of modern agriculture has been to tell the land what it is going to produce. In my research, I have been interested in thinking about other ways to approach the land. One of them has been my work with wild edibles, that grow spontaneously in a certain location. They are not grown by humans. They are self-willed and teach us about spontaneity and gift. So how could we give a special twist to Simithson's quote and "let the site determine what we are going to eat". In Sandhills, I was specially inspired by the Stinging Nettles. On my first day there, as I was walking on the grass, I felt a sting. It took me sometime to realize it had been the Nettles. The next day, the other resident, Russell Bauer, came to show me a bunch of Stinging Nettles growing by the barn and that they were edible, once processed. I started doing my readings and paying attention to their occurrence around the house. The more I studied them, the more I fell in love. Important to say that the process of learning from the Nettles was also cellular. As we drank its tea, used them in recipes and made smoothies out of the dehydrated leaves, our bodies also began to respond to the plant, as we had its particles circulating in our blood and feeding our cells with a bit of wilderness. 

David Brooks and the Sandhills Interns Take On the Badlands by Mel Ziegler

A very chipper David called up, “Are you guys ready to go?” Three half asleep interns stumbled down the stairs, mumbling some words of agreement.  “Don’t overdo it on the granola, we’re going to eat at the Livestock auction,” David warned.  Well, nobody was listening and we all overdid it on the granola.   We piled in the car and made our way to the Sheridan Livestock Auction where we ran into the most beautiful border collie puppy, and made room for a wonderful second breakfast at the Café.  We watched a couple of cows get unloaded, and decided it was time to start the real road trip: Our journey to the Badlands.  

Of course, no road trip with David Brooks is complete without a couple of educational stops.  First, we stopped at a car wash to try and remedy the damage we had done by off-roading to go bird watching a few days before.  We would later learn that it would take not one, but three different attempts at cleaning to get rid of all of the sand.  A few bird-spottings later, we were in South Dakota.

We drove to the historic site of the Wounded Knee Massacre at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Here a deadly conflict took place in 1890 between the Lakota people and representatives of the U.S. government, leaving 150 Lakota men, women, and children dead and 51 more wounded. It is also the site of the 1973 protest in which members of the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee for 71 days to call to attention the conditions on the reservation. We met a woman selling dream catchers and jewelry who was kind to let us know that Sioux, the name used on the site maker, is a French-given name that translates to “snake in the grass,” and people of Pine Ridge definitely prefer to be called the Lakota.  She then directed us to visit an informational sign on the historic event, and told us about an up-and-coming museum to be opened by next summer. We walked up the hill to pay our respects at the mass gravesite of the victims, which continues to be a community graveyard today for family members funerals.

For many of us this was our first time on a Native American Reservation.  It opened up many questions for me as we piled back in the car and headed for the Badlands.  Slowly, the landscape began to change from rolling grasslands, to magnificent layered rock formations, awesome spires, and breathtaking canyons.  We made our way through the park and found the start of the Saddle Pass trail. Us interns hiked to the tallest peak in sight, after David challenged us to get to the top.  While waiting for David to join us, we spotted him, at least 600 feet below us, chasing birds with his binoculars.  We half hiked, half stumbled down the peak to meet up with him and continue the search for the elusive Prairie Eagle.  Our hiking was cut short when we realized that we all toted cameras along instead of bottles of water.  

By the way, the Wall Drug Store has the best advertising strategies I’ve ever seen.  Immediately after chugging the remainder of the water bottle I left in the car, I saw a sign that said “Free Ice Water” just outside of Badlands National Park.  A few more followed advertising ice cream, lunch, and 5¢ coffee. Sold.

“Are you sure you guys don’t want a real lunch?” David asked. “No,” we said in unison with a mouthful of ice cream. He shrugged and finished his sandwich while we chowed down on twenty dollars’ worth of red raspberry ice cream. We then walked around in awe of this overwhelming landmark in American tourism.  Wall boasted kitschy western storefronts, photo opportunities, an arcade, and walls upon walls of souvenirs.  After falling victim to the clever marketing ploys of Wall, we journeyed forth to Mount Rushmore.  

I’m pretty sure everyone fell into a food coma, so I don’t remember anything from the drive, but I do remember waking up in marvel of the Black Hills National Forest.  Instead of the vast, rolling grasslands we had grown accustomed to in the Sandhills, we were suddenly surrounded by mountains covered in beautiful pine trees. Suddenly, Mount Rushmore was no longer just a picture I remembered in my third grade textbook.  We brought our own binoculars and took turns waiting to examine the monument up close and personal.  This soon devolved into us Photoshopping our own faces over top of the “four most important men in American history at the time it was built” via Snapchat. (P.S. Don’t go to Mt Rushmore at sunset because it’s backlit and you’ll go blind from trying to look at it for too long.)

The time finally came to go back home to the Sandhills Institute.  It was a long, arduous, and hangry drive.  Just before we made it home, we nearly hit three black cows that had gotten loose!  Luckily, Marguerite was brave enough to get out of the car and herd them inside of one of our pastures to stay until morning.  We snuck back into the house around eleven at night, and proceeded to eat all of the leftovers in the fridge.  We ended the night marveling at all of the potential for adventure that lies around the Sandhills Institute.  In just a day trip, we saw a National Park, Monument, and Historic Landmark. We even fostered friendships between aspiring and professional artists along the way.

- Lauren Ballejos