Out of Nothing

Abstract

The essay reviews works of land artists Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and Gaunt. It analyses the main approaches these artists used to change the landscape's perceived feature, and compares the before and after the edit of landscapes' biographies. This writing discusses the shifting status of these sites in awareness of the arbitrary in recognising landscapes, and gives opinion regarding referable approaches for artists to engage in landscape interpretations. 

Keywords

Landscape, Land Art, Earthwork, Landscape Identity, Landscape Biography

Plenty of room for all of us

Recognising a landscape could be reflected in a philosophical perspective, which the paper suggests a similarity in Schrodinger’s Cat. The essay argues the existence of the land as preconditioned, landscapes are but sections divided by multiform boundaries that human invented in order to precisely describe each element; the observation, study and interference collapses into the existence of landscapes in human consciousness. We could learn from Antrop's definition that landscape represents the result of the bidirectional influence between natural and human impact (2004), by which reflects the human element in the authorship of landscape biography. Determining one landscape could heavily rely on its perceived uniqueness; hence under different conditions, landscapes could be redefined and transformed into a new conceptual product. The perceiver’s preference, fascination and interest could significantly shape the outcome. 

 

In 1967, America artist Robert Smithson published his article The Monuments of Passaic on Artforum, along with a series of photographs he took during his little journey to Passaic, New Jersey. Smithson identified his first monument "at the corner of Union Avenue and River Drive”, filmed it, and extended his search for more objects in this suburban area. His distinctive gaze filtered industrial ruins as subjects of aesthetics. He pointed out these ruins are “opposite of the romantic ruins” due to their construction lacked the spine to narrate them as the history or big stories of this suburban area, nor any practical use was developed after the completion of construction. Smithson described the surrounding "chaotic"; hence these ruins unavoidably fell into coordinates of the area uniqueness that his observation perceived. He paved “the rational path”, as he phrased in the article, and through filming these sites, Smithson introduced the fourth dimension in defining & redefining this transitional area which sits between a functioned operating industrial civilisation and dispersed components of it. 

 

His motivation in this experimental filming process was evident in the article The New Monuments and Entropy that he published one year before. Smithson wrote about Vladimir Nabokov’s statement that “the future is but the obsolete in reverse”. The essay would argue that it fundamentally supports land art‘s characteristics: challenging the time scale through their materiality, monumentality and substantiality. Despite the timelessness of earthwork practices were pointed out in Smithson’s 1968 publication A Sediment of the Mind: The Earth Proposal, the conflict between long-lasting physical form and the unpredictable forces of nature still makes the comparison an attempting question. His deduction of A. J. Ayer’s idea, on the other hand, can be used to examine the entropic layer of land art without considering moral implication that correctly or incorrectly interpreted. He wrote about contemporary earthworks in The Sediment of the Mind that “they destroyed the land as a unified concept, and transformed its debris into an illusional map” (Smithson, 1968)

 

In 1970, Smithson’s ground-breaking piece Spiral Jetty (Fig.1) was produced. It is a counterclockwise basaltic spiral locates in the Rozel Point peninsula. The artist’s experimental design liberates the work from the manually controlled environment, put it into a dynamic system and left the fourth dimension completely exposed to entropic impact. Natural forces flooded the work and kept it underwater until the drought declined the water level, revealed its physical form again in 2002 (50 Years of Spiral Jetty | Smithson and Gorgoni | The Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 2020). The site shows the similarity to the artificiality of British gardens, which introduces itself by inviting the audience to feel through their movements; it encourages visitors to question whether the creation remains in its conserved original state (Shapiro, 2019). Smithson played with the linearity of time as Spiral Jetty’s constant shifting of forms alters the observation and the interpretation of audiences. And his intention was to “directly built something out of the ground”, as he started in a conversation with Kenneth Baker in 1971 (Baker, 2005). The construction of the work dotted a new landmark on his illusional map, amongst nearby industrial ruins that fascinated Smithson.

Fig 1. Rober Smithson, 1970, Spiral Jetty, Land Art, Dia Art Foundation

Another monumental work, City (Fig 2), is produced by his contemporary Michael Heizer. The site has been under construction since 1972 as the artist intended to build something that can be compared to “a 747, the Empire State Building, or the Golden Gate Bridge” (Flanagan, 2019).

 

If we considered land art as a particular method of defining and transforming a landscape, then the artwork itself might be less well-rounded to describe the nature of the modified landscape. Whether it directly supports an economic activity or generates cultural value with its sublimed form as a metaphor, the landscape requires accessibility. To be more concrete, we could imagine producing a landscape art as a landscape practice that follows the design philosophy of what is termed “aesthetics of thrift”; the work’s pragmatic purpose should be clearly articulated - its physical structure supports users in material ways, and its spiritual dimension brings mental impact to those who perceives and attaches feeling to it. The former is easy to understand, that to physically experience the landscape is through visiting; the latter description refers to the process of how the artwork is perceived, studied and judged. The nature of this art-making practice should integrate the modified landscape as a combination of practical utilities and an aesthetic carrier, not separating them (Dee, 2012)

Fig. 2 Michael Heizer, 1972, City, Land Art

City is a massive-scaled land art locates in the dessert of Nevada. It is built with materials extracted on site and military-grade steel. The utilisation of the material reveals Heizer’s ambition of building a monument that stands the test of the time. Not only to demonstrate the concept of gargantua, its architectural form also visualised the conceptualisation of human civilisation. The planning of this city, especially the design of complexes shows the notion of ritual site of ancient civilisations. It has also been confirmed by the artist himself that he fonds of pre-literate, prehistory and long-lost culture (Goodyear, 2016). David Lewis (2010) mentioned in his dissertation that City has been frequently wrote about its resemblance to prehistory megalithic ruins. These stone hedges degrades, and perhaps remains in the state of “being taken back by nature” before their utilities were discovered. The absence of inhabitants does not validate the functionality for the installation to perform as it was named (Hedger, 2014); perhaps before the site was opened to the public, its physical structure would has little chance to support economic activities as “a landscape”, hence the value of the City may only depends on its imagery and relevant reflection. Megaliths sites, on the other hand, standing on wild fields, like those ones in Bodmin Moor, as Telly (1996) wrote, “a cultural triumph”, whose timelessness should be “experienced from within” (Kolen, Renes and Hermans, 2015). The perishment of their ancient users perhaps determined that their materiality can now only be reflected as a symbolic power, centred the landscape that identified and defined by their existence. Suzzan Bottger (2002) has a section of discourse titled “Earthworks Ambiguous Status as Commodities” in her book Earthworks: Art and the Landscapes of the Sixties. She quoted Heizer’s rejection of denying the commercial potential that his land art could be collected regardless its stationarity. In response to Dee’s philosophy perhaps it is still too early to argue the materialistic value of City; reviewing it as a growing landscape of “the dynamic integration between natural and cultural forces”, the consecutive urbanisation of neutral lands which provides the spatial foundation for societal demands of Heizer’s imaginary inhabitant would be more pertinent (Antrop 2004).

 

The ironic comparison between utilities and Heizer’s refusal of being recognised as one of the earthwork artist (Gruen, 2015) suggests that City is all about creations; The “mass displacement” (which is the phrase he used to describe the construction and excavation) could be interpreted as the process of extracting, manipulating, and rearranging on-site materials; and by placing this massive industrial outcome, the unpopulated desert landscape of Nevada has been inevitably transforming into a new land that awaits exploration. 

A Layer onto Another

The prime meridian (Fig. 3) separates the eastern and the western hemisphere as the zero longitudes; it was invented to establish the geographical coordinate system for navigation and global coordination. The brass mark at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, England, visualises this geographic concept as the prime meridian’s precise location was agreed in an international conference (prime meridian, n.d.), despite its arbitrary. The brass line is now a popular site-seeing attraction, which the essay would argue, is a very straightforward, self-motivated collective act for celebrating a landscape that dominated by its symbolic power. The coordinate system could be regarded as translating a chaotic system into a language of rationalism, which organises an entropic system with methodical cartography. 

Fig. 3 Alan Swain, 2008, Greenwich Observatory - Meridian Line, Photograph

Another land art practice of Michael Heizer, Double Negative (1968) (Fig 4) locates in the Moapa Valley, Nevada. The artist displaced 240,000 tons of sandstone and created two trenches that straddled on the opposite sides of a canyon (Double Negative, n.d.). These two trenches located on an imaginary line, and by chaining the natural negative space to the negative space generated by displacing materials, the work is assembled. Onto the existing landscape, two irrelevant natural high grounds and the canyon between them are connected as an entity, reflecting the idea of “illusional map” that Smithson talked about. The imaginary line integrates independent, separate elements of a neutral entity and extends a referencing measurement that similar to the notion of the geographical coordinate system. It also reflects the artist’s belief in industrial construction forces and their capability as creative tools.

Fig. 4 Michael Heizer, 1968, Double Negative, Land Art

Michael Heizer massively engaged in digging works in 1968; he created the famous series Nine Nevada Depressions. Dissipate (Fig 5), shows the same approach as well as the physical structure of the Double Negative but differentiates in the number of lines. As the image shows, five trenches (perhaps not deep enough to be categorised as trenches) were dug on five imaginary joint lines, pointing different directions in “the middle of nowhere”; the scale of this practice is also significantly smaller than his mountain-cutting work. #1 of Nine Nevada Depressions (Fig 6) could be visually interpreted as the highlighted part of several joint imaginary lines or interconnected lines knifed zig-zagly towards different directions. Regardless of the artist’s intention, his works reflect the characteristic entropic feature of land art: create something out of nothing. And nothing here by definition means a neutral, material space instead of oblivion. These practices could be seen as reference systems or marks on a reference system which could be used to identify patterns in an out-of-order system - the nature, artificially. On the contrary, the practice’s root with the environment could also be interpreted respectively, as an additional element that requires analysis. 

Fig. 5 Michael Heizer, 1968, Dissipate, Land Art

Fig. 6 Michael Heizer, 1968, #1 of Nine Nevada Depressions, Land Art

Nature seems to be an unconquerable subject; technological advancement made human capable of manipulating the recalcitrant nature on a small scale. Heizer’s practice exactly shows this manipulation. The importability of his land art eventually merges these earthwork pieces with the environment, makes them a part of the “remote landscape of west America”. Long-lasting leviathan like City might permanently change the topographical feature of an area, creates an ecological perspective to gaze this practice. If the project survived as Heizer planned, it would be more than suitable to represent his visualisation of the fruit of Anthropocene.

 

When Scull firstly saw what he called “my sculpture was in the desert,” he was overwhelmed. “When you land on one of those dry lakes thirty miles of the desert. And when I saw this piece of sculpture in the ground…surrounded by a world of nature, I began to realise that this is some of the most important sculptures in the world; and that it’s not necessary that I be able to take it home to Fifth Avenue.” —Judith Goldman. 2011. ‘My Sculpture in the Desert”: Robert C. Scull And Michael Herzer’

Across the Atlantic

Richard Long stated that his land art practice is based on different referencing ideas from American earthworks. His continuous walking and material collecting reflects time as well as space on marks that he left in nature (Long, 2015).

 

In 2013, a line of grass was planted in the Tremenheere Sculpture Garden (Fig 7). He plays similar elements as Heizer does: viewpoint, space, but with a more nature-closing arrangement of materials in the environment. The line of grass resonances with the environmental attraction of the garden, which intrigues visitors' curiosity to examine the living sculpture at one of its ends (Fullerton, 2020). Gazing at the viewpoint extends the boundary of the landscape to the limitation of observation; the work's composition arrangement introduced a method for motivating audiences to actively interpret the work on a larger, vast scale. 

Fig 7. Richard Long, 2013, Tremenheere Line, Land Art

The straight line is a common shape Long uses in his work. His 1967 practice, The Line Made by Walking (Fig 8), flattened grass to form a visible trail that leads to nowhere. Long reviewed this work and suggested the participation of the performative element. In 1979, Long composited a line of stone on Fuji mountain, which combined another representative approach of him: the improvisation in the environment (Fig 9). Circle in Africa (1978) (Fig 10), Sahara Circle (1988) (Fig 11) and Silence Circle Big Bend Texas (1990) (Fig 12) oppositely uses enclosed shapes to mark the landscape. Comparing to lines which seem to invite and guide the audience to focus on the distant open space, which has a notion of implying the infinite possibility, the circle shows a sense of rejection of its surrounding. Sahara Circle encloses a portion of reddish-brown sand with edgy red rocks - which can be barely connected to the stereotypical image of a desert (Manchester, 2005). The work created an interesting contrast of unusuality which shows the emphasis on certain elements that the artist highlighted by his performance. Manchester (2001) also argued the uncommon strategy in Silence Circle that Richard

Long's choice was "cleaning rather than assembly". Exposing the surface layer of soil from randomly dotted vegetations seems like a revelation of the physical nature of the land. The rearrangement of natural element shifts the focus from the consistency of the land to one of its natural characteristics, which could be referred as a method of challenging the landscape identity.

Fig 8. Richard Long, 1967, The Line Made by Walking, Land Art

Fig 10. Richard Long, 1978, Circle in Africa, Land Art

Fig 9. Richard Long, 1979, A Line in Japan, Land Art

Fig 11. Richard Long, 1988, Sahara Circle, Land Art

Fig 12. Richard Long, 1990, Silence Circle Big Bend Texas, Land Art

In collaboration with Graham Gaunt, Hamish Fulton was invited to Penzance to create a work that celebrates his 40 years of devotion to what he identified himself, “a walking artist” (Fig 13). The artist collaborated with 300 locals in a two-day event of repetitive walking on the coastal promenade between Marazion and Penzance, addresses the relationship between human and the environment (Hamish Fulton - “Repetitive Walk”, 2018). A large group of people with uniform movement repeatedly creates a notion of the mechanism of collective consciousness. The contrast between heavily occupied optical perspective and the vastness of nature demonstrates an experimental visualisation of filling the space with cycled activity. The work reminds us about the apparency of the human will when they are aligned for a common goal; participants are evoked to consider their own position and the relationship to an overwhelming precondition (Gaunt, n.d.). Either nature of the collective, a joint component could occupy a portion of it and turns the environment to serve its own interest. Fulton follows the rule of “Leave No Trace”, he cautiously prevents himself from leaving permanent alterations to the landscape (‘Seven Days Walking and Seven Nights Camping in a Wood Scotland March 1985’, Hamish Fulton, 1985 | Tate, n.d.). However, his strongly expressed performance, in some ways, replaced the landscape with infinite figures of memories and left his irreplaceable mark in the fourth dimension; In Words from Walks, he wrote that he translates ideas into the physical experience; Fulton continuously connects his study with unique memories, reflects on his previous coordinates on the time-scale, protesting the alienation of human and nature in the rapidly modernising life (Fulton, 2019). 

Fig 13. Graham Gaunt, Hamish Fulton, 2018, Walk, Performative Land Art

Conclusion

Defining land art’s transformation to both physical and symbolic identities of landscapes respectively, could be tricky. As identifying the effective audience remains as a core anchor point that questions the purpose of earthwork, flexible factors like commercialisation, media documentation & interpretation opens up the discourse to a wide range of subjects (Beardsley, 1977). The essay would suggest relying on this idea, set the starting point of individually studying the artist’s topic of interest, then examine the installation-combined landscape as an entity in proper dimension. The flexibility remains in this process as recognising the invisible layer of the landscape is as subjective as interpreting the landscape art. What promises more is the methodology that landscape artists played with the site. As it was mentioned above, the nature of landscape modification approaches, for example, adding new features by rearranging materials, could be considered as the establishment of conceptual coordinate systems which allows reviewers to evaluate the practice in a different aspect. The identity of the landscape perhaps starts to change at the very moment the construction begins; hence backward chaining landscapes’ positions in the temporal coordinate system would allow a more comprehensive understanding of the shifting status of the landscape.

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Figure List

Fig 1. Smithson, R., Holt/Smithson Foundation and Did Art Foundation, 2020. Spiral Jetty. [image] Available at: <https://www.diaart.org/visit/visit-our-locations-sites/robert-smithson-spiral-jetty> [Accessed 7 March 2021].

 

Fig 2. Heizer, M., 2016. A Monument to Outlast Humanity. [image] Available at: <https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/08/29/michael-heizers-city> [Accessed 8 March 2021].

 

Fig 3. Swain, A., 2008. Greenwich_Observatory-_Meridian_Line_-_geograph.org.uk_-_936190.jpg. [image] Available at: <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Greenwich_Observatory-_Meridian_Line_-_geograph.org.uk_-_936190.jpg> [Accessed 6 March 2021].

 

Fig 4. Heizer, M., n.d. DOUBLE NEGATIVE, FROM THE EDGE OF THE WORK. [image] Available at: <http://doublenegative.tarasen.net/double-negative> [Accessed 9 March 2021].

 

Fig 5. Heizer, M., 2010. Dissipate by Michael Heizer. [image] Available at: <http://soundscrapers.blogspot.com/2010/12/dissipate.html> [Accessed 9 March 2021].

 

Fig 6. Heizer, M., 2010. Michael Heizer: Nine Nevada Depressions, nr.1 – 1968. [image] Available at: <https://www.rudedo.be/amarant08/land-art/michael-heizer-1944/michael-heizer-nine-nevada-depressions-1968/heizer05/> [Accessed 10 March 2021].

 

Fig 7. Davies, K., 2013. Tremenheere Line. [image] Available at: <https://sculpturemagazine.art/tremenheere-sculpture-gardens-collaborating-with-nature/> [Accessed 9 March 2021].

 

Fig 8. Long, R., 2012. The Line Made By Walking Richard Long. [image] Available at: <https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/long-a-line-made-by-walking-ar00142> [Accessed 8 March 2021].

 

Fig 9. Long, R., 1979. A Line in Japan. [image] Available at: <http://www.richardlong.org/Sculptures/2011sculpupgrades/japanline.html> [Accessed 11 March 2021].

 

Fig 10. Long, R., 2000. Circle in Africa. [image] Available at: <https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/long-circle-in-africa-t06890> [Accessed 11 March 2021].

 

Fig 11. Long, R., 2005. Sahara Circle. [image] Available at: <https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/long-sahara-circle-t12036> [Accessed 11 March 2021].

 

Fig 12. Long, R., 2000. Silence Circle Big Bend Texas. [image] Available at: <https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/long-silence-circle-big-bend-texas-t06472> [Accessed 11 March 2021].

 

Fig 13. Fulton, H., 2018. Walk. [image] Available at: <http://walkingartists.altervista.org/hamish-fulton-walk/?doing_wp_cron=1615471687.8603069782257080078125> [Accessed 11 March 2021].