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Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Image courtesy of Dia:Beacon © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation
You may have come across an image of a giant rock and san spiral taken from a plane, maybe even while browsing through a travel magazine. The iconic image of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty has become a symbol of many things, and oftentimes people forget that at its core this image represents a new kind of art focused on the environment called Land art.
What is Land Art?
Land art, also known as Earth art, is art that is made directly in the landscape, by sculpting the land itself into artworks or by creating structures in the landscape using materials found on-site such as rocks, sand, or even water. Land art emerged as a primarily American movement and as part of the larger conceptual art movement in the 1960s. Conceptual art is art for which the idea or concept behind the work is more important than the finished product. A lot of the works created as part of the Land art movement were ephemeral and thus only photographic evidence survives as proof that they once existed. This is why the concept for them is more important than the actual piece that was created.
Walter de Maria, Lightning Field, 1977. Image courtesy of Public Delivery.
The conception of Land art coincided with the beginnings of the environmental movement and the commoditization of American art in the late 1960s. What the artists of the Land art movement sought to do was to create art that was divorced from the commercialized art market. These artists favored materials that could fully be extracted from nature and were even influenced by prehistoric artworks such as Stonehenge. An important part of the movement consisted of using the resources that were available on-site, thus Land art was one of the first kinds of art that dealt with the concept of site-specificity. Different artists chose different sites for a variety of reasons. One of the most well-recognized artists of the movement, Robert Smithson, picked damaged sites for his works in order to suggest renewal and rebirth. The idea of site-specificity revolutionized the art world because the Land art movement required wide, open spaces, often in remote locations, which in turn caused this type of art to not be available to the average viewer. Thus, Land art put into question the purpose of art as something that needs to be viewed by someone first-hand, since it could be similarly experienced through photographs as a concept.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Gates, 2005. Image courtesy of Wolfgang Volz.
Another interesting thing about Land art was that artists were fine with leaving their artworks exposed to the elements. In fact, they wanted the elements, such as rain, wind, and even fire, to alter the original pieces. This resulted in ephemeral works that were eventually disintegrated. This concept set Land art side from the typical art world work that was coddled and protected in controlled environments such as museums or galleries. The rejection of traditional art world settings was a monumental part of the Land art movement. By creating works outside of the established institutions, Land artists challenged the commodity and commercial status that society had placed on art. This further challenged the traditional mindset that art should be bought and sold for profit.
Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels, 1973-76. Image courtesy of Exposition Arts.
Major Figures & Pieces
As mentioned before, one of the most well-known figures of the movement is Robert Smithson, but there are many figures in this movement that deserve recognition.
- Robert Smithson. Robert Smithson became best known for his earthwork Spiral Jetty (1970). Spiral Jetty is an earthwork sculpture built on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah made up entirely of mud, salt crystals, and basalt rocks.
- Nancy Holt. Nancy Holt was an American artist most known for her public sculpture, installation art, and land art. Holt is most widely known for her large-scale environmental works, Sun Tunnels. Sun Tunnels consists of four massive concrete tunnels that react to the sun differently, aligned with the sunrise, sunset, of the summer or winter solstice.
- Walter de Maria. Walter de Maria used geometric forms to create a series of repetitions in his sculptures, installations, and land works. His most known Land work, Lighting Field (1977), is a grid of one mile by one kilometer installed in a remote area of the New Mexico desert. The grid consists of four hundred polished stainless steel poles with a pointed tip, the point of attraction for lightning strikes.
- Ana Mendieta. Ana Mendieta is known as one of the pioneers of the Land Art, especially for the manner the human body relates to and returns to nature. Through her photo and video series Silueta (1973-1980), the Cuban feminist artist, modeled her body into different landscapes to show the indissoluble connection between the earth and human nature.
- Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The practice of transformative wrapping is the signature of this land art couple. Through breathtaking scale and monumental displays of fabrics and plastic, they have created visually impressive, often controversial, outdoor large-scale works. They aim to completely transform the landscape into an entirely new environment and sculptural form and to elicit an immediate and powerful aesthetic. In 2005, one of their exhibitions, titled The Gates, was actually shown in Central Park.
Ana Mendieta, Anima (Alma/Soul), 1976. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian © Estate of Ana Mendieta.
How has the Land art movement evolved?
Land art has evolved and changed drastically since its conception over 50 years ago. Nevertheless, elements of land art can be found in many artist’s practices today. With less and less space available to artists, the new creators of Land art pieces have found ways to use the base ideas of the movement without having to go to remote spaces to create their pieces. This has also made Land art more accessible to the general public, which now has the opportunity to see the works first-hand.
Although Land art in its traditional sense has continued to evolve, it also has expanded beyond the United States and Western culture. For instance, in 1997 D.A.ST. Arteam, a group of women Greek creatives, Danae Stratou, Alexandra Stratou, and Stella Konstantinidis created Desert Breath, which explored the desert as a state of mind. This work was built in eastern Egypt where the Sahara Desert meets the Red Sea.
D.A.ST. Arteam, Desert Breath, 1997. Image courtesy of the artists.
One of the most notorious spaces in recent years where Land art artists have been able to easily showcase their work is the music festival Burning Man. In 2016, over 300 artists registered to bring their artworks to Burning Man’s Black Rock Desert. Many artists used the desert landscape indirectly as inspiration or directly through their performances and installations.
View of Mamou-Mani’s Galaxia (2018) at Burning Man Festival. Image courtesy of The Telegraph.
Around the world, different organizations have created spaces that allow artists to create Land art without having to go through the trouble of finding the space and getting the permits to do it. One of these places is Casa Wabi on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Casa Wabi is a boutique beach house and artist residency where artists are invited to join in a “meditative community filled with introspection and connection.” Although the art produced at Casa Wabi could be considered more Environmental art than Land art, it is still great that places dedicated to the production of on-site art are proliferating around the world.
Casa Wabi, 2021. Image courtesy of Alexa Firmenich.
Land Art vs. Environmental Art
Although Land art is rooted in the environment, it should not be confused with Environmental art. Environmental art is art that addresses social and political issues relating to the natural and urban environment. Environmental art is not always installation art and many artists actually approach it through paintings or photographs. Thus, one of the biggest differences between these two movements is that Land art is fully based on its environment while Environmental art deals with social and political themes relating to nature but they don’t always take place in nature.
An example of an Environmental artist is Andy Goldsworthy, who is an environmentalist that uses photography as one of his main mediums. Another important example is Agnes Denes, who works primarily in New York, and is considered the grandmother of Environmental art. Through her work, Denes explores the relationship between nature and the urban environment. Although she does site-specific works, like turning Battery Park City into a wheat field, a lot of her other work consists of poetry and computer renditions of different subjects.
Agnes Denes, Wheatfield- A Confrontation, 1982. Image courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.
So, all in all...
During this Earth month, it is important to reflect on the different ways the art world has impacted the environment and seek out artists and movements that attempt to make a positive change.
Check out the artists Curina has partnered up with, such as Seema Lisa Pandya, to celebrate Earth month and make a positive impact in the art sphere.