Remote Possibilities: A Roundtable Discussion on Land Art's Changing Terrain

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TIM GRIFFIN A number of artists have recently executed high-profile projects in remote places--"remote," at least, from traditional art-world centers. In fact, we can count three individuals participating today among them: Pierre and his recent voyage to Antarctica, Rirkrit and the Land in Thailand, and Andrea with her High Desert Test Sites near Joshua Tree. Realizing, of course, that there are significant differences among these projects--and I hope we'll shed good light on a few of these--working in a "remote" location seems to be a broader trend (think also of projects by Carsten Holler, Tacita Dean, and Matthew Barney, among others). This development demands some comparison to work made by previous generations, such as the Land art of Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, on the one hand, and the travels of artists like Bas Jan Ader or Hamish Fulton on the other. Is there any way that we can begin to characterize this way of working today, if only very broadly, while bearing these historical precedents in mind?

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CLAIRE BISHOP To generalize perhaps too wildly, I think that a main difference between Land artists of the late '60s and '70s and artists today can be characterized in terms of the medium with which they're engaged. If the precursors can be framed within an expanded field of sculpture, today's artists are working within an expanded cross-disciplinary field more likely to involve research as a geographer, social worker, anthropologist, activist, or experimental architect. That said, there is a clear continuity in some of the projects you mention in terms of the lure of the remote. But I think we may still need to differentiate between artists for whom the aesthetics of the remote landscape remains important (such as Matthew Barney and possibly Pierre) and those artists who engage critically with the social and political discourses that mark that landscape. The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) is a good example of the latter.

PAMELA M. LEE My sense is that some of the artists discussed in these terms--CLUI, to follow Claire's lead, would be the prototype--might be "reading" the earlier generation in a way that is closer to the Land artists' original thinking than the primary criticism was. With over thirty years of historical hindsight, it has become abundantly clear that the impulse to work in remote locations was less about a "return to the land" as such--a kind of aesthetic nativism--than a critical engagement with the terms of artistic mediation, whether organized around institutions or forms of media.

CLAIRE BISHOP I agree, Pamela. But there's no denying the gorgeousness of the landscape backdrops in those earlier works and the way in which the individual is set in relation to epic expanses. I'm thinking in particular of those photographs of Walter De Maria lying on the ground beside his Mile Long Drawing [1968], or the tiny person standing among Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels [1973-76].

The question about mediation, however, makes me recall that the emergence of Land and installation art go hand in hand through the '6os. Both are grounded in the authenticity of one's firsthand experience of a site. So I wonder if we should also differentiate between contemporary and historical Land art on the basis of that famous "indoor-outdoor" dialectic articulated by Smithson--and consider whether the "indoor" itself has changed in recent decades with the rise of installation art. For example, Olafur Eliasson is one artist who deals with the paradoxical way in which such firsthand experiences (especially that of nature) are always already mediated (by ideas of the sublime or the "uncontaminated"). You don't need to travel to a remote location to experience his exquisite fake sunsets or waterfalls. …