Kitti Gosztola

State of All the Land


Opening: 23 January 2024, 6PM
Opening speech by Judit Árva

“Who are the pampas?”, asked a little girl (who was not me) a good thirty years ago.

A South American tribe, replied her dad (who was not my dad).

I don’t remember what The King of the Pampas was about, and I stopped to look it up. And you can also stop here to look, you don’t have to read everything.

Grant Wood, later to become an American Gothic painter, traveled to the decadent region of Europe, Weimar Germany, in 1927 to create what he thought was self-identified American art, a regionalism free of decadent European influences, from the lessons of the New Objectivity. For the rest of his life, he insisted that his ironic paintings were objective, free of the irony that characterised New Objectivity. But regionalism was already present in his last major work before his departure: he painted a pasted panel of what he saw as the soul of the Iowa landscape, a cornfield, on the four walls of a hotel lounge in Sioux City. The fate of the painting is as controversial as that of his later work: it was painted, pasted down, forgotten, and then parts of the peeled-off image were lost. Viewers of the restored remains in the museum today are confronted with a radically altered vision: the colourful, popular panorama has been transformed into golden, almost monochrome fragments, as if the notion of landscape and the landscape itself were breaking down its own framework.

“State of all the land,” praises the land the Iowa Corn Song, the cover of which Wood took as a basis, but has painted “Best in All the Land” as the motto above the panels. The myth of the ‘landscape’ as a ‘national landscape’ is always partly constructed. The dynamics of ancient and foreignness, conservation and adaptation, are complex. Alan Sonfist’s famous Time Landscape, an urban parklet reconstructing the pre-colonial East Coast flora, can be classified as critical art, but it can also be interpreted as a phenomenon of eco-xenophobia that re-enacts the invariability of the ‘eternal’ landscape.

The (invasive) plants that alter the landscape can be both useful plants and (former) ornamental plants that have lost the exoticism of their ecological success in their new habitat, such as the now-eradicated Japanese knotweed, which was once a special ornamental plant. The big exception is the pampas grass, a sought-after ornamental plant in many places, including Hungary, but is considered an invasive pest in many places.

The name actually covers two variants: the Andean purple pampas grass, Cortaderia jubata, which was once introduced from South Africa to New Zealand for soil conservation or forest protection because of its sharp foliage, but is now banned in the EU, alongside Cortaderia selloana, which is native to the pampas. Selloana was grown in California from the 1870s in endless rows like maize for its impressive plumage, and was exported worldwide as a hat and vase ornament, decorating horse-drawn carriages at flower carnivals before becoming a garden ornament. In Iberia, the plant escaped from the gardens of luxury villas built near abandoned areas and has been banned there, but its status is being investigated throughout Europe as it spreads due to warming temperatures. In Maui, the pampas grass populated lands left empty after the decline of sugar cane and pineapple plantations, which were introduced as a cash crop and destroyed the island’s natural ecosystem, but unlike on the eponymous island of Hawaii, in Maui it has not been eradicated. The oily inflorescence of the pampas grass promotes the spread of fire, while its wicks survive it, making it a beneficiary of fires. That’s why the recent Maui fire sparked a debate about the role of pampas grass (and other invasive plants), global warming and exceptional drought, although it seems that human negligence was the main factor this time.

Grant Wood’s murals use the simple motif of maize to encapsulate a millennia-old agricultural culture and the history of territorial domination. Where pampas grass spreads, it takes on the monocultural character of endless cornfields or other plantations. But there is no landscape for pampas grass – or rather, the whole world is.

Kitti Gosztola

Read Judit Árva’s opening speech on Artmagazin:

photography by Barnabás Neogrády-Kiss