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Photo / Brian Kinyon

As architects from across the world showcase their creations at the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial, Danish landscape architects Karen Gamborg Knudsen and Kasper Magnussen have unveiled their Cabbage Patch — a living exhibit composed of 10,000 cabbages and a tribute to one of society’s most enduring and sustainable crops. Installed at Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, the Cabbage Patch is both an exploration in green urban design and a culinary experiment as it seeks to introduce the hardy winter vegetable to new consumers by engaging visitors in activities in and around the patch.

On display until January 2020, the Cabbage Patch will feature cooking demonstrations and the creation of a cultural cookbook, paying particularly close attention to the cultural relevance of Chicago’s West Side and topics of accessibility to affordable, healthy and nutritious food sources and greenspaces.

Denmark In New York caught up with Karen Gamborg Knudsen and Kasper Magnussen — the artistic duo behind the Cabbage Patch — to talk about how the Cabbage Patch is catalysing conversations on culture, social equity and climate change.

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Denmark In New York: Cabbage Patch is a field in the Garfield Park Conservatory consisting of 10,000 cabbages. Can you elaborate on the outlines of the project and how you came up with the idea?

Gamborg and Magnussen: We have over 10 years of practice behind us working with objects. Working with their power to transcend their inherent meaning, materiality and scale. We work with objects because they are both material, form and signifying subjects at once.

We have worked with cabbage before. We have built a man-size cabbage for an exhibition in Halle, Germany. The cabbage was built leaf by leaf with paper and construction tape, imitating the skin and the texture of the cabbage. We ended up cutting it into sections, so the layers of the cabbage were revealed.

The concept of the cabbage patch we have had in the drawer for a while and it seemed to fit very well with the open call from the Danish Arts Foundation and themes and title of the [Chicago Architecture Biennial] “… and other such stories.”It was a question of customizing and placing the field in the historical and contemporary framework of Garfield Park Conservatory and the West Chicago neighborhood.

The kitchen is an outreach to the surrounding neighborhood and the public in general, and we saw it as an opportunity for us to test new ideas and showcase unfinished business.

The outline of the project can be laid out in a very practical manner. In the beginning of April 2019 we won the competition for the Danish contribution to the Biennial. The site is a big lawn, a City Garden, in Garfield Park Conservatory. The lawn was originally planned out as a meadow by the landscape architect Jens Jensen in 1908.

Our first visit to Chicago was in the end of April. There we met with people that we were supposed to work with in realizing the project. People from Garfield Park Conservatory, Chicago Park District and Garfield Park Community Council’s Community Garden Network. Then we met with contractor Poul F. Pedersen, the material suppliers, soil company Midwest Trading Horticultural Supplies, and Goebbert’s Farm, the farmer that provided seeds and seedlings. Hidden in the industrial buildings of the West Chicago neighborhood we found a local metal company, Triton Industries Inc., that did all the metal work for the kitchen. We met with local businesses and initiatives, like The Hatchery and Inspiration Kitchens, whose aim is to give opportunities to people in term of making a living and have a good and better life. Garfield Park Conservatory programs reach out to the communities through their Volunteer Garden that is connected to local farmer’s markets, fresh markets and food pantries. To all these people we presented our ideas — on cabbage as a common yet an extraordinary object and the field as a hyper object. People responded with thoughtfulness and curiosity.

In May 2019, the seeds were sown at an Illinois farm. The field was established in June in very wet and changeable weather. The weather, the topography of the lawn, and the condition of soil was a condition. The terrain of the lawn is shaped like a flat pan or wok, where the water naturally will find the lowest spots on the field, and make smaller or bigger water floods. Just like the Illinois landscape and landscapes all over the world. The lawn was harrowed, 4 inches of topsoil were brought in from outside Chicago and laid out. The soil mix was important to loosen up the very clayey soil and to add a better texture to the ground.

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The seedlings were transplanted at the end of June. The cabbages formed their heads on the fall equinox, around the opening of the Biennial, and the first public harvest took place at the Garfield Park Conservatory on the 21st of September 2019. The harvesting of the cabbages will continue through fall and winter. The visual expression of the field will probably peak and appear most beautiful at Thanksgiving in November.

We have chosen a type of cabbage called Green Vantage Point. Vantage Point is a late-maturity type with good yields. It has large beautiful green leaves and exceptionally dense heads and a well-filled interior, which helps this variety keep well during shipping and storage in storehouses or fridges.

Staff and teachers at Garfield Park Conservatory will manage the harvesting, the distribution and communication on cabbage and visitors will be able to harvest cabbages and bring them home. During the season, Garfield Park Conservatory will focus their learning and teaching programs toward cabbage and agriculture. Our wish is that the cabbage will slowly spread out in the streets and homes of Chicago with whatever purpose that the individual must have for the cabbage or that it is transformed into a meal and studied at the kitchen placed in the foreground of the field.

The field will decay and compost as a living carpet towards the end of the Biennial in January. After that, the lawn will be re-established, when the frost allows it, around March and April. The project, then, will have had a one-year cycle.

For its part, the kitchen offers a social outdoor ‘interior’ space with a large plate or plane that functions as a table. The table height is made for children and should offer a playful experience with nature elements: earth, water, wind and fire. The kitchen functions not only as a kitchen but also as a stage, a display and as a platform for social interaction, meetings and gatherings.

The cabbage field and the kitchen are meant to be a common resource that exceeds the conventional relation between institution, market and the public.

For Danish artists Karen Gamborg Knudsen and Kasper Magnussen, the Cabbage Patch is an exploration into society and culture.

This year’s Biennial in Chicago is working around themes related to Chicago and ’the spatial, historical, and socio-economic conditions of the city, including questions of land, memory, rights, and civic participation’. How does your project tap into this vision?

Gamborg and Magnussen: We want the work to be as open as possible. Open for interpretation and engagement. From the last months of experience of developing the project — including meetings, conversations, visits and revisits with a wide range of people and partners — we found out that every part and step of creation is important. With the cabbage as center point — as orbit — it is creating meaning through site-specific and individual stories, knowledge and memories. That has been an amazing experience and we are thankful to the people involved.

The Cabbage Patch consists of cabbages as the central and only element of the project. What are your thoughts behind the use of the cabbage as an object and element in your work?

Gamborg and Magnussen: Cabbage is a beautiful bodily object. Cabbage is an overlooked object — an Objet trouvé. Cabbage is both an object, a head, and a vegetable. So it asks many questions in terms of meaning, cultivation, culture, use, ethics and aesthetics.

Objects are powerful and have been shaped, invented and reinvented for centuries. We are interested in how we can influence especially the physical world and people’s minds by asking what things are. What happens when we relate and re-relate to them? What kind of friction and spaces are there between new constellations?

We are moving and transporting ideas both though autonomous pieces of art and architecture and though juxtaposition and new compositions. Our driving force is finding methods of working by looking at heritage and substance in things. We want to take a step deeper into what we don’t know. We are attracted by old fashioned and universal matter as beauty and significance in a contemporary manifestation.

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Photo / Brian Kinyon

As we mentioned, we see the field as a hyper object, a man-made agricultural landscape, that we place in a museum garden as a temporary part of the collection of plants and constructed landscapes. We are asking what kind of new objects are we creating as humans, as collective partners in crime? And, in terms of the social, what is new social public space?

The kitchen at Garfield Park Conservatory is a modest proposal consisting of an assembly of physical elements that a kitchen normally consists of. The kitchen is maybe more demanding than the field. The field is more intuitive and immediate when you meet it, walk through it, and harvest it. The kitchen, on the other hand, asks more of you in the sense that people have to invest themselves in the presence, the inconvenience, in the making and in the transformation. Both kitchen and field refer to the genre of still life and landscape painting. The work is laid out with precision and care for the place to propose pictorial and immediate meaning, both in how it is built, how it is used and how it relates.

The vision with the Cabbage Patch is explained as “connecting communities through shared visions”. How do you envision to engage the visitors and in what way do you expect the project to contribute to the surrounding community of Garfield Park and Chicago in general?

Gamborg & Magnussen: We think it is a difficult question to answer. We have made a proposal, realised the project with help from partners and people. Now we have handed it over to Garfield Park Conservatory and the communities. In the process, we have communicated the project to people from very different spheres: government officials, civil servants, project managers, directors, CEOs, teachers, counsel people, chefs, gardeners, craftsmen etc. It is about connecting beyond human resources, social and economic wealth. We hope that the work is taken for what it is: a cabbage field, 10,000 cabbages and a kitchen. The work is, in itself, a statement. Now people are free to appropriate it. The magic and the invisible can hopefully happen from now on.

What are your long-term visions and expectations for the future of the Cabbage Patch in the local area?

Gamborg & Magnussen: Digestion is either slow or fast — or just perfect. To be honest, we have no expectations. We hope for new meaning and new relationships and awareness. There are things we cannot control, especially in how the work is received and what emotions, discussions or meetings it will bring about. We have ourselves experienced and felt both pleasure and anxiety about it. Paradoxical and conflicting conceptions of the work are certainly present.

We don’t have a specific vision for the Cabbage Patch other than to see what will happen. We are looking forward to the blooming of the cabbage in November and the decay in January and February. And re-establishing the lawn is also an interesting enterprise. For the people in general and from West Chicago it is an opportunity to come close to the cultivated nature surrounding the big cities, looking at produce, at plants, getting hands dirty and being social in another kind of space. Finally, we hope that it may bring something unexpected and that people’s relation to cabbage will be changed forever.

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