Mildew Paintings and Urban Landscapes: Regarding Nature as a Creative Force

By Vera Maria Gjermundsen.

Fredrik Værslev and accidental mildew

One day, sometime in 2013, Norwegian artist Fredrik Værslev was very dissatisfied with the priming operation underwent by some of his canvases. Having tried, among other things, to bleach parts of the canvases in the sun for short amounts of time in order to alter the initial result of the priming, but having again failed to achieve his desired result, Værslev resolved to rolling up the canvases in plastic tubes and placing them outside in nature. They were then left there, forgotten by him and the world, for 12 months.

Now, the same canvases hang on the second floor of the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, next to a sign carrying the descriptive name «Mildew Paintings». What Peter J. Adams calls, in a quite telling way, Fredrik Værslev’s “painterly non-project” [1] is in fact a series of primed canvases upon which humidity and mildew, a particular kind of mold fungus that developed in the plastic tubes, have given life to their own visual expressions.

The accidental works were given aesthetic and artistic value by the artist only at the end of their creation, as he found them, removed them from the tubes and treated them to stop the molding process. Therefore, despite their current institutional location, they still can’t rely on the artist’s intention nor on the artist’s hand in order to justify their nature as paintings, having nothing but the physical support on which they’re made to designate them as such. What they are instead, is a series of fascinating non-works, a series of spontaneous natural creations providing the visual and physical manifestation of nature taking over the artistic process, acting at its own pace and on its own terms.

As an artist, mold has worked slowly and steadily, eating up the canvas bit by bit, corrupting shapes and colors: the result is a subtle progression of grays and greens, meeting on the canvases in hazy landscape-like scenarios. Here, the traces that still mark their year of storage in plastic tubes, become blurry lines, stretching from one side to the other of the works’ surface, as a multitude of horizons appearing and the disappearing through a distant fog.

There is something both poetic and wildly liberating about Værselv’s wish to take a step back, being it unconscious or conscious as one may want to debate upon, about his will to let go of his artistic intention and let the artwork instead create itself, by allowing nature to freely unfold as the main creative force. In fact, it can feel almost cathartic to be able to free oneself from established artistic categories and instead be faced with a nature that is completely left alone to both be and form the core of the work, as it goes on shaping itself and the artistic object at the same time.

Clément and the Third Landscape

It’s important to note that Værslev does not stand alone in his approach. On the contrary, one can, surprisingly enough, find traces of the same framework, although in a much more consciously defined format, within the field that traditionally has been characterized by the most nature-constricting aspects of humans’ art and design: namely in landscape architecture and urban gardening. Here, through the voice of garden designer, writer, theorist and botanist Gilles Clément, a similar desire has in fact come to life: a parallel will to let nature have its own voice by recognizing its value as designer of its own expression.

One of the fundaments behind this desire is Clément’s revaluation of the so called «Third Landscape», defined as all the forgotten, abandoned or inaccessible corners of natural wilderness that are present in our urban landscapes, all the spots where weeds and wild, untamed greeneries are left alone to unfold [2]. Recognizing the tangible worthiness, inventive force and aesthetic beauty of such wilderness, on the basis, among other things, of the biological complexity and biodiversity that arise in areas where man has stepped back,[3] Clément thus not only opens up a new perspective on urban gardening, but, at the same time, he can be seen as offering a whole new outlook on our present relation to our natural surroundings.

Talking about the new urban “gardener”, a figure who we can see as relating to us all, being that we all live and shape nature in our everyday urban environments, Clément in fact invites him/her not to control nature’s processes by taming them into unnatural composites and perfect urban landscapes, but instead asks him/her and every single one of us to work with nature [4], revaluing nature’s ability to creatively design its own space, as Værslev did himself when recognizing the artistic value of his Mildew Paintings.

One of the concrete examples of such an approach is Clément’s own design for the Henri Matisse park in Lille, which was completed in 1995 and where a central portion of the park was made to consist in an inaccessible “island” of wilderness, where natural processes and biodiversity are treasured, left untouched though closely monitored, and human presence is physically banned [5].

A new perspective

Both Værslev’s accidental non-works and Clément’s theoretical and practical approaches to urban gardening can be seen as similar inclinations to let go of our compulsive desire to shape, change and control nature, while they push us to step back from our role as constantly creative subjects and make us instead observers of nature’s own way of unfolding itself, both through art and urban landscapes. Both practices thus invite us to consciously “forget” our canvases, gardens and landscapes outside, to not interfere and instead to embrace the creativity and biotic diversity of both mildew, mold, weeds and wild branches and let them take over their own natural processes. It seems, from this perspective, that following the micro and macroscale of artists, thinkers and urban designers one can in fact push into a new, much needed direction the reigning unbalanced power-division between our present ruling class of (human) subjects and passive class of (natural) objects by giving creative independence and dignity to the latter.


[1] Adams, «Fredrik Værsel: Choppy Times».

[2] Clement, Manifesto Del Terzo Paesaggio, 9-11; Ibid., 17-18; Gandy, «Entropy by Design: Gilles Clément, Parc Henri Matisse and the Limits to Avant-Garde Urbanism», 263.

[3] Clement, Manifesto Del Terzo Paesaggio, 9-11; Ibid., 70.

[4] Ibid, 70.; Lanzoni, «Presentazione del Manifesto del Terzo Paesaggio di Gilles Clément», 146.

[5] Gandy, «Entropy by design: Gilles Clément, Parc Henri Matisse and the Limits to Avant-Garde Urbanism», 260-261.


Adams, Peter J. «Fredrik Værsel: Choppy Times». Gió Marconi. 06.10.18. http://www.giomarconi.com/exhibitions/11/Choppy_Times/

Clément, Gilles. Manifesto del Terzo Paesaggio. Macerata: Quodlibet, 2005.

Gandy, Matthew. «Entropy by design: Gilles Clément, Parc Henri Matisse and the Limits to Avant-Garde Urbanism». International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 73, nr. 1 (January 2013): 259-278. 06.10.18. https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.ezproxy.uio.no/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1468-2427.2012.01164.x

Lanzoni, Chiara. «Presentazione del Manifesto del Terzo Paesaggio di Gilles Clément, Giovedí 12 Ottobre, Triennale Lab». Ri-Vista Ricerche per la progettazione del paesaggio 5, nr. 7 (January-June 2007): 143-150. 05.10.18. http://www.fupress.net/index.php/ri-vista/article/view/17434/16218


Fredrik Værslev, Installation view: Choppy Times, Gió Marconi, 2013.