To Life! An Ecological Evaluation of Land-Art

by Linda Weintraub
Copyright Linda Weintraub

“To life!” is a phrase that resounds at gatherings of well-wishers and grievers the world over. Ecologists have a special relationship with this popular phrase because they are professionally committed to vigor and vitality of all kinds. Their exclamations of “To life!” expand beyond the zone of human life to include the lives of microbes and plants and animals, and to the water, air, earth, and sun that enable living organisms to exist on this planet.

Likewise, “To success!” is a refrain that typically accompanies the raising of a glass to honor a person. But ecological toasts exceed human advantage. Ecologists summon advanced tools of scrutiny, data collection, and analysis to study the perpetually shifting mosaic of ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ organisms. Such analysis acknowledges that even miniscule events influence the delicate interactions between populations and their habitats. It notes that non-human life forms do not necessarily share in the success of humanity in providing for its own comfort, convenience, and security. The tools that propel the success of corporations, industry, government, and the military can also propel art.

This essay applies core principles of ecology to the amorphous field of art where movements have precise names but ambiguous definitions. The terms land-art, site-specific art, earth-art, environmental-art, and eco-art leap like quantum energy packets between art books, reviews, and essays. They appear indiscriminately in texts discussing any artists who locate their studios out-of-doors, exhibit their work in the landscape, derive their art medium from the earth’s mantle, and/or enlist the sun and moon to illuminate their art work. These names do not differentiate movements chronologically. Neither do they distinguish art works according to scale, methods of construction, strategies of display, or material choices. Perhaps this lack of meaning indicates that such conventional components of art analysis are irrelevant, and that a different investigative tool is required to rescue this arena of art discourse from its morass. Ecology may, for example, help clarify the difference between eco-art and land-art.

Unlike land-artists, eco-artists share ecology’s engagement with the perpetually shifting, infinitely layered montage of living entities. They consciously address life by honoring its sanctity, augmenting its diversity, optimizing its vitality, fortifying its resilience, or otherwise including it within their art practice. In order to manage this expansive topic in this short essay, a single acknowledged masterpiece serves as the emblem of land-art. The exemplifying work is “Lightning Field” created by Walter de Maria in 1977.

“Lightning Field” rises above the horizon on a remote desert plateau near Quemado, New Mexico as a proud testimony to humanity’s imprint on the landscape. The work is too massive to be viewed in its entirety on site, but its geometrical simplicity makes it possible to conceptualize. Envision a precise geometrical grid comprised of 400 stainless steel poles, two inches in diameter, averaging 20 1/2 feet tall, installed at 220 foot intervals. The poles puncture the earth and pierce the sky extending a mile along the east-west axis and a kilometer along the north-south axis. In plotting the work, De Maria and his consultants first took high resolution stereo photographs of the site which were analyzed by optical machines. They then conducted an electronic survey using laser transits and electronic distance measuring equipment. In this manner the height of each pole was systematically calculated to compensate for the undulating topography so that the tops of the poles formed a perfectly level plane.

“Lightning Field” will exist in precisely this configuration forever because the DIA Foundation not only sponsored the work’s construction; it agreed to de Maria’s request for its perpetual maintenance and preservation. In bestowing eternity upon this work of art, the Foundation granted it a condition that is usually reserved for otherworldly domains. Its disassociation from the dynamic domain of ecosystems identifies this work as land-art, not eco-art. Instead of resisting change, eco-artists tune their art to the ecological principle that all material states are provisional. By allowing their work to register flux generated by life forms, weather, climate, solar activity, and civilization, eco-artists illustrate that nonliving entities accrete, erode, disperse, and settle, while living entities grow, evolve, mutate, die, decompose, and are reprocessed.

De Maria’s choice of medium provides additional assurance that his monumental work will resist permutations. He chose stainless steel, a material designed to thwart change. Stainless steel does not chip, fade, or crack. It is impervious to moisture. It withstands heat and light. It isn’t eaten by fungus or bacteria or predators. The structural attributes of stainless steel make it an ideal choice if creating an everlasting work of art is of primary concern. Additional factors become decisive when ecological criteria govern an artist’s material selection because they would assume that the desert habitat and its fauna and flora were not immune to art’s incursions. For example, eco-artists might analyze the environmental consequences of mining, processing, fabricating, polishing, packaging, and transporting the 38,000 pounds of stainless steel utilized to construct “Lightning Field”. They might also study the impact of the heavy machinery that dug 400 three-foot holes and filled them with 6,000 pounds of hydraulic cement.

As the title indicates, “Lightning Field” engages a primal force that has stirred terror in the hearts of humans since the beginning of time, and rightly so. A single flash of lightning is charged with millions of volts that hurl at the speed of light and produce temperatures many times hotter than the surface of the sun. Lightning storms occur seasonally in this region of New Mexico from late May though early September, three days out of thirty. By erecting 400 active lightning rods, Walter de Maria lured the immense meteorological force into compliance with his artistic vision. Ironically, his act of daring subjected the stainless steel poles to their one vulnerability. Heat generated by lightning is so intense that it occasionally melts the points of the stainless steel poles. Instead of permitting his work to register the impingements of weather, de Maria stipulated that charred poles should be replaced, thereby eradicating the effects of lightning and assuring that his work would forever return to the flawless state he envisioned. From an environmental perspective, such disturbances are fitting, not intrusive because burning can be revitalizing as well as impairing. They are examples of dynamism, not damage. Decay is valued by eco-artists as a crucial phase within the cycle of material transformations that continually replenish ecosystems. Many Eco-artists manifest this belief by permitting, and sometimes dramatizing, their works’ disintegrations.

On-site visits to “Lightning Field” inspire rapturous reports that abound with adjectives like cosmic, sublime, awe-inspiring, and transcendent. Like most land-art works, the remote desert setting and restrictive rules of visitation mean that a far larger audience will infer these sensations from photographic representations of the work. These photographs are emblematic images of 20th century art. They depict jagged bolts of electricity hurtling through the skies transforming an earthly construction into an otherworldly apparition. Lightning renders “Lightning Field” stunningly photogenic. John Cliett, the work’s official photographer, reports that de Maria was already addressing the challenge of capturing a split-second spasm of lightning in a camera lens during the work’s planning phase. He consulted with a NASA scientist who devised a trigger sensor that could be attached to a camera and clicked when it detected the specific wavelength of light that was present in lighting.[1] While the lightning rods lay claim to lightning’s gorgeous fury, the trigger enables de Maria to capture the spectacle photographically.

De Maria orchestrated his construction so that it provides the perfect aesthetic complement to the erratic force of lightning. For example, he created a stunning visual foil to the diagonal thrust of lightning bolts by introducing the serene stasis of the implanted steel poles. In a similar manner he provided an optical counterpoint to the erratic angularity of lightning by interjecting the right-angled predictability of the grid. Meanwhile, he assured compositional harmony by creating a correspondence between the slender proportions and shiny surfaces of the poles, and the linear brilliance of lightning streaks. Most significantly, de Maria achieved the ultimate aesthetic alliance by requiring that the tapered points of his poles would forever replicate the tapered tips of lightning bolts. This aesthetic feature explains the apparent discrepancy between luring lightning and then making elaborate provisions to obliterate its effects.

In all these ways “Lightning Field” dazzles the eyes and stirs the spirits of human observers. But plants, microbes, and animals are neither affected by visual splendor nor by spiritual awakenings. Because all forms of life comprise eco-art’s audience, eco-artists would expand their engagment with lightning to include its affect upon non-human sensitivities. These include sudden changes in ozone levels, the escalation of noise, and erratic shifts in temperature. Eco-artists might also examine lightning-induced fires in a desert plateau. Such fires would either endanger life forms and decrease diversity by destroying habitat, or support life and increase diversity by revitalizing an ecosystem.

De Maria confirmed his land-art status by meticulously tuning “Lightning Field’s” axes to the sun, thereby relating the work’s orientation upon the earth to another almighty force that occupies the skies. In this manner he utilized the aesthetic glory of the sun as it infuses the atmosphere, exploiting its visual attributes, summoning its celestial glory, but neglecting is functional role. Eco-artists bring the sun down to earth where it conducts the essential work of infusing the planet with streams of energy that plants soak up and transform into living matter.

Like most land-artists, de Maria configured his work’s borders, plotting its formal scheme and predetermining its conclusion before construction began. Although he located his work in an unobstructed desert expanse, he designed it according to the inviolable rules of right-angled geometry that originate in culture. Formally, “Lightning Field” resembles the standardized architectural constructions in which most contemporary lives are spent. Eco-artists, on the other hand, rarely simplify forms, halt time, or limit diversity. Their works are often described by borrowing such terms from ecological discourse as chain, link, network, and system, an indication of their alliance with ecosystem dynamics, not human conceptualizations.

These opposing artistic strategies are being debated and applied throughout contemporary culture. Some people share land-artists’ faith in valorous human accomplishments that are bolstered by technologies. Others join eco-artists’ search for humanity’s proper niche among approximately 30 million other species that share the earth’s resources. Since we humans have empowered ourselves into accountability for the survival of all beings on our planet, balancing these contrasting approaches will ultimately determine if the toasts “To life!” and “To success!” will be heard by the diverse populations of thriving habitats, or if they will echo through the barren landscape.

The counsel of Skip Schuckmann and the curatorial staff of the DIA Foundation are gratefully acknowledged.

[1] The God Effect: an interview with John Cliett. Cabinet Issue 3 Summer 2001