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Whatever happened to Land Art?

Spurred by artists’ reactions against an increasingly commodified art world of the 1960s, the Land Art movement gave artists the perfect platform to raise important questions about society’s relationship with the environment. It enabled artists to work outside the standardised art paradigm of paint pots and galleries, and provided them with a forum to voice social concerns in a ‘new medium’.

Today, environmental issues are becoming increasingly urgent, and a globalised and commercialised art world continues to trigger fears across contemporary arts practices, from internal art market competition to product automation. In theory, the perfect factors for new generations of land artists to rise and create.

Image by  jplenio  via  Pixabay

Image by jplenio via Pixabay

Spurred by artists’ reactions against an increasingly commodified art world of the 1960s, the Land Art movement gave artists the perfect platform to raise important questions about society’s relationship with the environment. It enabled artists to work outside the standardised art paradigm of paint pots and galleries, and provided them with a forum to voice social concerns in a ‘new medium’.

Today, environmental issues are becoming increasingly urgent, and a globalised and commercialised art world continues to trigger fears across contemporary arts practices, from internal art market competition to product automation. In theory, the perfect factors for new generations of land artists to rise and create.

What is Land Art?

Land art, earth art, or earthworks are artworks that are made directly in or with the landscape. The idea of land art originated as a wider conceptual art movement in the 1960s and became even more popular in the 1970s. Since then, land artists have used a range of approaches to create land art works, for example by using mechanical means to shift large areas of land, or by working with rocks, twigs and leaves to create much more minimal and temporary interventions. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) and Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking (1967) are perfect examples of early land art works. Many more exist. Over the decades, artists started to adapt land art concepts and integrated them into a variety of media from sculpture and performance to film and photography. Land art evolved and appeared in many other art forms.

Land art over time

In 1982, Agnes Denes created one of the most significant land art works in New York City history with her installation of Wheatfield — A Confrontation(1982). She planted a wheat field on the landfill that would eventually become Battery Park City, which was harvested and then appeared forever from the site.

Planting and harvesting a field of wheat on land worth $4.5 billion created a powerful paradox. Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept; it represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, and economics. — Agnes Denes

In 1997, D.A.ST. Arteam — a group made up of three Greek creatives, artist Danae Stratou, industrial designer Alexandra Stratou and architect Stella Konstantinidis raised Desert Breatha site-specific work ‘addressing the desert as a state of mind’, covering an area of 100,000 square meters of land in eastern Egypt where the Sahara Desert meets the Red Sea. The artwork has been subjected to natural weathering and erosion since its inception, though is still visible via Google Earth.

In 2006, artist Lita Albuquerque led an expedition to the farthest reaches of Antarctica near the South Pole to create the first land art installation of her global work Stellar Axis. The expedition was aided by a grant from the National Science Foundation and was the first and largest ephemeral art work created on the continent. The resulting installation consisted of an array of ninety nine blue spheres. The placement of each corresponded to the location of one of 99 specific stars in the antarctic sky above.

Where are today’s land artists?

In 2016, over 300 artists registered to bring their artworks to Burning Man’s Black Rock Desert desert, a landmass of over 1,200 square kilometres of rugged land serrated by hundreds of mountain ranges. Many artists used the desert landscape indirectly as inspiration or directly through their performances and installations, creating a series of temporary works that existed in Burning Man’s artistic vacuum.

Many contemporary arts practices are conceptually fragmented and their origins can be difficult to decipher, sometimes even by the artists themselves, or so it seems. Nevertheless, elements of land art, which originated over half a century ago, can be found in many artist’s practices today.

Wiltshire-based geometric artist Julian Richardson, for example, specialises in the creation of monumental pieces of sand land art inspired by Dutch graphic and optical artist M.C. Escher. Richardson often works on beaches along the Bristol Channel in Somerset, England, which have some of the most significant tidal changes allowing for a lot of space to create.

Land Art or Not Land Art?

Land Art often overlaps with other art movements, such as Conceptual Art, Installation Art, Environmental Art, Ecological Art, Performance Art and many more. Like many art forms, defining them is a subjective task, and one may want to think of Land Art on a spectrum of ‘what is’ and ‘what isn’t’ land art, with many different nuances of the art movement in-between.

Land Art Not Land Art graphic © Sebastian May

Land Art Not Land Art graphic © Sebastian May

Today’s documentation of land art often includes photography, video, and other archival materials from maps to detailed instructions — which can often be found displayed in museums and galleries.

Some land artists, such as Richard Long with his Cornish Stone Circle (1978), bring land art works into a museum and gallery settings by constructing or reconstructing artworks using natural materials, but indoors, giving land art works a completely new dimension as well as audience.

What’s next for Land Art?

Though there is no doubt that Land Art has evolved over the years, it seems that the art movement is here to stay. In today’s political and economic climate, Land Art might even enjoy a welcome revival, and continue to inspire audiences through it’s innovative discussion of contemporary social issues through its direct link with nature.

Setting out to capture significant land art works in my own research, I have started a map of land art works here, to help others discover some of these often hidden treasures. Please take a look and feel free to share your own land art sites and thoughts with me.

References and sources:

What is Land Art?

Lita Albuquerque

Agnes Denes

Richard Long

Julian Richardson

Robert Smithson

Female land artists

Desert Breath

Land Art map

Burning Man art

Sebastian May