What the Land Artists had already told us

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In this historic moment of disasters that seem imminent, I often find myself in the midst of discussions about the future, with colleagues, friends and people passing by. The usual bar talk, which becomes dense and animated when you go into the environmental and climatic issues. Pessimism irremediably takes hold of the conversation and each participant, as in a sort of occult circle, tells theories and points of view on what he has read or heard about about what awaits us in the next 20, 30, 40 years. .

Melting ice, pole reversal, desertification, scientists who warn with tears in their eyes, prevailing capitalism, plastic, nuclear, solar energy, typhoons and hurricanes, human extinction.

Whenever a discussion of this type is undertaken, I already know that I will end up depressed, feeling disgusted and guilty for how the human species has irremediably written its destiny in this way. In recent times I have tried as much as possible to avoid being in the midst of this type of discussion. As soon as I hear the word “climate change”, suddenly the desire to escape takes possession of me.

Don’t get me wrong, I am sorry and angry for everything that is happening in the world and I wish my anger could reverse the flow of time and go back to when the earth was a pristine and idyllic jungle, when that “bonheur de vivre” painted by Matisse , reigned silently over our fate. But, we are going towards entropy and Mr. Amazon doesn’t trade the time machine yet.

So, even if an environmental catastrophe is not my favorite scenario, I console myself by thinking that somehow I will have to die and that at least I will not be alone.

Because the point of view of science about planet’s fate depress me, for some years now, I’ve preferred to take refuge in the reflections and artistic speculations of those who, through poetry and aesthetics, expound us an audacious and sensitive view’s point about the environment / nature / anthropocene themes, not really with the aim of changing the ending of the story, but with the desire to give us stillness in which reflect about of the majesty of nature, to remember its power and ours role of small animals passing through this world.

Sometimes I can only ruminate on the fact that many had already warned us, and among them, about 50 years ago, a group of artists from the United States of America, had started an aesthetic / sociological research on the role of our species and on the use of artistic practice as a way to question about places, materials, technologies and intentions of art, but also of human resources themselves.

In October 1968, at the Dwan Gallery in New York, the artist Robert Smithson organized the Earth Works exhibition, inspired by a science fiction novel by Brian W. Aldiss, set in a future in which even the soil is a precious good. That’s how someone began to feel the first hints of climate catastrophe.

The review consisted of a pessimistic look at the future of America and its environmental heritage; fourteen artists, mostly young and little known, exhibited works that were too large or difficult to transport, so much so that most of them were shown only through photographs.

A year later, in 1969, Gerry Schum’s film Land Art was released, documenting the interventions of Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria, Robert Smithson, Richard Long, Dennis Oppenheim, Barry Flanagan and Marinus Boezem: the first artists to be so defined Land Artist.

Land art is identified as a contemporary art form characterized by the direct intervention of the artist on the natural territory, initially in uncontaminated spaces such as deserts, lakes, grasslands, etc. The works are often ephemeral and are subject to changes over time.

What the Land Artists were shouting us was to turn our gaze and our attention to the ecological theme and the impact of human action on the surrounding world. With the slightly macho attitude of the man who never has to ask but at the same time the sensitivity to experiment and overturn the “traditional” point of view, the Land artists took possession of a strong creative gesture and the infinite spaces of the American territory, beginning to dig, trace, implant, move masses of organic materials, stones, sand, earth, concrete … to work with natural and geometric symbolism, to study the effect of human action over time.

This current has certainly revolutionized, once again, the tools of artistic making, containing in itself a little of the poetics of poor and primitivist art, a little of the ecological principles of the cultural revolution of ’68’s, a little of the gestural force of abstract exmpressionism and performative art and. With time and experimentation, it has branched into different forms and currents that see man and landscape in a continuous combination of artistic / cultural reflection.

 Furthermore, from my point of view, taking into consideration the practices of Land art (and not the artistic current itself), we can say that these represent some of the first research methods that the human being has experimented with since he began to interact in environment, even before the definition of art itself was only conceived.

I therefore think that together with others, the Land Artists had telling us that art (such as politics, culture and other aspects of life) had to become aware of its power of intervention regarding the future of the world and had showing us the need to change materials and production methods, in favor of the environment, of life on a human scale and not on a mass production.

So, if we are looking for (utopian?) answers on how to reverse the fate of the world, let study Land Art and its principles, look at the works of Land Artists and let ourselves be touched by their dexterity and inventiveness.

Here is a list of what the Land Artists had already told us about how to intervene in global dynamics, rediscover different possibilities about reality and that could be useful for us to seek inspiration and courage in moving forward in this historical moment with an uncertain future:

Use organic or nature material:

Although the definition of Land art has expanded over the years, including any type of artistic intervention in the landscape, one of the strongest original ideas of this current is the use of natural materials and therefore as non-toxic as possible, since the work it will remain in nature and merge with it.

Ana Mendieta

Research on materials:

By thoroughly observing the natural materials available and studying their characteristics such as texture, color, composition, material and manipulative abilities, we can discover the infinite possibilities that a material can give us and re-evaluate its use in different fields.

Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson

Recall to the senses and sensations:

Immersing ourselves in nature to work with the earth leads us to use all the senses and allows us to rediscover the contact with our natural and animal part. This operation is curative, mediating and regenerating for the body and mind of those who create but also of those who contemplate the work of art.

Richard Long

Resizing the space of action:

The Land Artists take art out of the galleries, out of the closed confined spaces of the museums, decide to work on a large scale and redefine the space to their taste. They do not enclose the works and therefore not even the body of the spectator, who can observe a work from multiple points of view and in multiple situations. The city is no longer the only place dedicated to art but other scenarios are made possible.

Michael Heizer, Double Negative

Change of perspective:

Transform the “function” of natural elements is like decide that we can use the earth to paint, stones to mark a space, lightning to make a performance.

Lighting Field, Walter De Maria

Work that is confused with nature:

Many Land Artists saw the action of man as an affirmation of his own existence on the landscape. Despite this, we can reflect on the possibility that the work can blend in with the environment and be more or less recognizable. The trace of human action can therefore also become invisible and find a balanced compromise with the environment.

Broken Circle, Robert Smithson

A perishable and ephemeral art:

Land Art is an art made with elements of nature or in the natural context and therefore in itself transitory, temporary and in any case susceptible to transformations by the environment (meteorological, natural, temporal). This makes us reflect on how even life is ephemeral, changing and how nothing lasts infinitely.

An “unsaleable” art:

By decontextualizing art from the museum and using natural materials, we are also reformulating the relationship of art with the system. Giving a price to an ephemeral work is more complex; moving a work rooted in a place, put us in front of the need to rethink the way of artistic fruition, the places of art and the  idea of commercial value itself.

A not very elitist art:

Using materials available in nature, we can define Land Art’s practice as an art within everyone’s reach, which is not bound to the need for large investments or expensive materials.

Richard Long

The reflections which Land Artists report in artistic practice, are now applicable to many production methods and to many human reasoning on interaction with the environment. Perhaps we will not be saved and perhaps the sentence we have imposed on our species is final. We can therefore enjoy the last few decades trying to rebuild the bond of respect towards this land that gave us life. Poetic intentions, even if only symbolic, are important in making peace and apologizing to the territory we have plundered. Artistic rituals, which have always been present in human life, are the celebration of our presence and symbiosis with the world. Indeed, Land Art reminds us of that ancestral ritual that the human species inevitably needs today, arriving in many generations before us: a ritual of creative challenge and at the same time of symbiosis with nature.

Author Details
Set builder, decorator and graphic designer. She loves looking at art and getting emotional.
Paola D'Andrea
Set builder, decorator and graphic designer. She loves looking at art and getting emotional.
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