The following text was drafted for my upcoming book, co-authored by Natalie Jeremijenko, entitled Studio Art Environmental Health Clinic. Comments are welcome:
‘Land’ connotes soil to a farmer, property rights to a lawyer, a commodity to a developer, a voting district to a politician, habitat to an ecologist, a yard to a suburbanite, natural resources to an economist. Yet members of each profession have claimed space under the umbrella term, ‘environmentalism’ even as they adhere to their specialized agendas. What they share is an abiding commitment to the well-being of planet Earth
But what is ‘land’ to an artist?
The long history of Western is imprinted with three land-related narratives. One account tracks those artists who frame a vista and record its visual contents. These artists define ‘land’ as scenery, a source of visual stimulation, a repository of bounteous optical evocations. The second version is occupied by artists who, instead of representing the optical manifestations of land, conscript these visual elements into the service of symbol and metaphor. These artists strip the elements of ‘land’ of their authentic identities and recast them as symbolic representations of phenomena that are not elements of land. Trees, for example, may convey knowledge of good and evil, or communion with the spirit world, or the human brain and spinal cord. The third artistic approach to land is emotionally-charged. Artists who pursue this approach forego compliant observations and the active construction of symbols. They manipulate the components of ‘land’ so that, through such distortions and exaggerations, they register personal passions and sensitivities. In this instance, ‘land’ becomes a vehicle for expressing terror, awe, tranquility, etc.
In the 1960s and 1970s and new movement was launched added a fourth accounting to the art/land legacy. Indeed, it was called ‘Land Art’, a designation that was well-earned even though its practitioners rejected their predecessors’ strategies of interaction, depictions and interpretations; Land artists located their artworks outdoors. Furthermore, they dispensed with neutral mediums, like paint and crayon, to manifest their creative endeavors; instead, they worked with the actual materials of the land. Michael Heizer, for example, used a bulldozer to displace 240,000 tons of earth from the edge of a Nevada mesa, and Robert Smithson laid six thousand tons of black basalt rocks and earth along the shore of the Great Salt Lake to create a peninsula shaped like a counterclockwise spiral.