The Case for Land Art | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

out in the world, exploring a part of the
immensely varied landscape of our dear planet Earth, freed
from your desk or whatever in life chains you. You marvel at the
beauty, the grandeur, the unfathomable
immensity of it all. You reflect on
humankind’s ability to control the landscape
and dramatically fail to control it. It’s a multi-sensory
experience, being in the outdoors, with
visual input, of course, but also with plenty to hear,
touch, taste, and beyond. Our world has dimensionality,
and it’s always changing, too. Why, oh why anyone
feel the urge, the hubris to put art out here? What kind of an art can
thrive in the presence of such a formidable costar as Earth? This is the case for land art. We tend to think of art
as primarily belonging to the indoor realm, to museums,
galleries, to our homes, and places we congregate. Sure, there are murals and
sculptures here and there, but even when art
is outside, it’s still framed, bolted to a
pedestal or a concrete slab, perched next to
a fancy building, or nestled within a manicured
sculpture park drafting, off the reputation
of the institution to which it’s tethered. This framing helps
divide these objects from the other, lesser objects
that surround you and tell you that what you’re looking at
is special, authentic, rare, and valuable. Beginning in the late 1960s,
an increasing number of artists started questioning this kind of
separation and framing of art, leaving the city and making
stuff out in the world. Sometimes it involved
putting new material out into the world, like Robert
Smithson’s temporary mirror displacements, and sometimes it
entailed taking material away, like Michael Heizer’s immense
excisions from a Nevada mesa. Some of the projects were
monumental and long lasting, like James Turrell’s ongoing
Roden Crater, and other times light and ephemeral, like
Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking, where he walked
back and forth across a meadow, drawing in his way a
line of flattened grass. People started to call these
things earth art, earthworks, environmental art, or
land art, catchall terms for a wide range of
activities that were not an organized movement
but were certainly a noticeable tendency. We’re going to call
it land art, and we’ll define it as art that is made
within or atop or involving a landscape, or art that
is made from materials drawn from the landscape. Yeah, yeah, yeah, all
art is technically made from natural materials, but
we have to work from somewhere. Let’s just agree
that it’s a spectrum, and this is more land
art than say, this. But there’s a lot in between. And of course, humans have
been making dramatic marks on the landscape since
prehistoric times. Across cultures and
centuries, people have made highly site
specific gestures, drawing lines, building
mounds, and erecting massive geometric earthworks. But just as each of these
stem from vastly different motivations, the artists who
made land art since the 60s have done so with specific
and differing approaches. It’s said that a visit to the
pre-Columbian Great Serpent Mound in Ohio inspired Robert
Smithson’s best known work, Spiral Jetty. In 1970, he and two assistants
moved nearly 7000 tons of earth, basalts, and
boulders into the form you see here, projecting
into Utah’s Great Salt Lake. It became submerged in
1972 and stayed that way until drought caused it to
reemerge 30 years later, but that’s precisely what
attracted him to the site. Drawn to the concept
of entropy, Smithson explored in this work
and others the reality that an artwork is never
fixed and experiences decay from the moment it’s made. He also theorized
the relationship between a site out
in the world and what happens in an art gallery. In a series he called Nonsites,
Smithson brought materials like rocks from a specific
place into a gallery and put them into shaped
bins, positioning them next to a wall map indicating
where the material originated. For Smithson, the site
was that natural location, and the non-site
was its reprocessed, contained state in the gallery. So in other words,
and using examples Smithson never did, actual
Yosemite Valley in California would be a site, and then Albert
Bierstadt’s 1865 painting, Looking Down Yosemite Valley,
California, is the nonsite. Smithson wrote, “the relation
of a Nonsite to the Site is also like that of
language to the world. It is a signifier and the site
is that which is signified.” Many artists at the time were
trying to escape these terms and break free from
the museum or gallery. Making work out in
and with the landscape was a way to do just that. Nancy Holt’s sun tunnels
in Northwestern Utah stemmed from her motivation
to allow visitors a way to experience the
vastness of the land while also meeting the human
desire for containment. Four concrete
tunnels are arranged in an open X, aligned with
the rising and setting of the sun on the summer
and winter solstices. Holes pierced
through the tunnels represent the stars of
four constellations, to provide a sense of
connection to the universe and also allow light to filter
through and create changing patterns and shadows
throughout the day. Holt’s work, and that of many
working in the landscape, depend heavily on
photography, film, and video to document it in its
various unchanging states, and also allow people to
see it who can’t get to it. Sometimes, the
documentation was the work, as in the land interventions
of Ana Mendieta, whose haunting Silueta series saw her
inscribing female forms, sometimes hers, into a
range of natural sites. She created her marks and
then photographed them or filmed them on Super
8, with only herself or a handful of
others as witness. The way the body moves through
space was of great concern to many land artists, who
often blurred the boundaries between art and architecture. In 1979, art historian
Rosalind Krauss wrote an essay trying to make
sense or at least begin to of land art, as it relates
to the category of sculpture. Whereas modernist
sculpture, which had its origins in the
tradition of the monument, could maybe once be seen as the
thing that was not landscape and not architecture, with all
this wacky new installation and land art at the
time, perhaps sculpture would now be better
understood as being part of a structureless
diagram or an expanded field that she proposed
might look like. This is pretty
impossible to parse, but that’s kind of what
she was getting at, working to complicate and break up
the firmly divided categories for art that had ruled
the day up until then. Art in a gallery was isolated
from the outside world, which in the 1960s and 70s
was rife with conflict. The Vietnam War, the Civil
Rights and Black Power movements and
Second Wave Feminism were easier to forget
within the white cube. As art critic Barbara
Rose wrote in 1969, “a dissatisfaction with the
current social and political system results in
an unwillingness to produce commodities
which gratify and perpetuate that system. Here the sphere of ethics
and aesthetics merge.” The 70s saw the birth of the
modern environmental movement, and land artworks also
addressed a number of ecological concerns,
not just out in the desert, but firmly in
civilization, as well. For his work Time
Landscape, Alan Sonfist replanted an abandoned rubble
strewn lot in Manhattan with plants indigenous
to the island, recreating what might
have existed there before it was settled. The work sought to
connect urbanites to their city’s natural
heritage and bring light to the seemingly runaway
train of development. It’s still there, by the way. Agnes Denes cleared the
rubble from a landfill further downtown, planted
a two acre wheat field, maintained it for four
months, and harvested a yield of healthy
wheat just blocks from Wall Street and
the World Trade Center. The work took place on
hugely valuable land, and called attention
to the choices we make in managing and
mismanaging our resources. Land art opened up a whole
new way of working with place, kicking off a trend
in art that remains strong of paying attention
to the particularities of a site, its geology, its
ownership, its histories, its present. Whether in a dense city or
out in the middle of nowhere, everything everywhere
is site specific, and land art strips away
those framing mechanisms to help us realize that. The best of land art makes
it impossible to forget where you are and sets into
relief your surroundings with a clarity that jolts
you out of the one thing after anotherness
of everyday life. Land art at its best helps us
map our location in the world, and in time. It’s often inconvenient,
and it cannot be rushed. It must be walk
through and around, and revisited at different times
of day and in varying weather. But in this, the age
of the Anthropocene, in which we acknowledge
the extent to which humans are actors on the natural
systems of our planet, it’s land art that is
perhaps best suited to help us contemplate our
complicated relationship with nature. Are we part of nature
or separate from it? Do we make nature
or does it make us? What is the right way
to live here on Earth? What kinds of structures
and places and systems do we want to build? What is conquest and
what is cultivation? The Art Assignment is funded
in part by viewers like you through, a
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of a monthly donation. Special thanks to
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