"The Desert –roseate metallic blue & insect green blank mirrors & pools of silver a universe in one body" - Jim Morrison, The Desert
Last week a mysterious 12-foot tall, metal monolith was discovered in the middle of the desert in the American state of Utah. Wildlife resource officials noticed it while they were flying over Red Rock Country doing a routine check, "I'm assuming it's some new wave artist or something. Or, you know, somebody that was a big '2001: A Space Odyssey' fan", said one of the pilots. The Utah desert is no stranger to land art, it has been a cultural phenomenon since the 1960s for artists including Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, Michael Heizer, and Walter de Maria. In essence, and art exists between the wilderness and the metropolis . Land art does not simply allow you to be a viewer - as you would to a painting. The spectator’s engagement with the land is transformed into an experience that reinstates the body within its natural habitat.
Land art can be interpreted as a mediator; between what we know and what we don’t know about non-human nature.
When did Land Art start?
In 1969, when NASA took the photo of Earth on their Apollo 11 voyage, humanity’s perception of the planet was forever changed - the Earth was seen as a toy that can be played with. This new awareness of the sensibility of the Earth could have contributed to the land art movement, as these artists' inspiration came directly from the natural world and our relation with it. Land artists began to get their hands dirty, working with their bodies or using machines to leave their impression on the land, as the dinosaurs once did with their footprints.
Mediator between the Populus and Solitude
“Size determines an object, but scale determines art… Scale depends on one’s capacity to be conscious of the actualities of perception.”
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970) Great Salt Lake, Utah, 460m long x 4.6m wide, 6000 tons of basalt rock and earth
Robert Smithson created a short film under the same title that plays as a sort of film noir suspense that pulls the viewer into the mystique of the spiral. The documentation remains the most important relic for land art, and for Spiral Jetty the movie epitomizes the scale of the artwork. To get to the Spiral Jetty you must drive through remote highways in Utah, eventually leading you to a parking lot, and finally a trek towards the Great Salt Lake. Spiral Jetty is in constant change in response to its surrounding landscape such as the salt crystals, rocks, and water. Sometimes it's submerged underwater, and at times a walk on the rocks is possible. This permanent land art also exists as an ephemeral one; it’s never in the same state twice.
“The idea for Sun Tunnels became clearer to me while I was in the desert watching the sun rising and setting, keeping the time of the earth.”
Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels (1976), Great Basin Desert, Utah, 4 concrete tunnels,
Once again in the Utah desert, Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels offer the spectator a unique visit each time. These concrete tunnels originally used to transport water are installed on top of the ground, with holes carved out in a particular order for the sun to shine through. The experience inside the Sun Tunnels at specific moments during the summer and winter solstice ignites a deeper connection to our place within the Earth and the cosmos.
Mediator between the Sublime of Nature
“Isolation is the essence of Land Art.”
Walter de Maria, Lightning Field (1977) New Mexico, 400 stainless steel poles, 1 mile long
Although documentation of land artworks is the best way to share the experience, Walter de Maria commented on his Lightning Field, “No photographs or other recorded images can completely represent it.” The site-specificity of this artwork was researched by the artist and was chosen in particular because of the high number of lightning storms the landscape attracts per year. As de Maria said, “ natural disasters are the highest art form... the land is not the setting for the work, but a part of the work.”
Mediator between the eras
"There is nothing there, yet it is still a sculpture."
Michael Heizer, Double Negative (1969), Nevada, excavation 15m high x 9m wide x 457m long
The Anthropocene is a human activity made evident through environmental transformations; it's our inherent past, determinable present, and questionable future. When these land artists began their work in the late 1960s-70s, the term Anthropocene had not been coined yet. The negative space created in the land, juxtaposed with the rawness of the Nevada desert displaces the visitors in a void, both physically and historically.
The American desert remains a cultural phenomenon and location of interest for either art installations or music festivals (Coachella, Burning Man). These artists chose to work outdoors not only because the monumentality of their works cannot be produced in the gallery, but because the desert offers a place for contemplation, where one can be somewhere and nowhere at the same time. By acknowledging the sublime power of nature our vulnerabilities are exposed, whether visible in the form of a lightning storm or invisible like a virus. Land art reveals - like the state of the Spiral Jetty - that everything is temporary and nothing lasts forever.