Land Art - Escaping the Grasp of the Art Market

December 13, 2015

The path you might take every day to your workplace, school, or anywhere else for that matter, could also be perceived as a piece of art… Literally, one of the most significant artworks in a genre called Land Art is actually A Line Made By Walking (1967) by the artist Richard Long. Made while the artist was a student in London, the artwork documents Long’s path which he created by walking back and forth across the same piece of land in Wiltshire. The “groundbreaking” (pun intended) artwork represented the experiential factor of nature and the ephemerality of art in an artistic practice that had an impact on the land. Bordering with Conceptualism and Minimalism, Earth art or Land art began to develop as an art form in the late 1960s in America. Aiming to heighten public awareness of Man’s relationship with the natural world, Land artists intervened in the landscape with a series of thought-provoking constructions and artworks. With a variety of forms, ranging from reshaped waterways and volcanoes, to small-scaled interventions like lines of footprints in the ground, Land art fused elements found in nature with the creative force of the artist. Mankind often perceives the world of nature as being a backdrop for the importance of our individual social lives and growth. However, Earth art places the nature at the forefront, reminding us all that the intricacies and subtle forms of communication in the natural world are far superior to anything humans have created or ever could create.

Making of Land art
Making of Land art

Origins and History of Land Art

It is the ancient cultures which first started using earthwork to express themselves, long before the term “art” even existed. Inukshuks in Canada, the Great Seprent Mound in Ohio USA, and of course, works by the Nazca Indians, the famous Nazca lines, are just some of the examples of origins of this practice. Fast forward to the modern times, Land art began developing as an art form in the late 1960s. Considered as one of the most experimental periods in the history of Western art, the 1960s and 1970s were thriving with many concurrent movements and artists. New styles were born, lines were becoming more and more difficult to ascertain between the genres, artists often worked simultaneously in more than one style, only adding to the labeling confusion. Principles of Land art were similar to the ones of Minimalism and Conceptualism, specifically regarding the concerns of how objects occupied their space and the interaction between humans and art, all wrapped up in the simplicity of form. Even though it was linked with Minimalism, Conceptualism, traditional sculpture, Cubism, Assemblage and Installation, Land art also carried a strain of protest against the commercial straitjacket imposed by the materialistic art galleries and dealers. But the often extremely expensive-to-complete projects actually required financial support from the very system the artists despised. The monumental landscape pieces often required land-purchase or the use of earth-moving equipment, which all necessitate great amounts of financial backing. Ultimately, these works were usually situated in remote places, accessible only by the super-rich, and properly enjoyable only from the aerial point of view.

To mitigate this problem, many land artists focused more on the smaller or easier projects, much more accessible and far less elitist. The issue of ephemerality in arts is particularly emphasized in Land art, the natural materials used in artworks tend to decay, wither, melt or fall apart, restricting many pieces to be just temporary. Art galleries and museums exploited the necessity of camera-use to capture these works, grasping the commercial opportunities offered through photographs and video. This unavoidable link, or even dependence on the more traditional media of 2D photography and film further distanced Land art from Conceptual art. Most of Earth artworks were not about the beauty and aesthetic pleasure, almost all of them stressed the rejection of commodity status and mainstream exhibition venues, relying solely on the notion of ephemerality. It was not until the end of the 1960s that the movement made its first appearance at an exhibition. Earthworks and Earth Art exhibitions at Candace Dwan Gallery, NY, and Cornell University’s Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art were the first shows that featured prominent Land artists. Jan Dibbets, Robert Morris, Walter De Maria, Richard Long, Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson, and then later on: Alice Aycock, Alan Sonfist, Nancy Holt and James Turrell are the names of some of the creators who reshaped the nature to change our vision of the world.

Left: Richard Long - A Line Made By Walking, 1967 / Right: Urs Fischer interior land art
Left: Richard Long - A Line Made By Walking, 1967 / Right: Urs Fischer interior land art

Land Art vs. Galleries

In the terms of categorization, Land art could be divided into “Site” and “Nonsite” to determine the theoretical differences in the physical context of the art. The “Nonsite” pieces would refer to the “indoor artwork,” indicating a piece that could be placed and exhibited in a gallery setting. On the other hand, “Site” would designate the works which are inseparably tied to their outdoor infrastructure, making them site-specific. However they are labeled as, Earthworks are defined by the entropy of the materials, both manmade and organic. Outdoor pieces are naturally subjected to the effects of the elements, with decay and disintegration becoming an integral part of their meaning. Many artists think of preservation as an act of conceit, meaning that the artwork loses its original notion and idea. Alas, during the mid-1970s, the recession impacted all aspects of life, including arts and the funding of Earth art. Since many Earth artists relied on patrons to purchase expensive areas of land to produce their large-scale work, some of them turned their careers in other directions. Many practitioners of Land art reoriented their production to accommodate institutional and gallery spaces. Post-minimalist movements like Process art became strongly connected to Earth art, and many prominent names shifted towards the gallery model as the space for Land art grew smaller and smaller.

Interior Land art
Interior Land art

Commercial Art Market and Land Art

Examining the basic notions of Land artists, and the timing at which they started to be produced (Vietnam war, student protests in California, hippie movement, environmental concerns etc.) it often leads to thinking that Land artists were against, or at least, not interested in markets. Not to mention the impractical aspect of large-scale projects and the ephemerality which defined the movement. Many followers of the style openly placed themselves outside of the system, making it impossible for the art market to even reach them. Even though most of the original artists have gone underground, continuing their ambitious work, some of them continued to pursue large-scale projects and further expand their oeuvre. Michael Heizer has devoted a lot of time and effort since 1972 to building City, which is a gargantuan earth sculpture build below ground level in the Nevada desert, with building-sized shapes and massive objects. Another example would be James Turrell who has been working on Roden Crater since 1979. The three-mile-wide extinct volcano in Arizona served as a viewing space for him to commune with the celestial bodies above. Several other artists are also still determined to maintain the concepts of Land art, funded by different patrons supporting their ambitions. On the other hand, some would say that the dominant commercial market finally caught up with the pioneers of land art. This would refer to the Gagosian Gallery taking over the representation of Michael Heizer and the estate of Walter De Maria. Either way, Land art may have outgrown its original lines and developed into other spheres of art, but it still remains today, reshaping the world of nature around us into a new visual experience.

All images used for illustrative purposes only

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