Just in case you missed it (what were you doing?!), here's my piece on Land Art, from yesterday's Guardian newspaper.
THIS EPIC EARTH
Is it a monumental way to adorn the planet - or just arrogant vandalism? Sean Thomas reports on the rise of 'land art'
Wednesday December 22, 2004
Some time next year, three enormous artworks, each constructed over several decades, will finally attain completion. The first is a strange, Aztec-like compound in southern Nevada. The second is a stone "observatory", sunk into a windy mesa near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The last is an entire remodelled volcano, in the Painted Desert in Arizona.
Disparate as they may seem, these artworks share some common features. They are all located in the vast, penny-an-acre spaces of the American southwest. And they are all examples of that quixotic, notorious and sometimes reviled art movement: land art.
To understand land art - how it is reaching its apotheosis at the same time as it nears its end - we have to trace its origins. This isn't easy: like many artistic movements, land art has several genealogies. None the less, most critics are content to point to an exhibition, held in late 1968 at the Dwan gallery in New York, as the true starting point for the movement. The exhibition was called Earthworks; the name, tellingly, came from a dystopian novel about ecological catastrophe. Featured in the gallery spaces were several artists working in a vaguely organic way - exhibiting mounds of pungent soil, photographs of scarred wheat fields, etc. All the artworks seemed to be saying something about our strained, filial relationship with Mother Earth.
Earthworks has a strong claim to being the true "ground zero" for land art, because of the many artists in its catalogue who later became significant figures in the movement. Chief among these was the curator, Robert Smithson. Soon after organising Earthworks, Smithson turned to the creation of his own land art masterpiece, the artwork that most people still see as the emblem of the genre. The piece was Spiral Jetty, a half-mile-long whorl of basalt blocks spiralling into the limpid waters of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The jetty was completed in 1970 after many months of back-breaking toil.
This extraordinary earthwork set the tone and style for much of the great land art to come. For a start, Jetty was imperious. Before Jetty, earthworks - works of art relating to the soil beneath us - had tended to be intimate, parochial, even chatty. Spiral Jetty, with its declamatory size, its grandiloquent setting in the desert, was in stark contrast. For the first time, a work of American art had tried to match the epic grandeur of the west itself.
Spiral Jetty was also key because of its remoteness. The piece established the principle that proper land art should be a long way away, and worthy of an arduous pilgrimage. In other words, the relationship of land art to its viewers should be a bit like that of a medieval cathedral to a medieval peasant.
Jetty had another quality that is characteristic of land art: transience. Despite its size, the piece has proved vulnerable to the whims of nature. Smithson built his piece (unwittingly, some say) on a lake whose levels rise and fall over time. This means the piece has spent many years underwater, invisible. At the moment, because of drought, it is landlocked and covered in a thick mantle of glittering salt crystals. In its mortality, Spiral Jetty established the principle that land art should rise, erode and eventually disappear, like the cliffs and beaches of nature.
Robert Smithson died in 1972, in a plane crash, while working on his next earthwork, the Amarillo Ramp in Texas. But the baton had already been handed on. The California artist Walter de Maria had contributed an earth-filled room to the Dwan Gallery exhibition. It was one of the more celebrated pieces, but De Maria became truly famous only when, a few years later, he finished Lightning Field. This artwork comprised 400 stainless-steel javelins, stuck in the hostile wastes of New Mexico - like a tray of giant cocktail sticks. Designed to attract spectacular lightning in a storm-prone area, Lightning Field was widely praised for its precise beauty and shimmering cleverness. But it was also one of the first land art works to come in for criticism - as ecological vandalism. People were starting to ask questions about the validity of such huge and "arrogant" intrusions into precious wilderness.
Following Lightning Field - and perhaps as a consequence of it - there was a hiatus in land art. Despite other 1970s works such as Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels, the force seemed to leave the epic poets of the move ment. In time the newer land artists, such as Richard Long and Andrew Goldsworthy in England, turned once again to sweeter, humbler, more "sensitive" work.
Thirty years on, it is possible to argue that the bigger artists hadn't disappeared: they just went to ground, so as to fashion their enormous projects in peace. Take the Dwan gallery alumnus Michael Heizer. Soon after the exhibition closed, he finished Double Negative. This is a brutal and enormous incision across a valley near Mormon Mesa, Nevada. The construction of Double Negative involved the abstraction of 240,000 tonnes of blasted rock.
Impressive enough. But ever since Double Negative, Heizer has quietly been working on an even larger project, called City. This is the first of that trio of late, great land art edifices now nearing their completion.
A description of Heizer's crowning lifework is difficult: he jealously guards all access, and is deaf to most interview requests. However, some assistants at the Dia Foundation in New York (a wealthy arts trust that curates many important land art pieces) are willing to speak on his behalf. A handful of lucky invitees have even seen the work itself, locked away on Heizer's vast Nevada ranch. Combining their testimony, and viewing their photos, it is possible to gain an impression of City as it stands.
Heizer was inspired to build City after a 1970 visit to the ancient Mexican temple complex of Chichen Itza. Certainly, the truncated brown pyramids, sun-cracked ochre pavements and giant tilting stone slabs (each weighing 1,000 tonnes) capture some of the imposing and worshipful silence of the greatest Mexican ruins. Corners of the mile-wide site of City could be Mayan ballcourts straight from the Yucatan.
But there is another emotional analogy. Visitors to Mexican ruins such as Chichen Itza or Monte Alban know that these places are tragic in ambience: it is hard to forget that the pyramids were used for brutal human sacrifices, or that the ballcourts were arenas for a game that ended in decapitation for all players. Heizer's City echoes some of this melancholy. The artist has sacrificed half his life to this project, reportedly at a cost to his health. Some say the decades of unrewarded labour have unsettled the artist's mind: Heizer is alleged to fire his guns at anyone foolish enough to fly over the site.
City is scheduled to be finished in the next year or so. But that long-awaited event may depend on the whims of Heizer. Earlier this year, he threatened to tear the whole thing down in reaction to an intrusive road plan. The crisis passed, and Heizer is now back at work.
By all accounts, it's a strange existence he leads. His ranch-house is right next door to City. Every day, therefore, he steps from the front door of his home straight into the middle of his own lifelong artwork, where he spends the desert hours blasting away at his cinder blocks. Whether Heizer is a hero or a madman time will shortly tell. As he himself said recently: "If I screw up out here, I know it will be big time. I'm going to go down in flames."
Four hundred miles southwest of City, in the beautiful uplands of New Mexico, the second great land art work is simultaneously approaching the finish line. It's called Star Axis, and it's the work of yet another Dwan gallery luminary: Charles Ross.
Here is what Charles Ross says today about Star Axis: "Situated on a mesa 70 miles from Sante Fe, New Mexico, Star Axis was conceived and begun in 1971. This earthwork is on an Egyptian or pre-Columbian scale. It includes a Solar Pyramid, where from inside you can view an hour of the Earth's rotation. The central element of Star Axis, the Star Tunnel, is cut into the side of a mesa with an ascending 60m stairway in perfect alignment with the axis of the Earth. As visitors climb the stairs of the Star Tunnel, they pass through 26,000 years of Earth/star history, viewing past and future aspects of the Earth's shifting alignment with the stars."
Star Axis is already receiving visitors, though its official debut is a few months away. What the lucky travellers see is a kind of underground Stonehenge, a megalith by Nasa, a contemporary pharaoh's tomb whose artfully constructed apertures direct the gaze to various stars, constella tions and cosmic progressions in the black desert heavens. The place is cold and sombre, but somehow also enchanting. Although it is too early to be sure, it is a fairly safe bet that the serious playfulness of Star Axis will make it one of the most popular of all the land art masterpieces.
The final great land art creation - some say its apotheosis - is Roden Crater, an artwork conjured, over the past 20 years, from a bald volcano north of Flagstaff, Arizona. The artist is James Turrell, who was born in Los Angeles in 1943. Turrell is famous for "working with light" (witness his UK projects such as Night Rain - one of the few attractions in the egregious blob that was the Millennium Dome). In Roden Crater, Turrell has managed to sculpt and carve tunnels, staircases and viewing platforms from the living rock, turning the entire mountain into a kind of volcanic colosseum, a round and gobsmacked mouth staring in awe at the cloudless sky.
Roden Crater, guarded by Turrell's team, is as difficult to access as any of the land art works. Rumours abound of uninvited visitors, in search of the site, vainly trekking for days through the Painted Desert. But with a bit of determination (and a battery-powered GPS navigator) it is possible at least to approach this artwork, if not to enter its unfinished tunnels. What you see, when you finally get there, is a serene and mighty cone, chamfered into shape by one man. It is thus a colossal expression of human power - or of our footling vanity.
Looking at Roden, it is not hard to see why some people so fiercely object to the egotistic intrusions of land art - and why, in an era of ever-increasing environmental sensitivity, it is unlikely anything on this scale will ever be attempted again. Does the Arizona desert really need this? Does Roden adorn or insult the pristine desolation all around? These are troubling questions. And yet there is an undeniable majesty in Roden Crater, as there is in all the land art masterpieces. As we stand and stare at it, cowed into silence, it echoes the line in the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem: "What I do is me: for that I came."