Fallen Fruit of Utah: Bounty, Beauty and Community

(L-R): Austin Young, Matias Viegener and David Burns, the three artists behind Fallen Fruit in Utah. Photo: Adam Heath

Fallen Fruit is an artistic collaboration among three California-based artists: David Burns, Matias Viegener and Austin Young. The trio’s original art project was to create maps of publicly accessible fruit—places in and around Los Angeles where fruit trees grow on or over public property. Still mostly based in LA, their work includes an ongoing series of narrative photographs, videos, public events and collaborative performances. They also host fruit tree plantings and public fruit parks. They get their message out through public-service posters hung on bus shelters as well as interactive installations and murals. From protests to proposals for new urban green spaces, Fallen Fruit aims to reconfigure the relationship between those who have resources and those who do not, to examine the nature in and the nature of the city, and to investigate new, shared forms of land use and property.

The same three artists have collaborated on a Salt Lake-based exhibit called Fallen Fruit of Utah. This is the first time the trio has done a major Fallen Fruit project outside of California. Here, their goal was to craft a show that would seamlessly splice together two types of art collections through the common factor of fruit. One source of art that would ultimately make its way into this exhibition was academic collections—works found in museums and historical archives. The other sources were the much more personal and intimate collections of Utah families. In the exhibit, fruit is seen both as deeply symbolic and simply decorative, both ordinary and special, sometimes at the same time. The three artists tapped eight different historic collections and archives to assemble their comprehensive look at fruit in Utah. Works were culled from university and church museum collections, as well as from small-town archives. In addition to these museum-held pieces, more than two dozen families agreed to lend artwork to the collective. As a result, the artists of Fallen Fruit were able to assemble works that range from the spiritual and symbolic to representational landscapes and more commonplace, everyday objects. The end goal of this exhibition was to draw our attention to the meaning of fruit, the aesthetics of deliciousness and the bounty and goodness of the familiar.

It is a daunting task to take something so ordinary and to encourage the public to re-examine its relationship with it. Fruit can, after all, be a subject, an object, a thing or a symbol. It can be linked to an early-childhood memory and can stir forgotten emotions. It is incredibly personal, yet it is universal and familiar the world over. It is linked to the very migrations that brought people into Utah. It is hard to find someone without some sort of positive connection to fruit.

We were able to speak with Burns to get his take on the Salt Lake project. The first revelation was that the seed for the Fallen Fruit of Utah exhibit was planted by the Salt Lake Art Center itself. “The people at the Salt Lake Art Center had been aware of our work for a little while. They asked if we could reimagine some of the ideas from our project as it might relate to Utah and specifically, to Salt Lake City,” says Burns. The group saw this as an opportunity to reinvent its own project, and it jumped at the chance to research and create an exhibit specific to Salt Lake.

What they were able to craft is an exhibit that underscored the ideas of pioneering and what viewers bring along—some things that are idealistic and some things that are actual objects. Pioneer is, of course, a weighted term in Utah. When pioneers arrived in the valley, they brought a certain set of values. They brought the desire to tame the land. They also brought seeds and fruit trees and went about crafting a place where they would be comfortable—this is where the exhibit really strikes a chord. The way the group makes connections is through the images of fruit and how fruit gets attached to other meanings. These meanings can be both spiritual and religious or can take on the more symbolic representations of bounty or goodwill. All of these things come together and are very natural to Utah and to the development of the West. For Burns and his co-creators, this was one of their favorite collaborations.

“Salt Lake City is often described as a place of goodwill. The pioneer movement obviously came through Salt Lake, and along with that, all of the fruit trees had to be brought across the plains,” says Burns. “Very few fruits are native to North America, the exceptions being some berries and cactus fruit. Apples come from Kazakhstan. Oranges come from the Middle East and China. Much of what we consider European fruits aren’t even from Europe.” He went on to point out that we’ve known and understood the migration of fruit for a very long time. When we examine how fruit got to the West Coast, a major crossroad was Utah. “If we describe the development of the United States in the nineteenth century as a wheel, the center spoke really is Utah—a place that is commonly considered a place of bounty, beauty and community. For us it was naturally exciting, and we learned a lot from speaking with people, researching and looking through archives,” he says.

There are more than160 pieces in the exhibit spanning a wide variety of media, and it took the cooperation of many people, institutions and organizations. It feels real to walk through the exhibit. It’s not a facsimile of a thought, but an actualization of a thought. The proof of the collaboration’s brilliance is in the art it was able
to assemble.

“Some of my favorites are the Russian pieces from the Springville Museum of Art,” says Burns. Works by Boris Vasilevich Kondrashin and Vsevolod Andreevich Bazhenov especially stand out. Burns continued, “This was one of the first archives that we were able to learn about and make selections from. They were surprised that we were so interested in the Russian paintings. We were able to share that we weren’t only interested in paintings done about Utah, but anything currently in the state of Utah was eligible for the exhibit. They are fabulous paintings and are just wonderful for the show because they are so unexpected.” One of the greatest collections of Russian art in the West is held by the Springville Museum of Art, and it was great to see this little-known archive showcased here. Burns also mentioned the two carved wood pieces by Benson Whittle that were loaned from the Fairview Museum of History and Art. One is a large carved door with images of Adam and Eve, and the other is a carved log depicting Eve on her own. “We were really lucky that the museum was willing to have them transported. The Garden of Eden is obviously important to us, with its many interpretations and implications. There were, of course, many drawings and illustrations, but these two carvings, done by the same artist, are really important to the show,” says Burns.

There was also a series of five landscape paintings that really stood out. “We placed five landscapes in a row on one wall, installed along the horizon line in the paintings, which is atypical. Usually, landscapes are centered on the wall, but we arranged them this way to challenge the way we look at a landscape,” says Burns. He feels that these paintings help the viewer understand how much humans have changed their surrounding landscapes. Much of our understanding of the Old West is that it was a rough and savage place. This roughness was smoothed over with the settling of Salt Lake City. Our forbearers were able “to create culture out of nothing or not much. To use raw materials to build houses, to create a landscape. The creating of a landscape is very representative of the West. As a result, these paintings are very important. They are a representation of bounty and beauty and community,” he says.

One popular piece among visitors, and a great example of the everyday art angle of the exhibit, is a table covered with 1960s-era Relief Society acrylic grapes. These ubiquitous, oversized centerpieces were commonplace in Mormon households. The exhibit includes about 20 grape clusters that were all a little different, but still basically the same. They added a powerful and authentic vibe to the exhibit and elevated an everyday table decoration to a museum-worthy artifact.

The end result of Fallen Fruit in Utah matched exactly what the artists were hoping to create. It required the interest and the cooperation of many museums, agencies and families for the exhibit to take shape. Burns, Viegener and Young were able to find works that were sentimental and personal, to create a place that would really allow the austere to fall away. It appeals to everyone, and it excludes no one. That was their intent and it’s exciting to see how things came together. Fallen Fruit of Utah runs through Sept. 15 at the Salt Lake Art Center (20 S. West Temple). For more information and to download maps of publicly accessible fruit trees in the 9th & 9th and Marmalade neighborhoods, go to slartcenter.org.

(L-R): Austin Young, Matias Viegener and David Burns, the three artists behind Fallen Fruit in Utah. Photo: Adam Heath