Revisiting Klaus Littmann's For Forest
Written by Ili Hyseni
Photography by Gerhard Maurer
Klaus Littmann is an artist, curator and producer based in Basel, Switzerland. Born in 1951, he grew up with an interest in art and studied the subject at Düsseldorf Art Academy under the guidance of influential teacher and leader of the Fluxus movement, Joseph Beuys.
Littmann’s research primarily comes from his interest in everyday culture as well as the intersectionality between contemporary art and traditional urban spaces. Each of his projects is a reflection of this interest, often highlighting causes such as environmental conservation. Many of Littmann’s projects have had an environmental focus over the years, with 2019 project ‘For Forest’ perhaps his most impressive. On the two year anniversary of the exhibits closing date, we revisit the installation and explore its impact and meaning.
Football stadiums are used to hosting spectacles, indeed some of the skills produced by the players on the pitch can be seen as an art form. In 2019, Klaus Littmann planted 299 trees in Klagenfurt’s Wörthersee Stadion to provide an all together different viewing experience. A project, 30 years in the making- the installation came as a result of the desire to bring the dystopian work of Austrian artist Max Peintner alive. In the 1980s Klaus Littmann, who was an established curator by then, was introduced to a drawing by Peintner entitled ‘The Unending Attraction of Nature’, 1970. The black and white pencil drawing is a striking image depicting a forest in the middle of a stadium, with spectators looking at it as if it were a rare animal in captivity. At the time, discussion about deforestation was not a mainstream topic and the work aimed to envisage a future in which nature and forests are so rare they can only be viewed in controlled settings. Littmann’s ‘For Forest’ takes direct inspiration from this and serves as a commentary on the anthropocene era.
Preparation for the installation began 6 years ago, when Littmann came across the Wörthersee Stadion in the southern Austrian city of Klagenfurt. The 32,000 seat stadium was constructed ahead of the Euros in 2008 and has hosted nearby Wolfsberger AC on Europa League nights. In acquiring the location, Littmann negotiated with Klagenfurt council for 2 months after which they agreed to lease the stadium for free; while the €2.2 million project was funded through private donations and ‘tree adoptions’ at €5000 each.
Speaking for an Arte documentary by Nils Bökamp, Litmann explained that the installation of the trees took 6 weeks in total, with trees sourced from all over Europe, including Bologna, Italy and northern Germany. It was important that the installation reflected the once typical Central European forests that are now in decline. To aide with the set up, influential and highly respected Swiss architect Enzo Enea was brought onboard to oversee the project.
The free exhibit was open to the public for just over a 2 month period between the 8th September and 27th October 2019. Once in the stadium, visitors were able to move around freely in order to view the forest from different angles. Speaking on what he wanted people to take from his work Littmann said: “What is really important to me in all my projects in public spaces is perception. I want people to stand and look at it and ask themselves: What am I seeing? What is it about? What does it mean for me? I want it to provoke their sense of sight and what they are used to seeing. If that happens, then for me is whole thing is a success.”
Many works of art are subjective, with the meaning left to be deduced by those who take it in. With ‘For Forest’, the massive exhibit was intended to provoke conversations with the inner self about how we as a species can protect natural environments. By placing the trees in such an unnatural environment, the trees can be seen as either an artistic sculpture similar in proportion to the work of Christo, or a philosophical symbol for life. Speaking in an interview to Tank Magazine, Littmann highlighted how his work created a juxtaposition: “The architecture of the stadium offers the ideal conditions for this and emphasises the dignity of the object and the contrast between artificial and natural: on one side the man-made stadium with its steel, glass and concrete, and on the other the colourful and living forest.”
As with any major project in the public eye, Littmann received criticism and threats of violence from local political groups who disagreed with the nature of his work. Klagenfurt is in the Austrian region of Carinthia, a stronghold for far right political parties. The populist Freedom Party of Austria enjoys large support in this part of the country and led calls ‘to get the chainsaws out’. In the lead up to the exhibit, figures from the FPÖ and another party Future of Austria (BZÖ) had falsely claimed that the project was taxpayer funded, promising to stage a protest outside the stadium on the opening day. While opening day went smoothly, the abuse came close to taking a toll on Littmann, with the curator being verbally abused in the street and pushed into traffic. Despite this, the Swiss was not swayed and viewed the criticism as part of local election campaigns aimed at galvanising support. Political parties also picked up on the fact that Wolfsberger AC were unable to play Europa League games in the stadium for two months, using it as an issue to gain support from. It was an easy point to win for the FPÖ, with the stadium being part of the legacy of the late far right leader, Jörg Haider.
As briefly alluded to, ‘For Forest’ is a work of art similar in proportions to works by the late Christo and Jeanne-Claude who were famous for their public art interventions. Littmann is no stranger to such projects, developing his own reputation within the discipline. Other environmental related projects have seen him create an ‘Arena for a Tree’ which went on display in Basel this year. The Basel based curator doesn’t aim to be radical with his interventions and doesn’t even consider himself an artist, stating only that “if one doesn’t think like an artist, such work would not be possible.”
On the two year anniversary that ‘For Forest’ closed to the public we are reminded that our actions as a species are actively contributing to the destruction of such environments, and that if we don’t actively conserve and preserve; we may be experiencing the wonders of nature in similar fashion to the way we view animals in a zoo.