Art's Back-to-the-Land Movement

By Tiberghien, Gilles A. | UNESCO Courier, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Art's Back-to-the-Land Movement


Tiberghien, Gilles A., UNESCO Courier


By intervening in the environment, land art creates a new relationship between space, time and the spectator

At the end of the 1960s, a number of artists, most of them American, challenged the notion that galleries and museums are the most suitable places in which to exhibit art. They preferred natural sites, derelict industrial zones, quarries and mines, where they produced works out of natural materials, sometimes on a massive scale, thus creating a new tendency known as "earth art" or "land art".

At the end of the 1950s, interest in the human body, the "events" staged by the Fluxus movement that flourished in New York and Germany, Allan Kaprow's "happenings" and productions by the Living Theater and other street theatre companies focused attention on the importance of movement and improvisation, and created a cultural environment which also provided a context for music, painting and sculpture. At a time when the consumer society was riding high, artists started creating works that appealed to the active conscience of individuals and encouraged them to redefine their position as spectators.

Body art, in which the body becomes a vehicle for experimentation, was the logical outcome of these practices. But some artists preferred to make a mark on the natural world. In One Hour Run (1968), for example, Dennis Oppenheim scarified a snow-covered dune with a motorcycle, and in Foot Kick Gesture (1968) Michael Heizer marked the ground with his heels. One of Richard Long's first works, Line Made by Walking (1967), was the result of his walking to and fro in a straight line over a stretch of grass, leaving behind an ephemeral trace of his passage.

From then on, two trends emerged which either combined or were mutually exclusive. The first, found chiefly in Europe, focused on the body (Gilbert and George) or body movement (Richard Long, Hamish Fulton). The second, more particularly American, trend sought to create a new relationship between the body and space by intervening in the natural world, which it used both as an inscriptive vehicle and as a material. From 1968 on, for example, Heizer created a series of works in the deserts of the American West, in some cases drawing inspiration from Indian pictograms, as in Primitive Dye Painting (1969), in others seeking to produce simple geometrical forms with "negative" - in other words hollowed-out - sculptures, such as Rift or Dissipate (1968).

But earth is also used for building, sometimes on a very large scale. For the Sonsbeek 71 exhibition in Emmen (Netherlands), Robert Morris made an Observatory, subsequently destroyed then reconstructed in 1977, which consisted of two concentric, circular earthworks with a diameter of 91 and 24 metres respectively. He was returning to the primitive architectural forms that inspire certain land-art artists. Such imposingly large works have to be explored by spectators, who are prompted by their movement in space to look afresh at how sculpture relates to the movements of their own bodies.

The distinctive feature of land art is this use of earth (or sand, rock, or wood) on natural sites, which then become components of the sculpture, or even the sculpture itself, as in Heizer's Double Negative (1969). This work consists of two colossal gashes ten metres wide, 17 metres deep and almost 500 metres long, gouged out of the side of a plateau, prolonged by two platforms consisting of 240,000 tonnes of excavated rubble.

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