granary project

The Granary Project                                             Dan Peterman  2004

A 2000 year old ceramic granary sits on display at the Art Institute of Chicago while its contemporary twin–a recent commission by the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park–placidly overlooks a 50 acre field on the outskirts of the city.

This project explores ecological links between these two objects, their histories, and the two sites they now inhabit.

The concept for the Granary project followed a decade-long fascination with a small grouping of Han Dynasty burial ceramics in the Asian collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. These objects caught my attention not just for their humble, rural elegance but as objects invested with ecological knowledge that felt familiar and legible to me across a two thousand year span of time. This small suite of ancient objects–a pigsty/latrine, a small grain milling shed, and a granary–spoke directly to ecological concerns that had occupied me in recent years: my garden; interests in waste, nutrient, and energy cycles; material considerations of my studio and art production; and issues related to land-use and food security. All activated by the energy and complexity of the surrounding cityscape of 8+ million. 

As funerary objects these modest models reminded me of my mortality; they made me ponder what (if anything) I would consider hauling with me into the afterlife–or leaving behind for others to reckon. A compelling temporal question emerged:  what does it mean to view the present as a halfway point on the way to the year 4000? What changes will another 2000 year stretch of human history bring? In that distant future – what will a granary look like?

The scaled-up replica granary that I built is made of post-consumer reprocessed plastic. A familiar material in my studio. It is a 21st century marker of petrochemical reliance, over-abundant waste, and material misuse. Like ceramics, plastics endure even if endless petrochemical extraction and combustion doesn’t. 

The Granary project occupies two sites. The Art Institute of Chicago and the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park – where the granary overlooks a 50 acre parcel of farmland. They are precisely linked by the University Park Metra Electric train line. This train runs from the urban center of Chicago (directly adjacent to the Art Institute) to the nearest fragments of prairie and agricultural landscape. It is precisely this trajectory that frames the fundamental questions of food security as defined across the globe by the proximity of dense population centers to agricultural resources. The train line thereby provides a meaningful platform for experiencing the Granary project. Visiting these two sites via train, rumbling along a trajectory through time and space from the museum at the center of the city to nearby farmland, is perhaps where one can most clearly witness the precarious balance and urgency of urban and rural coexistence–past, present and future. 


Nathan Manilow Sculpture park is situated on a 750 acre site in University Park, Illinois, that includes the campus of Governors State University, several tracks of agriculture land and the Sculpture Park. 

Reference: The mingqi Pottery buildings of Han Dynasty China 206 BC-AD 220, Quinghua Guo, Sussex Academic Press 2010