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Land art’s monumental interventions in nature

THE YEAR is 1970 and Robert Smithson is jogging the length of his newly completed artwork, “Spiral Jetty” (pictured). A camera hovers above him; his white shirt catches the sunlight. As he reaches the centre and pauses, the camera pulls up and away to reveal the piece in its entirety, a magnificent coiled basalt pathway stretching into Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

One of the pioneers of land art, Smithson died three years later in a light-aircraft accident, aged just 35. An autodidact and prolific writer, the New Jersey-born artist was fascinated by geology, prehistory, cartography and science fiction. His works explore entropy and the structure of crystals. “As an artist,” he said, it was “interesting to take on the persona of a geological agent where man actually becomes part of that process.”

In a year of unprecedented confinement, the idea of art in the middle of nowhere is enormously attractive. Few artworks are more remotely located than “Spiral Jetty”, yet the Dia Art Foundation, which owns the site, reports an upsurge of people wanting to visit it. “Isolation is the essence of land art,” wrote Walter De Maria (1935-2013), whose “Lightning Field” has drawn visitors to New Mexico since its completion in 1977. Covid-19 has temporarily closed that site, but there are plans to reopen it next year.

An exhibition at the Marian Goodman gallery in Paris focuses on Smithson’s interest in the origins of life, presenting collages of dinosaurs and amphibians and sci-fi landscapes, while a companion show in London explores his fascination with islands. “Islands are sites on which society has always projected ideas,” says Lisa Le Feuvre, the director of the Holt/Smithson Foundation, an organisation dedicated to preserving the artistic legacies of Smithson and his wife and collaborator, Nancy Holt. “Smithson talked about the earth as an island in the universe.”

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Two rooms of meticulous drawings show forking islands, vanishing islands, island mazes—even a floating island garden on a barge that was intended to circumnavigate Manhattan. Dating from 1961-63, both sets of works were essentially springboards into the earthworks and other projects the artist would develop later. (Thanks to the Whitney museum, the floating garden made it onto the water for a week in 2005.) Smithson’s 35-minute “Spiral Jetty” film—one of several included in the London show—captured for posterity the breathtaking beauty of what is probably the most famous example of land art.

But what of the real thing? Not long after its making, the level of the Great Salt Lake rose and “Spiral Jetty” sank without trace. In 2002 it re-emerged as a shimmering mass of pure white salt crystals on black basalt, offset by water made pink by algae. In recent years, Utah has suffered serious drought. Current photographs show the coil to be perfectly intact, with the difference that it sits beside the lake rather than in it.

Land art is best grasped as a moment in 20th-century art history when sculpture took a great leap forward, challenging assumptions about what art could be. Its key players were De Maria, Smithson, Holt and Michael Heizer. Based in New York, they turned their backs on the city to make monumental interventions in the great outdoors.

The political tumult of the 1960s—the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam war—figured in their thinking, but so did the excitement of the space race. “Out of that comes the idea of seeing the world and the landscape as something you could mark,” says Jessica Morgan, the director of Dia Art Foundation. “Their ideas were driven by society and politics, but also, dare one say, a megalomaniac desire to leave an imprint on the land.” In 1969, the year of the Moon landing, Heizer produced “Double Negative”. This vast two-part trench, long enough and deep enough to be visible from space, was cut into a mesa in Nevada.

Holt (1938-2014), meanwhile, set out to “bring the sky down to earth”. “Sun Tunnels” (1973), in the Great Basin Desert in Utah, comprises four five-metre concrete tubes, in which precisely positioned holes dazzlingly capture the light. Two of the tunnels align with the setting and rising sun during the summer solstice and two line up during the winter solstice. De Maria’s “Lightning Field” (pictured above) blends magic and scientific precision with equal potency. Comprising 400 polished steel poles placed at precise intervals on a grid measuring one mile by one kilometre, the work is at its most dramatic in the stormy summer months. But there is a rare beauty on a daily basis: at dawn and dusk, the sun lights up the poles to stake out the territory’s vastness.

In 1971 Holt and Smithson bought Little Fort, a hard-to-reach island off the coast of Maine, sight unseen. Smithson sketched out some possibilities for artistic projects, but when the couple finally visited the site, he abandoned his plans because the place was “too picturesque”. Today, at the mercy of rising sea levels and battered by bad weather, the island is starting to resemble the rugged, awe-inspiring landscapes Smithson chose to work with; the Holt/Smithson Foundation is commissioning five artists to respond to the island site. Little Fort Maine may see an earthwork yet.

“Hypothetical Islands” and “Primordial Beginnings” continue at the Marian Goodman Gallery, London and Paris, until January 9th

Picture credits: Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty”, 1970. © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Victoria Sambunaris, courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York. Walter De Maria, “The Lightning Field”, 1977. Long-term installation, western New Mexico. © The Estate of Walter De Maria. Photo: John Cliett. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York

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Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/12/08/land-arts-monumental-interventions-in-nature
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