Land art and site-specific art
In the 1960s, a number of artists in the United States and Europe, driven by a desire to escape the commercial and spatial confines of galleries and museums, developed monumental landscape projects. Also known as earthworks, or earth art, land art was in some way inspired by the geometrical forms of minimal art and some time-based conceptual art, but the artists were also responding to the origins of art in prehistoric stone circles and burial mounds. The 1970s saw the emergence of a back-to-the-land anti-urbanism and more spiritual attitude to the planet, and land art became part of a growing concern for both indigenous and ecological issues. Ecology is a vision of the interdependence of events in a regenerative system. The word ecology derives from the sense of habitat (from the Greek oikos, meaning household), but has developed to reinterpret economics, politics and social theory, and is linked inevitably to environmentalism. (Joseph Beuys’ ‘social sculpture’, especially his 1972 project to plant 7000 oak trees, shares many similarities with land art processes.)
Green awareness has been exerting a subliminal pressure on the collective imagination for decades. By the mid 20th century, nature itself was not safe from cultural intervention. The strong psychological craving to find in nature, with its turning seasons, a consolation for our mortality is as old as pagan primitive groves and tree worship. Venerations of nature are present in our city parks and our mountain hikes, especially as we are overrun with artificiality. Our conception of nature is, likewise, a ‘man-made’ construction, or intensely mediated (plastic flowers, ‘natural’ wood Formica patterns, simulated earthquakes at Warner Brothers studios), to say nothing of the ongoing degradation of planet Earth (the greenhouse effect, climate change, supercharged strains of grains and vegetables). Land art, environmental art and eco-art demonstrated the profound social need to affirm membership in the ecological truths of life and environment.
It has been argued that Gerry Schum, a German film director who made some of the first artists videos, coined the name ‘land art’ after he directed, produced and filmed the 1969 film of the same name. The film showed work from eight American and European artists: Marinus Boezem, Jan Dibbets, Barry Flannigan, Michael Heizer, Richard Long, Walter de Maria, Dennis Oppenheim and Robert Smithson. Schum came up with the concept after searching for a new venue for art, in order to displace the studio–gallery–collector triangle, which he logically billed as a Fernsehgalerie (television gallery). Responding to the invitation to make a work for Schum’s film, Long wrote: ‘I was happy to have the chance of conceiving a work in a new medium for me (film), which gave a new expression to my straight moorland walks of that time.’ He added, ‘If explanations are necessary, then the work is no good’ (Gerry Schum & Ursula Schum-Wevers, Land art, Hartwig Popp, Hanover 1970).
In his 1968 essay ‘The sedimentation of the mind: earth projects’, Smithson provided a critical framework for the movement as a response to the disconnection of modernism from social issues as represented by the formalist critic Clement Greenberg. He is also responsible for perhaps the most famous piece of land art, Spiral jetty 1970, which involved hauling nearly 6000 tonnes of rock and earth into a spiral-shape jetty protruding into Great Salt Lake in Utah.
De Maria was in Schum’s film and he too created a renowned work of land art, The lightning field 1977. Situated in the remote desert of New Mexico, it comprises 400 polished stainless steel poles installed in a grid array measuring one mile by one kilometre.
Another land art work from the 1970s is still in progress. Since 1972, James Turrell has been working on possibly the largest piece of land art to date, creating nine underground chambers and a network of tunnels inside the extinct Roden Crater volcano in Arizona to form a kind of naked-eye celestial observatory.
Richard Long’s A line made by walking from 1967 – where the artist trod along a line repeatedly in an English field – is emblematic of two tributaries that join in art history: a move toward the world outside the gallery, and a move toward performance art using the body as both subject and object. Both represent a way beyond a disenchanted world, and a way of reinforcing the bond between the individual and the more encompassing forces of nature. While the subsequent documentation (in the case of Long, photos or maps plus words logging the location and duration of his walks) gave the works another life back in the galleries.
Site-specific art is like land art in many respects: the artist locates the site, and researches its history and its meaning in order to respond with an artwork. Site-related works are embedded in a social as well as natural context (like those interventions in bus shelters, with the artist contriving subversive ads to replace the usual ones). They are wide-ranging in style: sometimes they even act as field reports on the place; they may be temporary or permanent; hard to find, or easy to access. Plopping a sculpture anywhere has given way to the input of the site and sensitivity to the environment, or even to the site using the artist as a kind of medium through which to express itself.