Art and Agriculture: Sam van Aken and the Tree of Forty Fruit

Art often grants insight, but can it provide solutions? Creativity meets agriculture in the work of artist Sam van Aken.

© Sam van Aken, Tree of Forty Fruit used in accordance with Fair Use Policies
© Sam van Aken, Tree of Forty Fruit used in accordance with Fair Use Policies

Sam van Aken is head of the Sculpture Program at Syracuse University, and perhaps sculpture is the backbone of his creative endeavors, but the body of that work integrates technology, art, imagination and skill in surprising combinations. He’s explored popular culture through oh my god, a wall of stereo speakers that emit recordings of that phrase ranging from the ecstatic to the terrified, and Multiple Deaths of Willem Dafoe, thirteen old style television sets playing an array of death scenes featuring the actor and incorporated into a funeral arrangement. He’s also done performance art, recreating the journey of Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in Becoming Roy Neary and the confusion resulting from the 1939 broadcast of War of the Worlds in i am here today…. Over the years he has developed a surprisingly practical, as well as artistic, interest in plant hybridization.

This trend began with a relatively traditional sculptural project called Hybrids. Van Aken made fanciful artificial fruit, such as an apple fused with a strawberry and an orange fused with lemons, and displayed them on shelves mounted to poles designed to imitate the form of DNA helix. The intention was to spoof the whims of modern humanity, especially when it comes to the reshaping of our own food. Eden was the next step, inspired by various literary sources, including the Bible, Frankenstein, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. This experiment involved the grafting of actual plants, in this case vegetables and fruits. Eggplants were produced on tomato vines,  tomatoes on pepper plants, and cucumbers from watermelons. New Edens was a similar experiment, featuring fruit trees and orchids. The centerpiece of New Edens is the Tree of Forty Fruit, a grafted fruit tree producing forty kinds of stone fruit, or fruit with a pit, including cherries, peaches, plums, apricots and nectarines.

Video via TEDx Talks on YouTube

In sculpting this amazing tree through chip grafting, van Aken learned that he could produce something that was not only beautiful, but useful. He was able to preserve native, heirloom, hybrid and antique varieties that are no longer in production. Our agricultural system emphasizes ease of preservation, size, beauty and uniformity over taste, and many worthwhile cultivars are dying out because they aren’t a commercial success. Due to the popularity of New Edens, van Aken is sculpting trees for locations around the country. It is a detailed and labor intensive process that takes years. The design requires knowledge of blooming time and local growth zones so that the tree will thrive in its new home.

Yes, the almonds were a success and are featured on newer trees.

What an amazing testament to the power of art to change the world around us!

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