Beyond Earth Art: Contemporary Artists and the Environment

Article excerpt

HERBERT F. JOHNSON MUSEUM OF ART CORNELL UNIVERSITY

ITHACA, NEW YORK JANUARY 25-JUNE 8, 2014

In February 1969, Willoughby Sharp, an independent curator, publisher, and artist, curated Earth Art at Cornell's Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art. Initially conceived as part of Sharp's planned series of exhibitions devoted to the natural elements--air, earth, fire, and water--Earth Art was groundbreaking as one of the first major American university exhibitions dedicated to the production and display of land art. (1) Tapping into a significant shift taking place in the art world since the early 1960s, the exhibition foregrounded dislocation: the transfer of art production and presentation to sites outside of the artist's studio and the galler-ist's white cube. As critic Craig Owens wrote, viewers no longer encountered art physically, given inaccessibility or ephemerality, but through other modes such as photography, cinema, and text. (2)

With recent walks across the moon's surface, the far-flung Vietnam War, and student protests around the world mediated through television broadcasts, newspapers, and magazines, land art was part of a broader terrain in which embodied experience and encounter was splintered across a host of media. The use of land or earth as a medium on and through which to create art was thus fit for a practice that shuttled between mediation, dislocation, and impermanence. Undercutting minimalism's ethos and its adherence to objecthood, the artists of Sharp's Earth Art (including Jan Dibbets, Hans Haacke, Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim, Neil Jenney, Richard Long, David Medalla, Robert Morris, and Gunther Uecker) pushed the envelope concerning where and how viewers encountered works, and fractured the locus of site between the gallery, Cornell's campus, and the area surrounding Ithaca. Smithson exemplified the relationship between "sites" and "non-sites" with his addition to the 1969 exhibition, Mirror Displacement, an installation of mirrors in the Cayuga Salt Mine with photographic documentation inside the White Museum.

beyond earth art: contemporary artists and the environment, staged at the White Museum's successor, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, nods to Sharp's landmark exhibition. Much like the blockbuster Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974, curated by Miwon Kwon and Philipp Kaiser at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 2012, beyond earth art revisits 1960s and '70s land art. As its title suggests, beyond earth art, curated by Andrea Inselmann, explores the first exhibition through the influence it had on works created in the decades that followed. Indeed, as the exhibition text points out, Earth Art's international cadre of artists hailing from the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, and the Philippines impacted the many instantiations of environmental art and artists to come. Including ephemera from the 1969 exhibition--photographs of Richard Long walking across the Ithaca countryside and sketches of Morris's interior installation, Drawing for Cornell Earth Piece, as two examples--the Johnson Museum sets the stage for the impressive three-dozen contemporary and historical artists taking land or the environment as their subject. The entirety of the exhibition takes up three floors.

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beyond earth art also revises the genre's history to include Agnes Denes's Rice/Tree/Burial with Time Capsule (1968 and recreated again in 1977-79 for ArtPark in Lewiston, New York) and selections from Ana Mendieta's Silueta Series (1973-80). In light of these revisionary claims, Mendieta's photographs, indexing that her body was once pressed onto the landscape, suggest a double absence. The Cuban-born artist's absence is made palpable not only in the photographed and photographic impressions but also, as the text notes, in the male-dominated history of land art. As others have observed, however, the genre of land art was never monolithic, but comprised of a series of stages and transitions. …