Aleksandra Mir

Moving Mountains, Walking on Water

ArtNews, New York, June 2004
By Ann Landi

As artists like James Turrell and Michael Heizer continue to toil on their massive Earthworks, caretakers of other examples of Land Art are facing questions of conservation, access, and environmental impact. Meanwhile, more ecologically conscious artists have been updating the genre

They rank among the greatest artworks of the last generation, according to some, monuments conceived on a grand scale by visionaries who were undaunted by size, site, or the sheer mechanics of displacing huge quantities of obdurate matter. Like the solitary prophets of biblical times or the early American pioneers, these men (they were mostly men) went off to remote and often inaccessible spots to build imposing gestures to a new artistic faith. The projects they produced—and in some cases are still producing—are known variously as Earthworks, Land Art, or Earth Art. The major artists include Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, James Turrell, and Michael Heizer. They all came of age in the 1960s and '70s, a time when political and social rebellion in the larger world was matched by noisy chafing against the constraints of museums and galleries in the smaller cosmos of the art world. In moving beyond the confines of museums and galleries, the creators of Earthworks expanded the way we look at and think about art. Their example taught younger artists that it was possible to work in far-flung outposts, at a distance from the commercial end of art making.

Two of these projects, Smithson's 'Spiral Jetty' and De Maria's 'The Lightning Field', have been accessible for more than a quarter century and continue to draw visitors on a regular basis. Two others, Turrell's Roden Crater and Heizer's City, are still under construction. All are epic in scale, and all have found a patron and champion in the Dia Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit organization devoted to art created since the 1960s.

Perhaps the best-known Earthwork is Smithson's 'Spiral Jetty', completed in three weeks in 1970, an immense coil composed of 6,650 tons of black basalt rock and earth jutting into the shallows of the Great Salt Lake, in Utah. Smithson, who died in a plane crash in 1973, chose a site on the lake's northeast shore, because he was drawn to the dark rose color of the water, which comes from the bacteria and algae living in it. He wanted people to be able to walk on top of the rocks as if on a pier, building Jetty up to approximately 4.200 feet above sea level, a few feet above the lake surface and sufficiently elevated that he expected the rocks to remain above water.

Smithson lived long enough to see 'Spiral Jetty 'completely submerged and to witness its reemergence a few weeks later. It looked, he said in an interview, "like a kind of archipelago of white islands because of the heavy salt concentrations." Jetty periodically disappears underwater and resurfaces; today it is completely visible because of severe drought in the area.

"The Great Salt Lake doesn't have any springs or streams running into it, and it doesn't have anything running out of it, which is even more the issue," explains Jack Flam, Distinguished Professor of 19th- and Early-20th-Century European and American Art at the City University of New York, who visited the site in 1995 with Smithson's widow, the artist Nancy Holt. "When there's snow and rain in the mountains in winter, water from the melt-off goes into the lake, and then the sun is so intense in summer that it evaporates. So the natural cycle of the lake is that it maintains water through a combination of runoff and evaporation," says Flam, who edited Smithson's collected writings.

"The salt water coats Spiral Jetty on and off with white crystals, and that was very much the intention of the piece," says Michael Govan, director of Dia, which acquired the work as a gift from Smithson's estate in 1999 and maintains it in conjunction with Holt. Right now, he adds, "it's amazingly beautiful. Time has served it well."

The drought, which began in 1999, has brought Jetty even more attention. Part of what makes the experience so memorable is the "heavy" quality of the Great Salt Lake, whose water has so high a salt concentration that it supports only brine shrimp and algae. "There are no birds, no fish," says Flam. "All you hear is the lapping of the water" when the jetty is partially submerged, "and it doesn't sound like water. It almost sounds like molten lead, a slightly thudding sound. The place has an unearthly magic."

But Spiral Jetty's periodic submersion and its thick salt encrustation, as well as the visitors scrambling among the rocks, have given rise to concerns about conservation. Some of the fill between the rocks has washed away over the years. The salt encrustation completely hides the black basalt. Tourists scrambling over the piece cause further erosion; people walk away with buckets of rock and jars of pink water. Dia curator Lynne Cooke says, "The profile has remained absolutely in place because the salt acts as a preservative. Smithson expected salt crystals to accumulate, and there's now a crust of perhaps three inches." The artist himself had talked of adding rocks to raise Jetty, and that idea still inspires debate from time to time, but Holt doesn't feel any sense of urgency. "It's not going to fall apart, and it's delightful to see it back, visible," she says.

Equally remote is Walter De Maria's seminal Earthwork The Lightning Field, completed in 1977 in the high desert 200 miles southwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The installation is composed of 400 highly polished stainless-steel poles with pointed tips, which average two inches in diameter and vary in height from 15 to about 27 feet. They are set in a grid measuring one mile by one kilometer (about five-eighths of a mile), on slightly undulating ground. When lightning strikes, as it occasionally does from late July through August, the ensuing display is said to be spectacular. But nature doesn't have to be at her most dramatic for the work to be appreciated; the light-reflective poles are especially vivid at dawn and dusk, when the sun's rays send waves of color across them. And, as De Maria intended, the experience of walking around the perimeter of the field is rewarding in itself. "The land is not the setting for the work but a part of the work," the artist wrote.

Like 'Spiral Jetty' (and other key Earthworks), The Lightning Field is owned and managed by Dia, which commissioned the work. It, too, attracts visitors, whose number is severely restricted. Only six people can stay at the site overnight, from May through September, in accordance with the artist's wish that the work be experienced in isolation or in small groups during a 24-hour period; but, although reservations for the Spartan three-bedroom cabin built at the site must be made months in advance, Dia estimates that perhaps 10,000 have visited since its completion.

Unlike 'Spiral Jetty', De Maria's grand dialogue with nature requires regular maintenance, which hcosts from $20,000 t0 $50,000 annually, depending on what has to be done. The smooth steel poles, which are set securely in individual concrete footings three feet deep, need to be checked regularly to be sure they're polished and straight and a small staff oversees scheduling and maintenance of the accommodations. (The total expenses involved, according to Dia, are often double the income from visitors, who pay from $110 to $135 a night.)

No matter how remote or how desolate the terrain, at least 'Spiral Jetty' and 'The Lightning Field' are completed works of art, available to the curious and the hardy. Not so Dia's two other major Earthworks: Turrell's Roden Crater, north of Flagstaff, Arizona, and Heizer's City, in the middle of the Nevada desert. Because of the ongoing nature of these projects, and their ambitious size, Dia's staff can't say when either will be open to the public. "A couple of years" is the estimate for Roden Crater. Neither artist would consent to be interviewed.

In the making for nearly 25 years, Roden Crater is carved from-or into, depending on your point of view-a black and red volcano overlooking the Painted Desert, near a Navajo reservation, 40 miles north of Flagstaff. Its creation has entailed cutting an 854-foot-long tunnel to the dormant volcano's center, displacing about 1.2 million cubic yards of dirt. The tunnel, which is now completed, rises from a secondary vent in one side of the crater toward an elliptical opening in a room beneath the slope of the bowl.

Turrell is also building "sky spaces" in the crater: rooms for meditation, with openings in the ceiling that allow light to play across the walls and floor at different times of day. "The idea is to examine perception through various experiences of the sky and other celestial events," says Govan of Turrell's masterwork. The different apertures, including one that will exactly align with the moon every 18.6 years, are constructed to frame and to capture the sky and its changing colors and moods over the course of the days and seasons. The artist is now at work on the second phase of the main tunnel, and plans are afoot for guest lodges, another tunnel and an outdoor theater.

Hundreds of miles north of Roden Crater, in an even more remote expanse of desert, Heizer's City has been taking shape over an even longer period of time. Heizer first conceived it in 1970 and began to work on it in 1971. He has said that he wants City to rival the grandeur of ancient Mayan and Aztec ruins.

The first phase of City, completed a few years ago, consists of three rectangular structures around a sunken gravel-coated pit. They are immense: 'Complex 2' is more than a quarter of a mile long. In time, the work will comprise five 'Complexes,' as Heizer calls them, gigantic abstract sculptures that will together be more than a mile long. This may be the most massive Earthwork ever built. "It is interesting to build a sculpture that attempts to create an atmosphere of awe," Heizer once noted. "Awe is a state of mind equivalent to religious experience."

All this "awe" comes at a price, however. The earliest Earthworks were funded by private patrons, including gallerist Virginia Dwan and the late collector Robert Scull; Govan has recently been spending much of his time raising money for these and other projects, while organizations devoted to the visual arts have kicked in with substantial grants. The Lannan Foundation, which contributes to many Dia projects, has given more than $9.5 million toward the construction of Roden Crater, whose ultimate cost could reach $20 million; the foundation has also contributed undisclosed sums to help build City.

The history of Earthworks hasn't been without controversy. There has been a backlash against the grandiosity and possibly destructive nature of these projects, which were under way or completed when environmental restraints were nonexistent and before the general consciousness about ecology had been raised. (One critic grumbled that Roden Crater interfered with a "unique and spectacular natural site and its ecology," comparing it with the way developers insensitively force their will on the land.") Some have also seen an irony in a group of anti-establishment artists now depending on the art establishment for support and maintenance of their work. Yet that stance is perhaps misunderstood, says Eugenie Tsai, who is curating a retrospective of Smithson's art for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, scheduled to open in September. "To my knowledge, none of these artists wanted to be forgotten by the art establishment or not be written into art history," says Tsai. "Smithson of all the artists was highly aware of the museum and gallery system and the need to bring these things back-film, photographs, essays."

Younger artists, coming of age in changed times, have reacted in different ways, but "no one is just moving earth around arbitrarily anymore," reports Suzaan Boettger, author of a definitive history of the movement, Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties (University of California Press, 2002). Says Alan Sonfist who is the same generation as the Earthworks masters but whose art has an environmentally conscious slant, "I won't go into the land and destroy a desert, nor will a number of artists whose message is about preserving nature." The general feeling among feminists Boettger reports, has been similarly dismissive, because Land Art "seemed to be all about getting out behind the wheel of a big ditch digger."

"I don't know of anyone who's doing anything on the scale of these artists," adds Tsai. Nonetheless, the Earthworks movement does have its stepchildren, whose projects have ranged from the ephemeral to the insouciant to the ecologically correct. Perhaps the best known of these artists is the 48-year-old, British-born Andy Goldsworthy, whose fanciful and often fragile sculptures are made from the landscape's detritus: leaves and stones, snow and ice, reeds and thorns. Chris Drury, another British artist, builds shelters, cairns and installations using medicinal and poisonous plants. Some of his projects echo Turrell's concerns with using natural light and creating meditative spaces. In one of Drury's 'Cloud Chambers,' for example, the visitor walks down a tunnel into a small earthen chamber where a pool of clouds is projected via a lens in the ceiling onta tipped screen on the floor. In a more conceptual vein, the Polish-born artist Aleksandra Mir takes most of her cues from popular culture. Her First Woman on the Moon (1999) was a one-day project that transformed a Dutch beach into a lunar landscape of hills and craters. "It's kind of a spoof on Earth Art and art history," she says.

Though aware of the fragility of their materials, none of these artists would describe themselves as card carrying environmentalists. The exception might be Christian Philipp Müller, whose 100-foot-long steel and earth sculpture, 'Hudson Valley Tastemakers' (2003), is filled with different varieties of edible greens and flowers and draws attention to the loss of farmland in a once-fertile area of New York.

What these artists have taken from the grand masters of Earth Art is a delight in natural materials and the example of working out of doors, far from the confines of walled interior spaces. None aspires to the scale of a Smithson or a Turrell, in part because gaining the necessary permits, given environmental legislation, would probably be almost impossible today, and in part because the spirit of the times is different-less ostentatious, less concerned with making enduring monuments. The original Earth artists were a generation of men who swaggered into Max's Kansas City, a popular downtown New York watering hole, wearing cowboy boots. Younger artists are more likely to tread softly in Birkenstocks or sneakers. But all are aware of the infinite possibilities available in nature, outside the studio or the gallery. Beyond leaving huge footprints in the sand, the most lasting legacy of the founding fathers of Earth Art lies in pushing curators, critics, and the audience for contemporary art out of the box. "In some ways, these artists achieved their goals in making museums look beyond their walls and take on these kinds of projects," says Tsai. "It's quite a different art world now from what it was then."