Collaborating with Nature: ‘Earth Art’

In the late 1960s, ‘Land art’ – also known as ‘Earth art’ – emerged as a new artistic practice that explores the potential of landscape and the environment as materials for art. The first practitioners of land art were Americans. Among them were Walter De Maria, Nancy Holt, Sol Lewitt, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson and James Turrell. This post features the work of the latter two artists who became known for their monumental sculptures and environmental installations.

‘Spiral Jetty’ by Robert Smithson

In 1970, Robert Smithson transformed an area of industrial wasteland into one of the most famous pieces of Land art, ‘Spiral Jetty’. The work consists of a spiral road of black basalt stones and earth projecting 1500 feet into the waters of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, which had been reddened by algae, bacteria and brine shrimp. At the time, Smithson was unaware that water levels were low, and soon the work was inundated. In 2002, after years of drought, Spiral Jetty made a dramatic reappearance. In the interim period, the rocks had become encrusted with white salt crystals, giving a new look to the artwork as if nature wanted to reclaim its own artistic image by means of encrustation and erosion. 

Robert Smithson in the 1970s. “I like landscape that suggest prehistory. As an artist it is sort of interesting to take on the persona of a geological agent where man actually becomes part of that process rather than overcoming it.”

Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty” (1970), mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, water, 1,500 feet x 15 feet (Collection of Dia Art Foundation, photograph by Charles Uibel/Great Salt Lake Photography, © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation, Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York)

‘Roden Crater’ by James Turrell

American artist James Turrell is well known for his abstract installations exploring our perceptions of light and space. Most of his work is room-size. So nothing quite prepares you when you encounter a work like Roden Crater.

Roden Crater, Arizona. Photo: James Turrell.

Roden Crater (the installation) is a giant observatory located in a volcanic crater by the same name near Arizona’s Painted Desert. Turrell has reshaped the dish of the crater so that it functions like an oculus, a monumental window to the sky. Inside the installation, a maze of channels and tunnels cut through the mountain – there’s a central viewing room here, a smaller viewing room there, and two tunnels, each one leading to a different viewpoint of the solstice.

Different sky views of Roden Crater.

As you lie down down and watch the dome of the sky, you see it shifts from twilight into darkness and you begin to see astronomical events – the texture of the sky, the alignment and brightness of stars, the luminosity of the moon – that may have escaped your everyday perception. My desire is to set up a situation to which I take you and let you see. It becomes your experience.”

We must remember that Turrell is an artist, not a scientist. He often said that one of his major influences is the music of John Cage. You may know Cage by his spare composition 4’ 33”, which is essentially four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence – well, not really silence because while Cage doesn’t hit any piano keys during that duration, one does hear ambient noise such as the rustling of program sheets and people coughing now and then. Just as Cage’s reductive “performance” forces us to attend to what is otherwise on the margin, Turrell’s does the same with art.

James Turrell

A short film about James Turrell’s masterwork in process, Roden Crater. The film was commissioned by LACMA on the occasion of the exhibition “James Turrell: A Retrospective” on view at LACMA from May 26, 2013 through April 6, 2014.

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