Nancy Holt & Robert Smithson: England and Wales 1969
Carey-Kent, Paul, Art Monthly
John Hansard Gallery Southampton 10 May to 17 July
This summer sees the happy convergence of the first historical survey of land art in Britain and a significant UK exhibition of Robert Smithson's work, in conjunction with his partner and keeper of the flame Nancy Holt. These shows also complement Holt's solo exhibitions in London last year (Reviews AM358) and now at the Whitworth, Manchester - all indicative of the 75-year-old's increasing profile on these shores.
Southampton is the first venue for this Arts Council England touring exhibition, which will travel to Cardiff, the University of Warwick and Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Curators Nicholas Alfrey, Joy Sleeman and Ben Tufnell have chosen their title carefully, flagging the historically contested nature of the British landscape; the newness at the time of the approaches being taken; the period covered by this first attempt to take the measure of how its art related to the land (rather than leading with the conceptual content, as in surveys such as 'The New Art', 1972); and defining its geographical scope - work made in Britain by 24 artists and artist groups, not necessarily British.
As such, 'Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979' could well have included work made by Smithson and Holt during their visit to England and Wales in August and September, 1969. That was primarily designed to allow the former to contribute to the ICA exhibition 'When Attitudes Become Form', normally cited as the first major survey of Conceptual Art in England. He did so with Chalk Mirror Displacement, 1969, which brought material from Oxted Quarry, Surrey into the gallery so that, in Smithson's words, 'instead of putting something on the landscape, I decided it would be interesting to transfer land indoors, to the non-site, which is an abstract container' and so yield 'a bipolar unity between two places'. That work, recreated, provides the starting point for a fascinating and immersive account of Smithson and Holt's trip around geological, historic and entropic sites, and other work they made here - such as Holt's first buried poem piece and her Dartmoor photographic sequence Trail Markers, 1969. Films made elsewhere are also shown, revealing the collaborative nature of their working practice - both before and, given her awareness of his intentions, after Smithson's untimely death in 1973.
These rich shows could trigger any number of foci. Given that Smithson remains most recognisably the maker of Asphalt Rundown, 1969, and Spiral Jetty, 1970, and Holt's best-known solo work is Sun Tunnels, 1973-76, a quartet of vast concrete pipes in the Utah desert, the pairing sounds like an opportunity to contrast the brashly expansive land art of the US with more hesitant interactions in the UK, where land was much harder for artists to access. There is something in that: it can feel as if Michael Heizer and Walter De Maria impose themselves on the landscape where Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy integrate themselves into it - but that is not how the particular content of these two shows plays out.
Themes which do come to the fore include the expanding view of what constitutes a work of art, to include its preparation and documentation; the tracing back to geological and ancient history that is central to many of the artists' practices, especially Smithson's; the conceptual parameters applied to generate works; relationships to Romanticism and the Picturesque, as well as to Minimalism; and the journey as a central action, creative act and metaphor. What struck me most, though, was the amount of relatively unfamiliar work in both exhibitions, and the emphasis not on the land in isolation but on how people - both the inhabitants of the landscapes explored and the artists in their often humorous interactions with it - relate to the landscape.
There is plenty of characterful wit in 'Uncommon Ground'. Take Bruce McLean's deadpan sculptural clowning, Keith Arnatt's Liverpool beach burials and Jan Dibbets's perspective corrections, applying to a slope of grass what appears to be a straightforward square, until we realise that it cannot be that simple. …