on museums, nature, universal symbolism and land art

With the first “retrospective” of the Earthworks movement, “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974,” currently on display at MOCA, I thought it an a propos time to explore (briefly) the ideology and work of Robert Smithson, one of the early artists working in the Land Art movement and probably most well-known. While many high profile artists are associated with the movement, Smithson’s prolific writing and his high-profile project “Spiral Jetty” allow a deeper understanding of the “why” than most of his contemporaries.

Land Art, or Earthworks (a term Smithson coined) is an art movement that falls under the category of minimalism and emerged in the late 1960’s.  Land artists utilize land or the landscape as their canvas (or on their canvas) and are characterized by a rejection of what they saw as the commodification of art in the 1960’s, a fascination with nature and an emphasis on the product used in their art rather than the finished product (see minimalism as a whole).

In the 1960’s the art world was seeing a plethora of movements rejecting established practices. Art historian Donald Kuspit describes the systematic rejection of the frame and the pedestal in painting and sculpture during the decade while artists attempted to redefine the boundaries of their art. Removing art from the gallery and giving it indefinite boundaries, ie. Land Art, was simply the next logical step.

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A still from Michael Snow’s “La Region Centrale,” 1971

Minimalism attempts to expose the essence of something by eliminating everything but the necessary. For artists working within the tenets of minimalism (including the Land Art artists) a museum tended to offer their pieces a sense of grandeur and importance the piece did not deserve.  Moving the piece into nature allowed the majesty of the outdoors to dwarf the artist’s creation, better achieving the goals of the minimalist artist.

Smithson began as a painter but his ideology was always minimalist. A rejection of the traditional museum/gallery system as well as a systematic attempt to reject the art world’s insistence on defining an artist and his art form, led Smithson to produce works not easily categorized, even before he delved into Land Art and developed his important notion of the site and non-site.

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Smithson’s “Partly Buried Wood-shed,” 1970 – an example of Smithson’s fascination with the relationship between man and nature as well as the concept of entropy

Site and non-site meant for Smithson respectively the creation of his art in nature as a part of nature and in the case of the non-site, the movement of articles from a site in nature and their placement in the gallery. In the late 1960’s, Smithson’s output was almost entirely focused on these sites and non-sites as his art grew more and more inextricably intertwined with nature.

Apart from a rejection of the establishment, Smithson and others also sought in nature a therapeutic removal from the “life-draining urban environment.” Like many before and after them, an aversion to the technology and chaos implicit in modern man’s daily life, led Land Artists to escape to nature in order to attempt to assuage some of the human trauma incurred through what they saw as life on overload.  It also allowed them in turn to explore the chaos inherent in nature, something especially important to Smithson who was fascinated by the concept of entropy and the effects of the elements on his outdoor work.

Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” a 1,500 foot long coil composed of rock and soil dramatically jutting out into Utah’s Great Salt Lake is the embodiment of much of Land Art’s central tenets as well as the significance of universal forms and symbols.

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For Smithson the “Spiral Jetty” explores not only the majesty and at the same time fragility of nature as well as our relationship with it, but it also explores the concept of the universal form, in this case the spiral, as a “symbol of the cosmos.” It exemplifies the Land Artist’s desire to avoid the placement of their creation onto the landscape, but rather to work within it as they explore the human relationship to nature.

“Spiral Jetty” in short, inspires viewers to contemplate the complicated notion of human manipulation in nature while viewing a symbol we as a collective humanity have been inserting into our dialogue for centuries. What is the true relationship between man and nature?  The choice of the spiral is no accident. As Smithson attempts to ease the trauma of daily life through nature, he is also attempting to do so by creating a link to the centuries of civilizations that have come before us.

Viewing Smithson’s masterpiece is moving as the viewer contemplates the universally emotional experience of an un-touched nature, only this time, it’s only seemingly un-touched. Smithson here has been able to create an item that is inextricably linked to the human experience while at the same time it’s presence in nature seems perfectly natural; as if Smithson’s intrusion almost didn’t happen.  Maybe man and nature are closer than we think.

So there you have it, Land Art, art within nature that attempts to be a part of nature and while almost succeeding, still serves as an example of man’s manipulation of nature. We can attempt to make our mark minimal, but it’s still there.

Side-Note: Smithson’s notions of entropy and the ephemeral nature of the landscape and his art within it were subjects upon which he wrote profusely, making the Dia Art Foundation’s discussions of the “Spiral Jetty’s” preservation somewhat ironic. Just something to keep in mind as the debate continues; Smithson valued the aspect of nature that involves organic growth and decay. Would he have wanted “Spiral Jetty,” an artwork that almost isn’t an artwork, to be preserved as such? Or would he have wanted it to go the way of nature?

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One thought on “on museums, nature, universal symbolism and land art”

  1. mAn and nature are closer than we are made to think

    “Art within nature that attempts to be a part of nature and while almost succeeding, still serves as an example of man’s manipulation of nature.” Very well said.

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