I was announced as University of Art London's Environment International Artist Residency Programme resident artist at Joya earlier this year. This blog includes some of my preparatory work for the Residency, taking place in the Autumn.
Joya: arte + ecología is an arts led field-research centre based at the farmstead of Cortijada Los Gázquez in Andalusia, Almeria province. Joya is off-grid and emphasises a discourse between artists and the environment and sustainability. In preparation, it felt appropriate to review some examples of land and environmental art to try and understand if this type of thinking could inform my practice at the Joya residency.
In particular I have found a book entitled Land and Environmental Art, helpful in my research. The full reference for this book is: Krastner, J. (1998) Land and Environmental Art. London: Phaidon. This blog includes some thoughts on artworks pointed to me by this insightful book, and a few quotations directly from the book, which I have marked as such.
De Maria, W. (1969) Las Vegas Piece
De Maria’s Las Vegas Piece consists of four 244cm wide and 1.6km long trenches in the earth, orientated North-South and East-West. According to Land and Environmental Art the work “explores the ideas of measurement and orientation of the body in the landscape. By digging into the earth, De Maria also comments on how map-making devices are imposed on the natural landscape” (Krastner 1998). The four trenches create a frame which allows us to celebrate, enjoy and even fetishize the landscape’s natural contours and features, such as the flow and weave of the dry river bed. In some respects, it evokes a gargantuan version of the quadrat sampling technique used in biology/ecology, where a 0.5m square frame is tossed randomly, and all organic matter within that square is documented. There is even some similarity between De Maria’s deliberate piece and the photos I have taken of Australia from high above, where straight roads and telegraph lines divide and frame the organic terrain of the red interior (see photo).
Land and Environmental Art describes how De Maria’s piece is meant to be experienced at ground level. In some respects, this is a surprise given how stunning it looks from above. But it does open up another way of encountering the piece, and; perhaps most alluring (but impossible?) the possibility of understanding the ground and the aerial view simultaneously. This reminds me of a level in the Call of Duty computer game from about 10 years ago, where the split screen saw a helicopter pilot escort a ground-based infantry member through a landscape. In this case, through the medium of computer graphics, the split screen did allow one to experience both the map and the terrain simultaneously.
Dibbets, J. (1968) Perspectives Correction (Square with Two Diagonals) and Holt, N. (1973-76) Sun Tunnels
These two works also use the concept of framing the landscape, albeit in different ways. Perspectives Correction is a M.C. Escher style tromp d’oeil, where marks are made on the ground in such a way that, from one viewpoint only, they look like a square with two diagonals. It is an interesting interpretation of the biology quadrat aesthetic, and also introduces the question of perspective into the dialogue between the map and the experience of the land.
Sun Tunnels is a complex and grand piece. Whilst it first seems a bit ostentatious – weighty concrete tunnels placed into the Great Basin Desert in Utah - it appears to allow a pleasingly interactive and individual experience for viewers, who can tunnel through it, climb onto it, peer through it or look at it. What’s more the artwork changes depending on the time of the year, with the ultimate experience reserved for the solstices when the tunnels point towards the rising and setting sun. Sun Tunnels provides a couple of interesting interpretations of the frame concept; first, the arid and stunning desert landscape is framed by the circular tunnels; second, the framing is temporal in that at a specific time of year a certain celestial event is framed.
The small constellations of circular holes in the tunnel walls provide another dimension. The play of light and shadow through these holes endlessly changes, influenced by the sun and moon’s phases throughout the year. I’m unsure if this is obvious, but when the images of Sun Tunnels are minimised and juxtaposed, I get the impression of a cosmic photograph – perhaps a remote solar system’s planets gathering around a giant star? Clearly relevant to my work at Lumen.
Smithson, R. (1969) Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan
Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan consists of twelve square mirrors photographed in nine different sites across the Yucatan. Each positive shape could be thought of as representing the inverse of the frames described in the last few examples, although for me they play a broadly similar function in the landscape. First, there is the introduction of something hard and artificial that accentuates the organic contours of the landscape. Second, each mirror captures an image; a tantalising moment grasped in the always changing flux of the natural environment. To quote Land and Environmental Art “the works existed for only a short timeframe, but the images trapped by the camera are timeless traces of memory” (Krastner 1998). Third, we use of the same material in each photograph emphasises the variation in the rest of the picture – i.e. the landscape and its ecology. It is almost like a touchstone or key which helps decode the rest of the image.
Smithson, R. (1969) The Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis)
At first I was attracted by the aesthetics of this piece, although I now think the description in Land and Environmental Art adds an extra layer to my experience of the work. “The glass is a map of a non-existent island which catches the sun’s rays and radiates brightness without electric technology. The cracked transparency of the piles of glass diffuse the light of their solar source”. The shards of glass, the glimmering light, the poetic description of a lost time and place – combines in a heady mix, in my mind anyway.
Baldessari, J. (1969) The California Map Project, and Oppenheimer, D. (1978) Relocated Burial Ground
Two further works explore the links between cartography and the ‘real world’. California Map Project consists of the ten letters spelling C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A, arranged at ten locations throughout the state (and then photographed). Their physical location is determined by the layout of the word CALIFORNIA on a map of America (see top left image). California is roughly 750 miles long, and that is, in principle, the size of this piece of work. In contrast to this grandness, some of the letters are very discreet, and in some instances simply make use of the existing landscape – the letter L is a lamppost and its shadow.
Relocated Burial Ground again applies a map feature to a corresponding landscape, but this time using a familiar and playful cartographic device – X marks the spot.
Heizer, M. (1972-76) Complex City and Mueller, C. P. (1997) A Balancing Act
A couple of cautionary tales to finish off with. First, Heizer’s Complex City. It is an enormous construction of concrete and volcanic rock located in the middle of the empty Nevadan desert. It is probably easy to take a dislike to the work given its environmental and climate impact, its grandiose scale, and its disharmony with the local environment. On the other hand, all that could be said about Las Vegas, and similar to Las Vegas, it is undoubtedly place worth experiencing. Perhaps Complex City is a critique of Las Vegas? Possibly, although the euphoric language in Land and Environmental Art suggests otherwise: “The presence of the objects overwhelm with the immensity of its scale. Heizer remarks: ‘It is interesting to build a sculpture that attempts to create an atmosphere of awe […] Immense, architecturally-sized sculptures create both the object and the atmosphere […] awe is a state of mind equivalent to religious experience […] to create a transcendent piece of work means to go past everything’” (Krastner 1998). Heizer’s intention, conveyed via Krastner, is almost the exact opposite of the promise Walter Benjamin saw in new forms of art available in the 20th century, where the long-held quasi-religious ‘aura’ of art is corroded by democratised technologies (see Benjamin, W. (1935) The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility).
Finally, a slightly poignant piece. Mueller’s A Balancing Act is an installation based around the Friedrichsplatz in Kassel. Kassel, remember, is the location for Joseph Beuys’ pioneering work 7000 Oakes, which I have already briefly written about. The permanent parts of this work, alongside some of the original oaks (see image), previously resided in the Friedrichsplatz square, alongside Vertical Earth Kilometer by De Maria. Mueller’s piece commemorates the work of Beuys and De Maria, which have been displaced as part of the construction of an underground car park. Much environmental art is fleeting and temporal – but one would usually think because of environmental processes more than town planning. This is perhaps an inherent danger of art outside of the exhibition space. Can practice embed this recurrent risk of damage and destruction by humans?