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.