Currently on view at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary here in Los Angeles, retrospective exhibition Ends of the Earth: Land Art To 1974 profiles a uniquely pivotal facet of late ’60s and early ‘70s conceptual art exploration. Encompassing a range of related but thematically various works, grouped typically under the headers “land art” and “earthworks,” MOCA’s retrospective highlights the contributions of site-specific artists combining natural and synthetic media to create modified physical landscapes in the natural world.
Land art was conceived in the minds and evolved in the laboratories of artists affiliated with Fluxus happenings and other forms of transitory and unorthodox sculpture, performance, and digital representation. Its creative motivations ranged from the overtly political to the aggressively, almost mystically intimate. The merging and overlapping of textural resonances advanced during this period retain intense significance generally, but the experimental channels opened up by land artists in particular strike a deep chord in terms of their bold and ultimate confrontation with the troubling rift that exists between art and everyday lived experience. Land artists were critical of the sanitizing effects of situating artwork in a gallery, and Fluxus art generally was concerned with de-commodifying art in order to make it more accessible and less commercial by emphasizing process, participation, spontaneity, inclusiveness, and ambiguity.
Expanding on the already loaded significance of large-scale interaction between immersive natural space and human technological manipulation, gallery presentation of earthworks frequently incorporates high volumes of written, photographic, filmic, and video documentation. The antiseptic detailing of the processes by which these works were realized evokes a sharp and powerful contrast with the majestic, messy, and complicated subjects of the works themselves, punctuated by the jarring inclusion of sample materials like weed gardens and piles of earth, which at the time of original exhibition were considered challenging and unorthodox. In this way, earthworks artists offered prescient and probing commentary on the relationships between visceral experience and mediated representation, as well as on the disparate connection between the creative process and the finished art object.
The use of video and photographic technology to document and augment the physical shifting and resituating of natural space carries special weight in the context of changing modern concepts about what an “environment” really consists of. In particular, the recent proliferation of conceptual, virtual spaces (Internet, video games, and other interactive technologies) and their process of bleeding over and merging with traditional quotidian environments injects fresh meaning into land art’s exploration of the links and disconnections between primal and virtual experiences. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty – perhaps the most widely recognized completed earthwork of the period – is represented by two films, a 32-minute narrative short, and an unstructured reel of helicopter footage showing the spiral from above.
Located in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, Smithson’s project specifically emphasized the value of physical dislocation and non-unity in the finished art object. In addition to his various filmic representations, the artist executed the work in both sculptural and essay formats prior to completion, emphasizing the disparity between the concreteness of the actual environment and its representational shorthand, as well as the unified presence of the work’s core resonances in all formats. The content of Spiral Jetty’s various representations also preclude and contradict each other, with each format containing information that cannot be fully experienced in any other, evoking postmodernist concepts about the inexactitude, and ultimate irrelevance of planned authorial meaning. The depictions overlap and intersect, but do not converge and cannot substitute for one another. Spiral Jetty has become a subject of controversy in recent years, having been threatened by corrosive pollution. The raging debate over whether to restore the sculpture or simply allow it to deteriorate are a reiteration of many of its original themes, raising questions about the role of time and uncontrolled environmental factors as legitimate influences on a work.
Wrapped Coast – One Million Square Feet by Christo and Jeanne-Claude is a variation on previous pieces by the artist where large buildings of social prominence or importance were wrapped in plastic or other materials for reasons closely tied to social or political concerns. Taking Smithson’s method of diffusion a few steps further, Wrapped Coast is represented in the gallery setting through an exhaustively detailed catalogue of tedious documentation and sculptural preconception, taking up almost an entire room. An exhaustive series of letters, pencil charts and three-dimensional diagrams line the walls, surrounding a central pedestal with a finished scale model in the center. The full-scale project consisted of over 100 million square feet of Australian coastline in Little Bay, Sydney being wrapped in erosion control mesh, but the obsessive need to catalogue the process of realization reflects the artist’s previously established interest in bureaucratic maneuvering, which became a hallmark of his work. Later works Valley Curtain and Running Fence would express similar concerns.
The land art movement was a prominent branch of conceptual art, and several high-profile artists represented in MOCA’s exhibition are not affiliated strictly with earthworks. Ben Vautier – credited by George Maciunas as the founder of the Fluxus movement – is represented, as well as Paul McCarthy, Yoko Ono, Judy Chicago, Joseph Beuys, and California artist Ed Ruscha. Typically, the range of interpretation is vast. Yves Klein’s Region de Grenoble is a three-dimensional textured wall hanging rendered uniformly in Klein’s trademark shade of blue (reflecting Klein’s declaration, prior to photographic confirmation, that the planet earth must appear blue from outer space). Conversely, Ono’s contributions, including Cloud Piece, Earth Piece, and Water Piece, are typed scores that resemble poems, while McCarthy’s consisted of digging several trenches in the desert and then typing short, cryptic summaries. Returning to the theme of technological moderation, German-born Beuys’ piece, Kinloch-Ramoch, is a video installation consisting of slow, contemplative pans over a remote, windy marshland.
Acknowledging the widespread and culturally supported denigration of natural landscapes, and attempting to reclaim those environments to more consciously and collaboratively shape and regenerate them, expresses a more complex and penetrating goal than merely the desire to sustain ecological viability or protest industrial consolidation. Symbolically, it expressed the urge to erase all separations between media, experience, and environment. Some artists accomplish this with the inclusion of provocative sensual elements – Joshua Neustein’s Road Piece, for example, which consists of hay bales arranged on tar paper with helicopter audio played over a loudspeaker, is dominated overwhelmingly by the odor of the hay that permeates the gallery space. Helen Meyer Harrison’s Hog Pasture: Survival Piece #1 is likewise engrossing sensually, though the large planter box filled with weeds and grass was originally meant to be used as a feeding trough for a live pig, which the museum, in 1971, refused to allow inside.
Exemplifying the symbiotic unification of natural occurrence and technological modification – and the increasingly mutual subversion of technological and tactile reality – both Peter Hutchinson’s Paricutin Project and Patricia Johanson’s Stephen Long embrace the potential for rewarding collaborative fusion between natural process and artistic process. Perhaps the most accessible piece on display, Johanson’s whimsical film documents the creation of a 1600 foot rainbow-painted wood plank stretching through a forest in late summer, photographed from different angles and in different light in order to observe color changes. The most striking aspect of the piece is the way the foliage of the surrounding trees contrasts against the shifting primary hues of the planks, particularly in overhead shots, where both the colors of the piece, and the colors of the forest appear vibrantly augmented by each other.
The construction of Hutchinson’s piece was more harrowing, but like many of his works, displays a deeply personal, practically spiritual aspect. Traveling by foot along the rim of the dormant Paricutin Volcano in Mexico, Hutchinson traced the fault lines in the volcanic rock and filled them by hand with handfuls of crumbled white Wonder Bread, covering the bread with plastic to facilitate mold growth. For Hutchinson, the piece was a reflection on the origin of life on earth – “the primitive life forms that must have first populated the earth in a new volcanic landscape” – as well as an attempt to “give life to a place thought to be lifeless.”
Hutchinson’s subtle use of language to draw parallels between the course of biological development and the goals of the artist, especially in the cultural moment in which Paricutin Project was created, points to the redefinition of art as a primal, regenerative action, rather than merely the manufacture of a object. “This work is important to me as a physical/psychological breakthrough in that I did something very risky (physically and aesthetically), difficult and arduous – none of which comes easily.” As with Johanson’s piece, however – specifically because of its emphasis on radical flexibility of content, format, and boundaries – the inclusion of physical remnants of the excursion in the form of a plastic container of bread crumbs are symbolically evocative, but are not the piece’s central object. “Looking back,” Hutchinson concluded, “I find that it was the photograph that was important.”