Sunday, November 16, 2008

Land Art Influence

As I muddle through the very dense and wonderful book 'Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings', it's continually evident that 1) Smithson was way ahead of his time in thinking of sites within the context of emphemerality and change, and 2) the field of landscape architecture can learn significant amounts from the library of land art - not just in reframing ideas within a landscape context, but in thinking seriously about process. The disappearance and re-emergence of Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970) is just one example amongst many to ponder.

:: Spiral Jetty - image via Treehugger

Smithson is also one example of a land artist with a significant written documentation to back it up, allowing perhaps a greater glimpse into the mind of the artist at work. I will post a more extensive discussion of the book once I am able to digest it all in a meaningful way, but in the meantime, there's been some interesting land-art news as well as some interesting installations that are worth a look.

Some perils of this large-scale and immovable art... namely potential degradation and removal due to land pressures. One current example is the afforementioned Spiral Jetty, via Treehugger: "Now it, and other such natural pieces are under threat because of real estate development and oil drilling pressures. In this case, an oil company wanted to conduct exploratory drilling into the lake bed. In response a protest was mounted by the Dia Art Foundation and the state of Utah received thousands of complaints. "What we particularly object to is the potential visual impact that drilling might have on the work, as well as the equally important environmental impact it could have on the lake itself and its delicate ecosystem,” says a director of Dia. “An oil spill could be disastrous for the lake, and therefore, the jetty.”

:: images via Robert Smithson

The work of Michael Heizer got some digital ink as well, including a threat (in the form of a new train route adjacent to his long-term piece 'City' (circa 1970-present):

:: image via Treehugger

And the natural degradation of Double Negative (1969), which "...consists of two trenches cut into the the Mormon Mesa in Nevada. Around 240,000 tons of sandstone was displaced to create the ravines which span 1,500 feet and are each 50 feet deep." While the natural degradation may seem a threat, it was part of the process: "The artist asked that no conservation be undertaken on the piece so the walls of the man-made canyon are slowly crumbling and it is disappearing."

:: image via Treehugger

And via Tropolism, perhaps a way to find the site before it turns from it's present nothingness, and degenerates back into dust... "Greg Allen does the homework and finds one of our favorite works of Land Art, Double Negative, using the GPS device in the car of his in-laws. The large yet simple cut in the earth, famously difficult to find in the era of cars without GPS and the before-time of non-internet, is now super easy to find! He also found it on Google Maps in a really great satellite photo of the work."

:: image via Tropolism

An exhibition that has made the rounds (and is recently housed at San Francisco's de Young Museum) is Maya Lin's Systematic Landscapes. Inhabitat covers the new work in a post entitled "Re-mixed Topographies' which alludes to the idea of mixing the scientific with the representational in these studio works, "...without compromising the wisdom and wonder of studying natural phenomena" The centerpiece is '2x4 Landscape', as well as a few other works included as well.

:: 2x4 Landscape - image via Inhabitat

:: Line - image via Inhabitat

:: Lake Pass - image via Inhabitat

Spanning the gap between the monumental land art and the studio installations, a couple of recent additions include The Sequence by Arne Qunize (via MoCo Loco) and Field of Light by Bruce Munro (via Dezeen). These installations add to our continuum of landscape interventions - often playing off the context of site and in these cases - the adjacent architecture.

:: The Sequence - images via MoCo Loco

:: Field of Light - images via Dezeen

It looks like land art, landscape-based studio art, and art in the landscape, are all still alive and well in contemporary design society. That, to me, is a good sign.


  1. Absolutely agree Jason. The powerful vision and, often more important, lucid writing of the land artists, is a deep deep well to which we should be looking again and and again.

    I was lucky enough to be in Chicago last Friday for the Second Wave of Modernism Conference on Friday and nearly every single presenter mentioned Smithson as an influence.

    What continues to frustrate and bewilder me is that landscape architects aren't publishing/articulating our thoughts in the same way. There are amazing practicioners out there who aren't talking about their work...Michael van Valkenburgh, Thomas Woltz, Doug Reed, etc...I'm reading Taking Measures Across the American Landscape right of those long overdue journeys...say what you will about Jim Corner, but the man can write in a powerful, compelling way. He pushes ideas and is a bridge between philosophy and practice--and he is pushing all of us to do better (see this month's Metropolis).

  2. Thanks Brice. I think you're on to something here with the connection between our ability to create this spaces and our ability to talk about them in the greater spheres of art, criticism, design. I agree that Corner is a galvanizing force (I'm in the midst of a long-ish post based on the Metropolis article, just waiting for them to get around to posting the new issue content online).

    So is it a question of voice, medium, or message? Are the landscape monographs and design literature not adequate - or perhaps not widely distributed enough to match our strong desire for a voice?

  3. i wonder if we want to get our message out, we simply need to forego the traditional media outlets...i think what you're doing here, for example, has attracted a rather extraordinary following that goes far beyond the media-shed of strict landscape architecture to embrace a broader, more nuanced, thicker dialogue that bridges the concerns of the profession rather than insulates. the design world is flattening, new media helps.

    it's strange that given our general predelictions toward generalization (versus specialization) and our professional capabilities to create synthetic landscapes--that is places that resolve a host of natural/cultural concerns to create place—that we cannot convey those concerns in our writing. in the course of a given project, we take a diversity of considerations in and then resolve them, hopefully, in a simple gesture. And yet we are often terribly poor at articulating that gesture.

    Yet perhaps this is the root of why our ideas aren’t universalized. That is, our solutions, one way or another, are tied to place. We have a kit of technical and design “parts” but the solution is always about place. The making of art CAN be about the discrete place, but it can also be a universalizable exploration of a thematic conceit. perhaps that is why art is more successful at engaging in a dialogue. for better or worse, it is often dealing with a self-selected discourse that is being explored in depth. we are, always, being pushed/pulled/buffetted from all directions by various outside influences and the exigencies of the particular divorce us from the universal/theoretical.

    the project is the narrative, some would say, but i think there is not the literacy to "read" landscapes in the same way there is for art. the sophistication of our language isn't there..again, part of the reason i appreciate corner.

    and, i have to say, the popular publications that speak to landscape architects are woefully inadequate in pushing forward a shared vocabulary of understanding. (though perhaps that isn't their role).

  4. Jason, do you know who made this lighters, on your last photos ?

  5. the last project with the lighted globes is from Bruce Munro (more info here via the link to Dezeen).


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