Magazine article Artforum International

"Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974"

Magazine article Artforum International

"Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974"

Article excerpt

MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, LOS ANGELES

GIVEN THE SEISMIC SHIFTS that rocked Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art over the summer, wandering through "Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974" felt a bit uncanny. The exhibition showcases intellectually voracious curating at its best; here the titular ends functions as a triple entendre, signifying at once artistic means of making, remoteness, and obliteration, with the show's ambitious international scope enabling a comprehensive exploration of all three. Whatever one might make of the sometimes unsettling parallels between recent upheavals at the hosting institution and the show's often apocalyptic overtones, "Ends of the Earth" is unquestionably an impressive effort to rewrite the story of the sprawling set of practices often called "Earth art." Organized by former LA MOCA curator Philipp Kaiser and art historian Miwon Kwon, it emphasizes previously occluded themes, such as urban transformation and the persistently central role of media in the documentation and dissemination of Land art, countering long-held assumptions that this work happened primarily in rural locations and was resistant to reproductive technologies.

"Ends of the Earth" is hence much more than a survey. It is, bracingly, an academic exhibition with a theoretical viewpoint, one honed by rigorous historical research. The show aims for a broad and inclusive definition of Land art by tracking its emergence within and alongside Conceptualism, performance, and global post-Minimal strains such as Arte Povera in Italy and Mono-ha in Japan. Handsomely installed to highlight loose networks of affiliation, the show reveals that the best-known examples in the US (like Robert Smithson) are but one small subset of what was in fact an unusually robust and far-flung cluster of activities. Thus Yoko Ono's Sky TV, 1966, in which a television displays a live feed pointing straight up to the space above the museum, may not normally be considered next to large-scale Earthworks made by bulldozers, but as Kaiser and Kwon convincingly argue, it is precisely this sort of heterogeneity that propelled Land art from the outset. One might argue that by opening up Land art's umbrella to encompass any and all artistic attempts to grapple with "the elements," the show risks stripping the term of its specificity. Here, however, the relatively unfixed nature of the term Land art sharpens our sense of this work's complex development, illustrating that, historiographically, it has always been a slippery yet productive category.

Indeed, heterogeneity was visible even in the very first displays of Land art, as the curators demonstrate with small shows-within-the-show that focus on such historical precedents as Virginia Dwan's "Earthworks" (1968), Gerry Schum's televised exhibition "Land Art" (1969), and Willoughby Sharp's "Earth Art" (1969), which emphasize that Land art always included text-based pieces, sketches, video, photography, and process-based action. And yet by highlighting some of the original endeavors to name and market this genre, "Ends of the Earth" also reminds us of the problematic simplification that exhibitions often enforce, particularly for work so varied, and foregrounds the role of institutional framing and the significant art-world branding that molded this multifarious set of practices into a "movement."

The exhibit's challenge to accepted narratives begins with another, earlier set of historical precedents, a survey of works that contest the accepted wisdom that Land art sprang fully formed from the experimentally rich ferment of the 1960s by demonstrating its roots in the first half of the twentieth century. Among the earliest examples on display is Isamu Noguchi's Monument to the Plow, 1933, a drawing of an unrealized proposal for a twelve-hundred-foot-tall pyramid in the midwestern US: one part tilled, one part planted with wheat, one part untouched, its apex crowned by a steel plow. …

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