Land Art is an important part of the process of shifts in the artistic paradigms that took place in that period, answering simultaneously to a critical continuation of modernism and an attempt to overcome it. Not having been an organized movement in the conventional sense of the word, there are, however, common features and complicities among those who practiced it, as well as an important theoretical production, where the writings of the artists Robert Smithson and Robert Morris have a prominent role.
Land Art is generally included in the tradition of sculpture. However, it combines, in a radical way, the notions of space and time, allowing it to be contaminated by performative arts and by the growing conceptualization of the artistic practice. On one side, it represents one of the faces of the post-minimalism, in its critics of formalism and of the object; on the other, its own individuality is affirmed, working the notions of context, of site-specific or of public art, in the onset of a spatialization of cultural policies.
In effect, Land Art answers to the model of the expanded field of sculpture defined by Rosalind Krauss in the end of the 1970’s , exactly in response to the practices that challenged, since the prior decade, the nomadism, the absence of territoriality and the objectual autonomization of modernist sculpture. Land Art is therefore, in its ambivalence, another chapter in the critical recuperation of the traditional functions of sculpture and the logic of the monument — to represent / symbolize something and to mark / define a place —, but also an important contribution for the dissolution of the very sculptural model. According to Krauss, sculpture would have turned, during the 1960’s, into a combination of opposites, in the game between landscape and non-landscape, between architecture and non-architecture. Land Art works are situated in this no man’s land, in this territory of intense contamination between the arts and hybridization of their practices, conjugating, sometimes contradictorily, purity and contamination, nature and culture, romantism and anti-romantism.
With Land Art, what is pursued is contamination and impurity, but also a variable, organic and natural connection to the earth. At the same time, the transformation of the landscape and its mythical recovery are also sought. If we sometimes find a negativity in the opposition between urban and industrial sites and those other landscapes, pure and inhospitable, which symbolize a mythical territory, as is the case of the desert or the mountains, in other moments, for instance, we discover in Land Art a force that is freed from the entropic non-sites of the abandoned industrial landscapes and from the awareness that there are no more pure spaces (“there is no pure land”. It is this game of opposites that imposes the internal contradictions and the diversity of practices of Land Art, resulting sometimes in insoluble difficulties.
In fact, Land Art artists are, in their majority, American, developing their work in the crossing between the ancestral practices of connection to the earth and the principles of contemporary mechanization, in a return to the vastness of space that is part of their collective imaginary. The desert represents, in the North American context, the idea of an uncompromised territory and is what remains of the mythology of the wild and unexplored West. Works as Lightning Field (1977), by Walter de Maria, Double Negative (1969), by Michael Heizer, or Amarillo Ramp (1973), by Robert Smithson, reveal that same recovery, as well as the interventions that Dennis Oppenheim produced over the ice and snow, in other deserts, although temporary. In fact, in practical terms, only places like these would allow the materialization of a program of action that frequently implicated violent interventions of a large scale on the landscape.
Such Projects are characteristic of a first wave of Land Art, which can be seen as a continuation, although distanced, of practices like the abstract American expressionism, in scale and in the idea of the power of the great gestures in which the bulldozer takes the place of the paintbrush . The ideas of conquest and exploration that characterize the industrial era are thus expressed and a romantic vision of the landscape is denied or, at least, a new romantism is intended: the landscape is there to be transformed and, if there is nostalgia, it is for the entropic contamination.
There are, however, proposals that are not part of this more virile understanding of the transformations that are imposed to the landscape. In that sense, for instance, the feminist critic to Land Art was also important for its renovation (see the cases of Ana Mendieta or Mierle Laderman Ukeles). A second wave linked to Land Art and Earthworks is perhaps less formalist and more critical towards those great gestures of transformation of the landscape. Some of the early motivations in Land Art are thus renewed, due to its political, social and economical awareness of the deep contemporary transformations in the landscape.
In Land Art coexist two visions: a deeply anti-romantic one and another which is nostalgic of a pre-industrial Eden. The romantic understanding of the landscape is despised by artists as Smithson, Morris or Heizer, who look at it exactly in a way we can call anti-romantic. For them, there is no more transcendental purity to be found in the landscape. For others, their concerns are reflected in the desire of a simpler life, distant from technology, in a happy return to nature, reclaiming an ancestral legacy in the relationship with landscape.
In these models, with nuances, are combined an approach to landscape as “a real space” with an old tradition of dramatization, adaptation and subjectivation of the territory, whose examples are, for instance, the oriental garden, the picturesque tradition of the XVIII century, or the prehistoric models and pre-Colombian art.
In the epicentre of these discrepancies — it is the contradictory combination of these feelings that defines the diversity of Land Art practices — several modalities for the work in the landscape and about the landscape were laid down, drawing a dense web of possibilities that escapes a more rigid reading.
In a simplified way, we can enumerate five typologies for those interventions, to what we add some examples: (i) site-specific projects that use the site materials to create new sensations or to modify the landscape (Spiral Jetty, by Robert Smithson – Fig. 1); (ii) proposals that bring to the intervention site foreign elements or constructions (Perimeters/pavillions/Decoys, by Mary Miss, or Sun Tunnels, by Nancy Holt – Fig. 2); (iii) performative actions over the landscape (see Ana Mendieta – Fig. 3); (iv) other activities of a collaborative character or socially committed, that take place in the landscape (see Alan Sonfist); (v) objects, records, drawings, pictures, films, videos and texts as project or processual memory of interventions in the landscape, or as construction of imaginary territories (see Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson or Richard Long). It is still possible to find the combination of two or more of these typologies in the same work.
In summary, Land Art is characterized by interventions that mark, indicate, cross, or cartograph the territory, inventing the landscape and transgressing its conventional notions; these spatial practices are usually site-specific and they implicate the appropriation of pre-existent places, looking at the landscape as an entity under construction. For many of the works, — and some of them can still be visited today — the direct experience of scale and relationship with the place are fundamental. The ideas of travel, as well as the phenomenological principle that movement is a form of mediation and construction of space, characterize the experience of those works, in a complex conjugation of the relationships between body, time and space. However, one of the paradoxes in Land Art is that, in spite of its obvious materiality and, sometimes, overwhelming scale, its physical presence is often rather ghostly, surviving only in documental or processual records.
In Europe, the most important representatives of Land Art are British artists Hamish Fulton and Richard Long, who are closer to a long tradition related to the act of walking as an experience of landscape. For these artists, walking is a space of enunciation or an enunciation of the space, a spatial accomplishment of the place through drifts and improvisations, something that is also characteristic of other proposals of Land Art.
With Richard Long, the inscriptions in the terrain are delicate or ephemeral, giving a greater importance to the documentation of the walks or the materialization of that experience in objects that evoke archetypical forms, built with materials picked up in the natural environment (Fig. 5 and Fig. 6). Hamish Fulton radicalizes that formula, calling himself a “walking artist” and intending to leave no more than footprints and collecting no more than pictures. Like Long, with whom he often collaborates, the presentation of his work combines image and text as a reconstruction of the paths travelled by foot, making an excellent example of the coexistence of opposites and paradoxes we made reference to.
A retrospective glance on Land Art shows us that it was quickly incorporated by the art system, building its own mythology and rules, despite its transgressor aura. The amount of logistic and financial resources demanded, along with its spectacularity, also contributed for that institutionalization. From the beginning of the 1980’s onwards, Land Art, just as we described it here, no longer existed, at least in the generational character it had during nearly two decades. Surely it survived through the work of some artists, just as there are practices that reclaim that tradition even today. However, it doesn’t seem possible to propose similar programs, more or less romantic, more or less naïve about their transformation or appropriation of the landscape. More than in the models that imitate it, the important legacy of Land Art is reflected today in the affirmation of the site-specific practices, in some of the public art and, in general, in the art that reclaims a critic of the contemporary idea of landscape.
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