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Duration:09:29
Uploaded:2017-06-15
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EARTHWORKS. LAND ART. EARTH ART. Whatever you call it, we look at what it means to make art out in nature and in the world from the 1960s to today. To support our channel, visit: http://www.patreon.com/artassignment.

Thanks to our Grandmaster of the Arts Indianapolis Homes Realty, and all of our patrons, especially Lynn Gordon, Patrick Hanna, and Constance Urist.

Subscribe for new episodes of The Art Assignment every other Thursday!

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(PBS Digital Studios logo)

You're 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 multisensory 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 would 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 co-star 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 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, invaluable.  

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, catch-all terms for a wide range of activities that were not an organized movement, but were certainly a noticable tendency.

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We're gonna 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've made land art since the 60s have done so with specific and differing approaches.

It's said that a visit to the pre-Colombian Great Serpent Mound in Ohio inspired Robert Smithson's best-known work, "Sprial Jetty".  In 1970, he and two assistants moved nearly 7,000 tons of Earth, basalt, 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 re-emerge 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 nonsite was its reprocessed, contained state in the gallery.  So in other words and using examples Smithson never did, actual Yosemite Valley, California would be a site and then Albert Bierstadt's 1865 painting "Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California" is the nonsite.  

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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 pierce through the tunnels to 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 and changing states and also allow people to see it who can't get to it.  Sometimes the documentation was the work, as in the land interventionists of Ana Mendieta whose haunting "Silueta Series" saw her inscribing female forms, sometimes hers, into a range of natural sites.  She'd create her marks and then photograph them, or film them on (?~5:26), 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 structuralist diagram or an expanded field that you propose might look like this.

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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, and 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 Dennis 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.

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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 walked 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 Patreon.com, a subscription-based platform that allows you to support creators you like in the form of a monthly donation.  Special thanks to our grand master of the arts, Indianapolis Homes Realty.  If you'd like to support the show, check out our page at patreon.com/artassignment.