Bored with the confines of traditional mediums, a selection of Artists in the 60s, 70s (and beyond) turned towards the vast and untamed places that existed beyond the confines of the gallery walls and the city limits to create Land Art. They began to travel into the vast deserts and expansive wild places across America. These epic places opened up a new sense of scale and possibility within art that had never been possible before. It was not that they loved man the less – they often still worked in gallery settings – just nature more.
This time period had been a time for massive societal and cultural upheaval and change in the arts, and the Land Artists continued these values. They reflected the growing ecology movement, and the changes and sense of optimism that pervaded the world at the time. As Hunter S Thompson, an important and infamous voice of the time wrote: ‘I shared a vagrant optimism that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top.’ Land Art brought new ideas about working in harmony with our natural environments, and to the role of monumentality within sculpture, to completely new standards, and changed the discourse of Art forever.
The works that these Artists produced became huge international projects that required extensive management in order to realise their creative visions. Millions of tons of earth would be excavated, blown up, reformed, and sculpted into wondrous and though provoking artworks. These are closer in form and scale to ancient phenomenon such as the Nazca lines in Peru, rather than to the paintings and other sculptures that occupied the galleries of the time.
Land Art works with concepts of geological time, light, perspective, the natural landscape and our place within it. It asks the big questions about time, humanity and experience, and provides us with fitting settings to contemplate the answers that we find.
To give you an indication of the scale and magnitude of these artworks, here are a few of the most inspired examples.
Walter De Maria: Lightning Field
De Maria found a plot out in Western New Mexico where he planted hundreds of conducting steel rods into a huge grid structure. By day, the work is static and minimal, but in the right weather conditions, it comes alive and crackles with colour and fire as it conducts the lightening strikes during powerful storms. It is a spectacle that is designed to work in perfect harmony with the natural elements, and is memorable, unique and captivating in its results.
Nancy Holt: Sun Tunnels
To look at Holt’s Sun Tunnels from a distance, they would seem like 4 derelict concrete tubes cast haphazard into the desert, punctuated by lazily fired bullet holes. Each one is 18 ft long and 9ft high, large enough for a human to comfortable walk through. They are positioned in a cross shape, and in reality, exist as a way to place yourself amongst the sun and stars. The holes that are drilled into the side focus the shafts of sunshine into points that gradually move across the insides of the tunnel over the course of the sunrises, sunsets and seasons. Each tunnel is carefully positioned to align with certain events in the astrological calender: comets, eclipses and important seasonal events will change the way that the light falls on the tunnels, and they are positioned to react with these changes in different ways. They frame the landscape and the changing light, and force you to look at the environment in an original way.
Holt uses functional industrial objects to create poetic, meditative and humbling experiences in the Utah Desert.
James Turrell: Sky Crater
Turrell is hugely famous for his works with light. He builds observation decks, viewing platforms and other ingenious types of artistic apparatus that allow us as viewers to look at the sky and the scenery around us in completely new ways.
Sky Crater is an art project that began in the 70s, and is still under progress. Turrell excavated an extinct volcano, adding passages, openings and tunnels that each frames the desert sky in a different way. He also flattened the rim, so that when you stand inside the Crater itself, the sky appears as a perfect dome above.
‘My desire is to set up a situation to which I take you and let you see. It becomes your experience.’
Turrell is also a fully qualified pilot and spends a great deal of time flying through the US skies, looking for places to create artworks, and often thinks of the plane cockpit as a studio of sorts.
Richard Long built on the idea of sculpture in the expanded field with his progressive walks through landscapes. The journey itself, the experience and the physical presence, the trace of a line became the work itself. Trekking through places like the Himalayas and Scottish Highlands, he would create temporary stone sculptures, in lines, circles and spirals. These would often be photographed and then displayed in this format in his gallery exhibitions.
He thought of this ancient and human activity, walking through a landscape, like him drawing a line, making a mark, on the landscape itself.
Land Art combines disciplines of geology, archaeology and ecology, and assimilates their expansive sense of scale, time and perspective into the artworks it creates.