Herbert Bayer’s ability to design an entire system that beautifies the landscape as it rectifies its erosion and flooding problems has earned a secure place within the annals of art history.
Herbert Bayer’s ability to design an entire system that beautifies the landscape as it rectifies its erosion and flooding problems has earned a secure place within the annals of art history. His work, Mill Creek Canyon Earthwork, remains an instructive and inspiring example of an artist’s large-scale application of an eco-centric philosophy. Yet Bayer’s accomplishment is overshadowed by Robert Smithson who created Asphalt Rundown in 1969, one of the first Earthworks. Smithson’s work manifests the three critical markers of Earth art: the artwork is too large in scale to be accommodated in an architectural setting; the artwork is subject to the ever changing conditions of light, temperature, moisture, wind, season, and climate change; the artwork’s remote setting adds an element of pilgrimage to the art experience while elevating the importance of the documentary photograph.
Mill Creek remains a poignant example of an ecosystem that was bolstered to withstand potentially destructive assaults from the weather and remain vital as a functioning eco system. In contrast, Asphalt Rundown is a demonstration of an ecosystem evolving toward ‘entropy’. Smithson’s art dramatized the events leading up to entropy as it gradually succumbs to disorder and assumes the stagnant finality he predicted for all geologic phenomena, all forms of life, and even all of humanity’s creative acts.
Asphalt Rundown was located on a site devoid of fauna and flora because it had been gouged by a mining operation that transformed the hillside into a gravel and dirt quarry. The location displayed evidence of humanity’s role in accelerating the pace of entropy. “Run down” is the term Smithson chose to describe entropic forces – sliding, collapsing, and descending. In this work run-down was initiated by the mining industry, continued by the geological force of erosion, and augmented by the Smithson’s artistic intervention. In contrast, the Bayer’s intervention into the landscape respected it as a vital setting for processes that cycle, entities that grow, and conditions that evolve. Utility and remediation are core to his agenda, but absent from Smithson’s. Plants, insects, fish, mammals, trees, and humans are accommodated in Bayer’s work, but missing from Smithson’s. Asphalt Rundown is, therefore, as emblematic of Earth Art as Mill Creek is illustrative of Eco Art.
Apply this analysis to such earth art projects as Robert Morris’s Observatory, Michael Heizer’s City, and James Turrell’s Roden Crater.
Apply this analysis to such eco art projects as Bonnie Sherk’s The Farm, Nicole Fournier’s Live Dining, Lily Yeh’s Rwanda Healing Project. Examples not included in this book include Patricia Johanson’s Garden Cities: Turtle Mound; AMD (Acid Mine Drainage) & ART, Vintondale Pennsylvania; Lillian Ball’s ABC Waterwash.