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Rebels With a Cause: The Story of Land Art

The Land Art movement crystallised in the turbulence of the mid-1960s, when a group of New York artists – frustrated by the limitations of traditional sculpture and painting – went in search of the ultimate workspace. Trading the studio for the vast, unchartered deserts of the American South West, artists like Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria, Nancy Holt, and Robert Smithson harnessed desolate environments as both subject and canvas, creating artworks (or Earthworks) that expanded the horizons of possibility in the broad, unruly landscape.

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The history-making events of the two decades prior had distilled a zeitgeist which pushed artists to explore new frontiers. It was the midst of a groundbreaking technological era – where the first image of Earth had been captured in 1946 and the “Golden Age” of travel offered aerial views of the world below. The geopolitical tensions of the Cold War (1947-1991), the horrors of the Vietnam War (1955-1975), and the threat of a nuclear warfare in the 1960s had also birthed countercultural movements that rebelled against institutions and authority.

In 1966, then-chairman of Sotheby's Peter Wilson appeared on the BBC’s ‘Money Programme’ and announced that art was offering better returns than most stocks and shares had in the previous 30 years. It cemented the idea of art as an investment and some artists became disillusioned with the rapid commercialisation of the artworld. It was in this climate that the Land Art movement found its footing and artists expanded their thinking beyond not only the white cube, but the city limits. While Land Art did find itself in proximity to the mainstream artworld through seminal exhibitions like 1969’s ‘Earth Art Exhibition’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’, by situating itself in opposition to the traditional market model, Earthworks essentially held no monetary value. Whether intentional or not, Land Art was an anti-gallery protest.

“There are no values attached to something like this because it’s not portable and not a malleable barter exchange object,” said Michael Heizer, one of the pioneering artists of the movement. “You can’t trade this thing, you can’t put it in your pocket. If you have a war, you can’t move it around, it’s not worth anything. In fact, it’s an obligation.”

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Heizer journeyed into the Nevada Desert in 1967 to begin creating a series of “negative sculptures'' – works characterised by making a void in a surface rather than filling it out. Impacted by the Vietnam War, Heizer said, “It looked like the world was coming to an end… That’s why I went out in the desert and started making things in dirt.” Arguably his greatest artwork, “Double Negative”, located in the Moapa Valley in Overton, Nevada, was completed in 1969. More than 200,000 tonnes of rock were cut from the surrounding cliffs of a canyon to dig out two trenches on each side. In 1986, MoCa LA acquired the artwork from gallerist Virginia Dwan – who had purchased the land for Heizer and therefore owned the property deeds. As reported by the ‘LA Times’, Heizer refused conservation efforts for “Double Negative”, expressing he wished it to eventually be reclaimed by the environment and its conditions.

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The following year, Walter De Maria chalked two temporary parallel lines, 12 feet apart and one mile long, in California’s Mojave Desert (“Mile Line Drawing”, 1968), but it is “The Lightning Field” which has defined De Maria’s legacy. The phenomenal 1977 artwork consists of 400 vertical stainless steel posts stretching across a one kilometre by one mile isolated stretch in Catron County, New Mexico, which are conductors for frequent lightning storms in the area. Despite its name, “The Lightning Field” is not only activated during an electrical storm, but the space itself is key to its experience – whether walking the distance of the artwork or spending a great measure of time within it. Writing in the 1980 issue of Artforum, of which an image of “The Lightning Field” appeared on its cover, De Maria said, “The land is not the setting for the work but a part of the work.”

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Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels” (1973-76) consist of four 26 metre long cement cylinders, positioned in an X configuration and punctuated by various sized holes in their upper-halves. Each hole is cut to correspond to star constellations in the sky and the rising and setting of the sun during the winter and summer solstices. Holt also described the tunnels as an “orienting device” to help guide viewers amongst the vastness of the desert. “Sun Tunnels” is not just immense in its wonder, it urges contemplation and patience. Holt said, “The work can only be seen in the duration of time – it isn’t something you can just look at, get, and walk away.”

In 1970, American sculptor Robert Smithson dumped 6,650 tonnes of rock, salt crystal, basalt, mud, and earth into the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point, Utah, and shaped it into an epic 15 foot wide, 1,500 foot long curl stretching from the northeastern shore into the water. Named “Spiral Jetty”, the artwork was an epic and ephemeral collaboration between mankind and Mother Nature – one which Smithson knew he had no control over. The artist once observed, “Nature does not proceed in a straight line, it is rather a sprawling development.” Soon after its completion, “Spiral Jetty” was submerged by the lake, periodically appearing and disappearing at the will of the tide.

This ephemerality was at the core of Land Art. Early Earthworks were often difficult or near impossible to find. Others required perilous journeys. Some only reached their full potential at set times of the day, month, or year. Many have been destroyed. Unlike artworks experienced in the gallery or the museum, Land Art negates ownership. Even the creators and the museums which have acquired them remain at the mercy of the natural world. These obstacles, whether intentional or not, forced viewers to undertake a pilgrimage, as if to sites of worship. It was not enough to gaze upon these immense and unpredictable Earthworks, but one had to form a relationship with, experience, contemplate, and participate in them. Ultimately, the Land Art movement highlighted how, despite mankind’s attempts to claim it, the Earth will always run wild.

Text: Ashleigh Kane
Images (Top to Bottom): Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970) Great Salt Lake, Utah | Photograph Nancy Holt © Holt Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation (1) - Double Negative by Michael Heizer (1969-70) | Photograph Gianfranco Gorgoni | Courtesy Getty Research Institute (2) - Michael Heizer, Circular Surface, Planar Displacement Drawing (1969) | Photograph Gianfranco Gorgoni | Courtesy Getty Research Institute (3) - Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977 | Photograph © Estate of Walter De Maria | Photograph John Cliett (4) - Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977 | Photograph © Estate of Walter De Maria | Photograph John Cliett (5)

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