If I Had a River is an exploration of what it means to live a sustainable life; in this case, on a boat that Slovak artist Oto Hudec constructed with all of the necessary provisions and a functioning garden for living independently at sea.
My thinking about this project started roughly four years ago with a simple drawing of a boat hosting a garden of edible plants. The drawing felt like the best illustration of my dream of a utopian model for living. A boat is a closed space with very defined borders. As my idea was to make life on the boat sustainable, all food production necessary for survival needed to fit in that boat. Considering the fact that I am a traveler, the boat also seemed like an ideal personal solution. On the other hand and with a growing fear of global warming, it had another meaning, too – parked on a beach and waiting for the rise of the sea level, it became a sort of ark.
I returned to the idea in 2012 when I was a finalist for Oskár Čepan Prize, an annual award for the best young artist in Slovakia. It occurred by accident. The four finalists for the prize were invited to exhibit their work at Galéria Umelka in Bratislava. The space for the exhibition was a large, white functionalist building with lots of natural light coming from the ceiling. It is a unique space, designed to show paintings and classical sculptures. From one perspective, it is a glass house and that brought me back to my original idea, as it seemed like an ideal interior for plants to survive. By this time, I was aware of permaculture, and that awareness brought more meaning to my work. For example, considering the limits of the earth and humanity's need for food, permaculture is seeking a productive answer to producing the maximum amount of healthy food in a minimal space (such as planting an edible forest, where the trees provide fruits and nuts, and these trees transport nutrients to the soil for bushes and smaller plants). If part of the solution for humanity is small, personal gardens versus large industrial fields (this isn't the ultimate solution, considering the large population of people on the planet), these need to fit into small areas close to our houses, on tops of roofs, on verandas. Another guiding principle was the act of buying locally to save the environment from the impact of the excessive transportation of goods.
There is also the social character of this project: living in smaller communities, with deeper connections, based on supporting each other, rather than on competition, and with the aim of working for the community rather than for myself. These are all utopian ideas, some realizable, some idealistic, that, in part, serve to evaluate our culture's distance from the sources of our economy. They are meant to function as tools so we can begin a conversation about how these ideas can serve, or not serve, as new models for living in harmony with the environment. So the work contains both practical ideas and a symbolic meaning, resulting in a model of such a boat rather than a real one.
All of the ideas put forth in this piece, in terms of food, production and self-sufficiency, can be adjusted to different scales. They can be applied to one family, a smaller community, such as one street block, one village, or even a state. When I learned more about the ideas of permaculture – including sustainable architecture, integrated water resource management, and agricultural systems modeled from natural eco-systems – I was surprised to see how close I was to this vision. It was then that I decided to ask a leading permaculture designer in Slovakia, Patrícia Černákova, to help me with choosing the plants and with designing the garden in the boat.
As the time between the announcement of the finalists for the prize and the exhibition was short (two months), there was not enough time to plant seeds that would grow into plants. I asked Patrícia and her friends for a donation of plants for the piece. The selection was made in accordance with the measurements of the boat, which was scaled to fit the literal physical body and needs of one person on a journey lasting several months. Thus I used miniature lemon and orange trees, small cherry tomato plants, a variety of herbs, stevia as a natural sweetener, pumpkins, greens, beets, and carrots. Having this variety, as opposed to monoculture planting, was a significant aspect of the project. I also included a water container, which was a sort of small lake for fresh water, beehives (for bees to pollinate the plants), and a storage space for seeds, nuts, wheat, and corn. An important part of the boat was a tent for visitors to emphasize my idea that the system was built for sharing. The proposed family or group living on the boat would not be separate from the world, living in their closed, little paradise, but rather they would share their harvest. This idea was extended symbolically to the visitors of the exhibition – they were given the opportunity to collect any of the plants or seeds; they were also asked to water the plants and to generally take care of the garden.
Since finishing the project, I have thought about additional meanings that were equally important in this piece. My artwork is always personal and I know that there was an element of escapism in this piece. I called it If I Had a River, which was a tribute to the song River by Joni Mitchell. My purpose with this name was to highlight desire and poetry and the acts of wishing and dreaming, which I strive for in my work. This is the utopian space where art works for me.
One of the outcomes of the exhibition was that I was invited by Patricia to help with the organization of a large, two-day event entitled Permaculture in the City that included speakers from all over Slovakia. The attendance was surprisingly high and there was a positive atmosphere throughout. I worked on the design, organization and logistics of the conference, which was new for me and which allowed me to put my knowledge into practice and be a part of bigger movement for positive change. This was particularly gratifying, as more and more I feel that my art does not, on its own, operate in a field of real change, but rather that it can inspire conversations or small actions that are part of a larger push for change. In the end, what I realized by working on this project is that by giving the viewer the experience of watching plants grow, perhaps he or she can be motivated to purchase and plant his or her own seeds, and that this may be change enough.