Brother, Can You Spare $2 Billion?: Is Artist Peter Fend an Autodidactic Genius or a Globetrotting Gadfly?

One thing is certain: he is keeping his eye on Larry Ellison.

“I’ll just say about the art world, which is sort of my message: there is a profound culture of inaction,” Mr. Fend said in his temporary studio. “And it is a problem we have with science and art and culture and our civilization.”

He hasn’t made it easy for himself. “What he’s always pushing against is that his research doesn’t have any validity in the scientific community or in the political community, in relation to how he practices,” said Mr. Birkett. “He’s testing the boundaries.”

He can also come across as paranoid; it’s hard to know where truth ends and fiction begins. “I know too many things,” he said, mentioning interference by governments and corporations. He talks about the obstacles he’s faced—financial shortages, lack of commitment from collaborators, that government interference. “I’m not trying to complain,” he said. “People think, ‘Oh, Peter, I guess he’s getting depressed; I guess he wants to commit suicide.’ No. You can say for the record—and I don’t know what other people think, but—I think essentially, to date, I have been a profound failure.”

If that is true, then lately he’s been failing better. He’s had many recent exhibitions, and his Essex Street show will travel to The Hague this year. “How does he get it to the next level?” asked Lee Wells, whose Peanut Underground gallery hosted Mr. Fend last year. He’s sold major works to museums, but will need a backer to test his ideas.

'Hawaii Energy Independence' (2013) by Fend. (Courtesy the artist, Essex Street and White Columns)

The new work: ‘Hawaii Energy Independence’ (2013) by Fend. (Courtesy the artist, Essex Street and White Columns)

On Tuesday he finally delivered his new piece to White Columns, which involves Larry Ellison, the billionaire Oracle founder who just bought the Hawaiian island of Lanai and has said that he plans to develop it into a “model for sustainable enterprise” complete with a small hotel, an expanded solar farm and a salt-to-freshwater conversion facility. Mr. Fend’s plan calls for the creation of a seaweed-harvesting system that could produce biofuel, using sail-powered submarines and rowboats—“nice old-fashioned technology”—since motors would disturb whales in the area. Teams of divers would be used to harvest the seaweed, creating jobs. “Throw away a couple billion dollars doing that,” Mr. Fend said. If it works, he hopes to expand it across the Pacific. And Mr. Fend has a connection: naval architect Marc Lombard, who worked with Ocean Earth on projects in the 1990s, is involved in the high-end yachting community, like Mr. Ellison. (Neither man has responded to a request for comment.)

“I’d make a proposal to you, in a way,” Mr. Fend told me at his studio. “You could write a story that could actually push history forward. What will be the effect of this proposal that I made? What is really going on with that guy? You can be really creatively aggressive, but still truthful, reporting about his acquisition of the island of Lanai.

“It’s not that we’re going to wait for him to come up with his press release,” he said. “We’re going to put the pressure on him.” He turned to one side, as if talking to Mr. Ellison. “I know you have $34 billion, but whatever you do is going to be very, very consequential. We really have to discuss it.”

Brother, Can You Spare $2 Billion?: Is Artist Peter Fend an Autodidactic Genius or a Globetrotting Gadfly?