Land Art Reaches Beyond the Gallery

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Land art uses the natural landscape to create site-specific structures, art forms and sculptures.


Also known as “earthworks” or “environmental art,” land art sprang from the early environmental movement of the late 1960’s. It utilizes simple, everyday materials to create grandiose designs.

Here are just a few of them:

City

“As long as you’re going to make a sculpture, why not make one that competes with a 747, or the Empire State Building, or the Golden Gate Bridge?” — Michael Heizer

Deep in the desert valley of a remote area of southeastern Nevada, a massive piece of land art has been under construction for the last 47 years.

Since 1972, environmental artist Michael Heizer has been creating what is quite possibly the largest piece of contemporary art ever attempted. It’s called City and it covers a space roughly the size of the National Mall. Even so, relatively little is actually known about it.

What we do know is that the work is composed of five “phases.” Each phase consists of a number of structures, which Heizer calls “complexes.” And each structure is between 70 and 80 feet tall. Heizer uses heavy machinery to move the earth, rocks, sand and concrete needed to create his work.

Heizer’s land art was inspired in part by Native American traditions of mound-building, as well as the pre-Columbian ritual cities of Central and South America. (As a child, Heizer became familiar with these through the work of his father, a prominent anthropologist.)

City is scheduled for completion in May of 2020, and will be open to the public soon thereafter. Until then, Heizer has disallowed all visitation of this nearly 50-year work in progress.

Time Landscape

“As in war monuments that record the life and death of soldiers, the life and death of natural phenomena such as rivers, springs, and natural outcroppings need to be remembered.” — Alan Sonfist

Time Landscape by land artist Alan Sonfist was created in 1978 as a living monument to the forest that once blanketed Manhattan Island. Situated on a 25′ x 40′ rectangular plot in lower Manhattan, the work is a recreation of the environment as it existed before man’s interference.

Sonfist claimed this section of land and returned it to its primal state, using a palette of native trees, shrubs, wild grasses, flowers, plants, rocks and earth. He seeded it with native flora, from wildflowers to witch hazels, to beech tree saplings from one of his favorite childhood parks.

Initially, Time Landscape was designed to portray three stages of forest growth. But those have been blurred by decades of maturation.

According to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, when the work was first planted, “The southern part of the plot represented the youngest stage and now has birch trees and beaked hazelnut shrubs, with a layer of wildflowers beneath.”

The center of Sonfist’s artwork features beech trees, as well as red cedar, black cherry and witch hazel, and a variety of ground covers. Moving toward the northern area, one can experience a mature woodland dominated by oaks, with scattered ash and elm trees.

Sonfist has stated that he is not bothered by the intrusion of other plants into his work. But the city parks department is. They periodically weed out the invaders.

Roden Crater

“I always wanted to make a light that looks like the light you see in your dream….We don’t normally see light like that. But we all know it.” — James Turrell

In the Painted Desert region of northern Arizona sits an unprecedented piece of land art.

That’s where artist James Turrell is creating a massive naked-eye observatory within Roden Crater, an extinct volcano. The 75-year-old has been constructing multiple spaces that manipulate the light inside the crater for more than 40 years. Like Michael Heizer’s City, Roden Crater remains a work in progress.

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The public has never been allowed inside Roden Crater, making it the subject of much mystery and intrigue. The select few who have been inside say words can’t describe it. It’s something only understood through firsthand experience.

Turrell’s art is minimally invasive to the external natural landscape. But internally, the red and black cinder has been transformed into specially engineered spaces. The purpose is to allow viewers to directly experience the cycles of geologic and celestial time.

To this end, Turrell has created tunnels and apertures that open onto pristine skies. They capture light directly from the sun in daylight hours, and from the planets and stars at night. When complete, the project will contain 21 viewing spaces and six tunnels.

Roden Crater is tentatively scheduled to open in 2024.

Storm King Wavefield

“I am interested in perception—psychological perception—in creating an experiential psychological space for viewers.” – Maya Lin

On 11 acres in upstate New York visitors can find seven rows of undulating hills. These nearly 400-foot-long “waves” are designed to replicate a series of mid-ocean waves. The resulting effect is that of being at sea, where sight of adjacent waves and land is lost between the swells.

Welcome to Storm King Wavefield, the brainchild of artist Myra Lin.

This mesmerizing piece of land art was inspired by Lin’s studies of naturally occurring wave formations. By focusing visitors’ attention on the landscape in which the artwork is sited, it encourages active participation.

Ranging in height from 12 to 18 feet, the swells seem insurmountable from afar. But Lin intended for this work to promote deep exploration of the grassy alleys between the crests. Indeed, once immersed in the field, the hills become surprisingly approachable, covered in a blanket of wildflowers and inviting to butterflies and bees.

Storm King Wavefield is set in a shallow, amphitheater-like depression. Lin selected the site as an environmental reclamation project. (The area was formerly a gravel pit that supplied material for the nearby New York State Thruway.) She produced the “wavefield” in an environmentally sensitive manner, beginning with materials that were already on site and adding only topsoil and low-impact grasses.

Spiral Jetty

“Nature is never finished.” — Robert Smithson

On the northeastern shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake sits a massive piece of land art that comes and goes.

Spiral Jetty is built from more than 6,000 tons of mud, precipitated salt crystals, and basalt rocks. It  forms a counter-clockwise coil,  1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide, jutting into the lake.

When Robert Smithson created Spiral Jetty in 1970, he could not know that his work would soon be submerged and not visible for 30 years. Finally, in 2002, local droughts caused the lake to recede. The earthwork has remained visible ever since.

But Smithson was actually drawn to the site because it changes. Inspired by  the concept of entropy, Smithson believed that artwork is never fixed and experiences decay from the moment it’s made. (The jetty’s black basalt rocks are now covered with white salt encrustations.)

Unfortunately, Smithson never lived to see his Spiral Jetty come and go. He died in a helicopter crash in 1973, three years after completing it.

But his legacy continues. In 2017, the state of Utah named Spiral Jetty as its official state work of art.

On a Smaller Scale

Land art doesn’t always have to be massive in order to be meaningful. Take a look at some relatively smaller-scale pieces from German artist Dietmar Voorwold:


Sources:

Phaidon

Double Negative

The New York Times

Roden Crater

AZ Central

Storm King Art Center

Dia

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