Earthworks: Art and the Land

Last week we mentioned artist James Turrell’s Roden Crater project – a volcanic cone 3.5 miles wide located near Flagstaff, Arizona. Terrell has been working since the 1970s to turn it into a “naked eye observatory” where visitors can observe the sky and celestial events.

Here are a few other artists who have also created works that rival the power and scope of the natural landscape.

Robert Smithson used his art to explore and record the natural processes and changing relationships fundamental to the physical world. Spiral Jetty, located on the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake, is Smithson’s signature earthwork. It is an ancient looking, simple form 1,500 feet (460 m) long and made of basalt rock. Over time when the waters of the lake have receded during drought years or risen in rainy years the jetty has been either exposed or submerged. The black basalt rocks that make up the jetty have also become crusted with white salt and minerals from the lake. As the lake changes, and the jetty responds, a narrative about the landscape gets written at a geological pace.

City, earthwork, by Michael Heizer

Michael Heizer is the son of a distinguished archeologist and spent a large part of his youth on location at ancient and historically significant sites. After a few years of art school he lost interest in traditional studio art and shifted the focus of his creative activity to remote locations in the American Southwest. In these inhospitable and expansive sites Heizer has created a portfolio of monumental artwork, rivaling in scale, the artifacts of ancient cultures. In 1972 he acquired land in Nevada near Yucca Mountain. Here he is working on a three square mile minimalist sculptural installation he calls City – a configuration of giant abstract forms reminiscent of buildings or monuments.

Lightning Field, an earthwork by Walter de Maria.

Walter de Maria is known primarily for his conceptual sculptures that meld precise measurements with the untamed natural world. De Maria’s most famous artwork is The Lightning Field, a grid of stainless steel poles installed on a remote plateau in New Mexico. The field measures one mile by one kilometer and consists of 400 stainless steel poles placed 220 feet apart in a uniform grid pattern. The poles are mounted upright pointing to the sky. Their sharpened tips are all precisely at the same geophysical elevation creating an imaginary plane parallel to the surface of the earth. The title of the installation, its location high above the desert floor, and the obvious references to lightning rods suggest that this is a place where modern engineering is instrumental in attracting and unleashing the full force of nature.

Nancy Holt's earthwork, Sun Tunnels

Nancy Holt created site and time specific sculptural installations all over the world. She referred to her most famous series of artworks as “…fixed points for tracking the positions of the sun, earth and stars.” Sun Tunnels, shown here, is one of the installations in that series. Located in the Utah desert, it consists of four large concrete tubes, each 18 feet (5.4 m) long and 9 feet (2.7 m) in diameter. The tubes radiate out from a central hub and are precisely arranged so that a viewer standing at the hub can see the exact point for sunrise and sunset during the Summer and Winter Solstice. Holes drilled in the top of each tube recreate major constellations of stars and project those constellations on the floor of that tube – inverting the natural positions of the sky and earth by placing the stars at our feet.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude collaborated on many large scale artworks. They wrapped entire buildings and national monuments with miles of fabric and rope. They used large quantities of fabric as an actual curtain bisecting a mountain canyon; as a 24 mile (39 km) long fence running across the California countryside and into the Pacific Ocean; as 3,000 umbrellas that simultaneously lined valleys in the U.S. and Japan; and as floating barriers around eleven islands in Biscayne Bay, Florida. For Christo and Jeanne-Claude the artwork was the primary focus but the entire event – from planning, funding and promotion to the media circus that inevitably occurred when a finished piece was unveiled – was also important. This video is an excerpt from a longer documentary film about their installation titled Valley Curtain.

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