How land art learns not only to shape landscapes, but understand them.
Landscapes speak to us. Soaring mountains, deep canyons, wide seas—all fodder for song lyrics. But what is it that these expanses of natural space say to us? In the 1970s, a number of artists attempted to discover the answer by venturing out into that space, moving from the realm of representation into manipulation.
There was something monumental to these works. Artists like Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson crafted on massive scale, human attempts to transfigure the landscape into an ideal image, to replicate the environment in an orthogonal direction, cutting it with marks not unlike the Nazca lines in Peru, or building upward like the pyramids of Central America and Egypt. By positioning projects in the outdoors, these artists broke outside of the limiting confines of the museum, to consider the world, in its totality, as the situating place for art. As Smithson wrote: “Museums are tombs, and it looks like everything is turning into a museum.” Outside of those walls, monuments could move, the wind and rain could blow through them, and the art could connect with the world again. Artists like Nancy Holt and Charles Ross created work aligned to the heavens, to the motion of the stars and sun, seeking to connect to something larger than avant-garde movements, planetary motion as their guiding principle.
But these works were detached from the landscape at the same time. They connected on an aesthetic level, matching the world’s outrageous distance, its scale, and range, but with revelations about anthropogenic climate change comes a new picture of land art. Some work, like Smithson’s Monuments of Passaic New Jersey, ironically celebrates the anthropocene’s effects as a non-museum form of sculpture, documenting human’s environmental legacy. But as much as Smithson wanted to break out from the tomb-like museum and seek those vagaries of nature, that irony came around to bite him, as Spiral Jetty became one more tourist destination for land art fans. As Robert Louis Chianese writes: “Little environmental consciousness seems involved in Spiral Jetty. It’s inert and quite drab, isolated, somewhat elegant in its blunt simplicity, but essentially pointless, though it does somewhat humanize the remote and desolate site.”
Lucy Lippard, one of the foremost scholars of the environmental art movement, notes, “Earthworks play their part as the myth of the Old West gives way to the mundane real estate realities of the New West in a region where the land itself is more compelling than any museum; or, more pessimistically, where protected land and beauty strips are 'museumized' in a landscape marred by extraction and greed.” She hints at the similarity of land art and mining industry, noting that many land artists used the scars left by human resource extraction as models, “readymade” versions of the effect an artist might have on the blank canvas of the Western United States.
To treat the earth as a canvas for one’s own creation is little different than to treat its minerals as cash pouring from a natural ATM. Lippard, in her 2014 book Undermining, suggests the gravel pit, a depression where rock has been removed and crushed for concrete or road-building, is perhaps as significant a signature of our species’ actions as the pyramids: "As ruins, gravel pits are decidedly unspectacular. Their emptiness, their nakedness, and their rawness suggests and alienation of land and culture, a loss of nothing we care about. Gravel pits transform the incomprehensibly distant geological past into dubious futures. For many, gravel pits represent pure financial potential as the bedrock of skyscrapers and the backbones of highways."
Other artists have taken note of this as well. Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of freeway interchanges, quarries, mines, and dams catalog the devastation we have wrought upon the earth, harnessing the spectacle as artwork.
But other artists considered the earth as more than simply an aesthetic canvas. Ana Mendieta’s Silueta Series, for which the artist used her body to form shapes in grass, sand, and dirt, connects the impermanence of the human form with the natural world of which we are all an element. Her works, documented with photography, eventually faded in time as the landscape’s own biological motion took over—unlike the pits of Kennecott Copper’s mines, which Burtynsky photographs, or Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, which will remain for unknown lifetimes, perhaps outliving us all.
The ecology of a landscape is what exists below the spectacle, on the microscopic level, or even in plain sight, but obscured through time. Works like Patricia Johanson’s Fair Park Lagoon specifically combine sculpture and biology, in this case restoring native species to create a functional ecosystem out of a neglected, algae-ridden lake built for Dallas’ 1936 Centennial Exposition. Basia Irland’s Ice Books take river water and native seeds, and create an ephemeral sculpture that is then released back into the ecosystem from where it came, decomposing back into natural material as the ice melts.
Interacting with the earth has been our task even since we became a species, but it is only very recently that we have become conscious once again of the implications of this exchange. How are we to live upon the surface of a planet fraught with unknowns, as we unlearn the habits of history? Environmental art, as much as the science of building cities, should continue to evolve with us. Art’s chances for survival are the same as any of our human bodies'.
Perhaps Mendieta’s Siluetas, then, are the perfect image of earthwork's future—the shape of a human body, impressed upon the soil, until the weather we have wrought comes to wash our mark away forever.