GARFIELD PARK — For most people, a head of cabbage is just a head of cabbage: a bland, mundane veggie packed with fiber and Vitamin C, a bane to children hoping to skip ahead to dessert, notorious for its eggy, sulfurous odor that lingers for hours in the kitchen after it is cooked.
But when artists Karen Gamborg Knudsen and Kasper Magnussen look at cabbage, they see so much more.
“An object like the cabbage is something everybody understands in some certain sort of way, they have a relation to cabbage,” Magnussen said. “It’s already a very powerful object in the way that everybody has a relation to it.”
So when the Danish artists began designing a project for the Garfield Park Conservatory as one of the exhibitions for the Chicago Architecture Biennial, they decided to place the humble head of cabbage in the foreground of an art piece, repositioning it as a means of transforming the way people think about food, gardening, architecture, landscaping and urban agriculture.
“Here we are in a kind of museum where you have collections to archive,” Knudsen said of the conservatory. “You collect plants from all over, and then we take this common vegetable and the agricultural landscape and put it into a museum and say, ‘Let’s look at it again: how we use food, how we cultivate the landscape.'”
On the grounds of the Garfield Park Conservatory, Knudsen and Magnussen designed Cabbage Patch, an art installation that features 10,000 heads of cabbage in a field. After planting the cabbage in the spring, the veggies are now flourishing.
The cabbage patch is the Danish contribution to the Chicago Architecture Biennial, an international exhibition of innovative projects in architecture and design. Director of Conservatories Mary Eysenbach said the park district sought out artists and architects from Denmark as an homage to Jens Jensen, the Danish designer of the iconic glass dome and landscaped interior of the Garfield Park Conservatory.
The project is a collaboration between the Chicago Park District, the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, the Danish Architecture Center, the Danish Arts Foundation and the Danish Arts in Chicago.
Eysenbach originally expected to commemorate the biennial with an architecture project oriented more towards building design but was quickly sold on the cabbage plan.
“We were interested in the idea that you can transform land at any time. In this case, we would be changing the botanical garden into temporarily an urban agriculture site,” Eysenbach said.
By transforming a part of the conservatory, she wants visitors to also begin to think about land use in their own neighborhoods.
“I think the West Side is particularly ripe for this because of all the vacant lots,” Eysenbach said. “They can be anything.”
The artists also envisioned the installation would be a way to turn on its head the ordinary nature of cabbage, which they say is wrapped up in connotations of the vegetable as a “poor man’s food.” Magnussen and Knudson describe the cabbage patch as similar to a still life painting where the inherent meaning of the objects depicted changes based on how they are positioned and juxtaposed in relation to the objects, ideas and people around it.
“It all starts maybe with our interest in the cabbage as a beautiful object and the fields as a beautiful type of object,” Magnussen said, describing the skin-like texture, the multitude of pale to dark greens and violets and the intricate shapes that make up a head of cabbage.
Once the cabbage is fully grown, a participatory phase of the project will begin that will allow visitors at the conservatory to engage with the cabbage patch. By walking through the fields, harvesting, cooking, eating and composting the cabbage, the artists hope people will be able to appreciate the vegetable in a totally different way.
“In a way, it’s so common that we don’t even see it,” Magnussen said. “And then by twisting it a little and putting it in the foreground, maybe we make these things available in a new way, to things that we already know.”
Magnussen and Knudson are constructing an outdoor kitchen beside the cabbage patch that will serve as a focal point for observing and discussing the cabbage as the vegetable is transformed into food. From the kitchen, visitors can appreciate the cabbage patch from a perspective that brings the beginning and end of the food cultivation process full-circle.
The kitchen will host a series of free chef demonstrations and educational programming where visitors can eat the cabbage from the art installation. The activities at the kitchen will encourage discussions that dive into the cultural significance of the cabbage while also giving people more access to interacting with urban agriculture at every level from cultivation to harvest to composting.
“We have these visions of you either coming here with your school, carrying a cabbage home to your family, and either you put it on the table and look at it … and maybe also it becoming an object of care in a way. Or you eat it and you share it with your family or with friends,” Knudson said.
The cold-weather crops will slowly be harvested across the fall and winter, and the installation will remain until Jan. 5, the final day of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.