Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974

Defining the Territory

The first large-scale survey of Land Art takes place at MOCA in Los Angeles, looking at the historical origins of artists’ interactions with landscape.

Land Art is a familiar art category that is often defined by iconic works in the popular and art historical imagination. However, due to the specific difficulties involved in mounting an exhibition of Land Art, it is also one of the least exhibited of art forms and therefore its development and origins have often suffered from being misunderstood or wrongly perceived. Curated by Philipp Kaiser and Miwon Kwon, and held at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA Los Angeles until 3 September, Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 is the first large-scale exhibition to survey the development of Land Art broadly, from its emergence in the 1960s up to its institutionalisation as an artistic category in the mid-1970s. The resulting show is a provocative overview of Land Art across the globe that explores the enduring fascination of land as not only the subject but also the material of art.

Part of the project undertaken by the curators of this exhibition was to examine and define what Land Art is as an artistic category, to help open it up to debate and discussion and to widen the perspective on these works. As Kaiser comments: “When we talk about Land Art, many people think they know exactly what it is, though it has never been defined. Looking closely at the threads that led to Land Art’s apex in the late 1960s shows the heterogeneity of all the practices.”

As it has typically been understood, Land Art is usually associated with a core group of American male artists, whose iconic works have defined the genre: Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria and Robert Morris, among others. One of the most interesting aspects of Ends of the Earth is the inclusion of a much wider selection of Land Art, with artists coming from many differing demographics, countries and artistic traditions.

Kaiser explains: “Many of these works can’t be found in museum collections; instead they’re in footnotes of PhDs.” One such example is Patricia Johanson’s House and Garden Commission (1969), recently rediscovered through academic research. These playful and contemplative sketches were originally conceived for a garden commissioned by House and Garden. Although the garden itself was never built, the drawings stand up as artworks in their own right, exploring aesthetic, functional and environmental elements of human interaction with nature and the land. They are speculative and imaginative investigations into the ethics of land as art. Also included in the show is a documentary detailing Johanson’s piece Stephen Long (1968), a sculpture that is 1,600 feet long and 2 feet wide, laid out to follow a disused rail track in New York. Taking its title from a railway worker, the sculpture is painted in a spectrum of bright primary colours; the particular tones and shades of these altered depending on the position of the sun during the day.

In conjunction with the exhibition, MOCA has developed an online interactive map using Google Earth, which maps out where in the world the works featured in Ends of the Earth were originally produced. As well as providing a directory of the works included in the show, this innovative feature stresses one of its most unique qualities: the connection of these artworks – many of which are site-specific – to their territory. However, there is an added benefit to this approach in the widening of the scope of Land Art’s referents as an international movement, as Kaiser describes: “We were interested to emphasise and visualise that Land Art didn’t only take place in the Southwest of the USA. There was also the Sahara Desert for the Zero Group, the desert in Israel, Japan, etc. It is interesting to see work from Israel and the USA at the same time in the same exhibition space, and to see what a similar work can mean in completely different historical contexts. Digging a hole in Central Park, NYC, and digging a hole in a Palestinian village couldn’t be more different.”

Israeli artist Micha Ullman is represented by his 1972 work Messer-Metzer, a piece of Land Art involving digging two equally sized pits on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian border and moving the soil from one pit to the other’s. With this extremely pronounced political resonance, a crucial aspect of this piece’s dynamic is the collaboration it involved with young people from the two settlements on either side of the border where the pits were dug: the Palestinian village of Messer and the Israeli village of Kibbutz Metzer, as reflected in the title of the piece. Ullman has said of his artistic practice that he “poses questions” rather than making political statements. This ethos has no better iteration than in Messer-Metzer, a collaborative exercise and a provocative questioning about the meanings of earth, and territory ownership when it comes to the land.

The exhibition also includes some works by earlier artists who are not usually associated with Land Art but who produced works that influenced the development of these artistic explorations into the human’s relation to the earth significantly. One such work is Jean Tinguely’s Study for an End of the World (1962), for which the artist detonated a self-destructing sculpture near Jean Dry Lake in Nevada. A spectacular kinetic artwork that communicates potent metaphoric and poetic potential, this exploding artwork made of scraps and junk collected from around Las Vegas was documented in a television programme aired in 1962, the footage from which is used in the exhibition. As the sculpture self-destructs, this work of art foreshadows many of the themes that also haunt later expressions of Land Art, such as a profound interest in the interaction between humanity, technology and environment. The site was carefully chosen, positioned near an atomic power plant, which would ultimately ensure that the work carried apocalyptic overtones and stark political significance in the Cold War environment in which it was produced.

One of the theses that this thematic and historical survey of Land Art proposes is that there are specific shared roots to the development of Land Art across different cultures and continents. In spite of geographical distance and art historical dissonance, the cultures where Land Art developed strongly in the 1960s and 1970s had often recently emerged from the scars and trauma of war. This is something that Kaiser believes was at the heart of Land Art’s development across the globe: “Land Art wasn’t so much a global movement but it took place in about six or seven regions of the world that all faced war devastation or specific urban development. It is not a coincidence that Germany and Japan were important sites for land-based work. It is also not a coincidence that shortly after the Six Day War in Israel, artists would start questioning borders and territorial boundaries. There were connections between so-called peripheral sites (Ljubljana and Prague) and the art world centres (New York). Petr Stembera’s work was owned by Robert Smithson and Walter De Maria and went to Ljubljana in 1969 to perform with the collective OHO group. There was definitely a kind of zeitgeist.”

While many of the works and artists included in the show might be unfamiliar or surprising to most visitors, there are also a number of extremely recognisable, iconic and familiar works of Land Art among them. Perhaps the most iconic piece of Land Art ever produced is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), the massive heady swirl of the 1,500-foot-long outdoor sculpture created with materials found on site at Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake, Utah. This work has a particular relation with its own “land”, since in the course of its existence it has been submerged underwater and emerged into view again. Presented as part of this exhibition are the other works that form part of Spiral Jetty: an essay, documentary photographs and a film, which Smithson argued were as much a part of the work as the russet earth jetty itself. Smithson’s work is stark and pure, a response to the land and the particularities of the “site”, its peculiar pinkish hue resulting from the species of algae present there. Speaking of his first reactions to the site of the work, Smithson commented: “As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake. A dormant earthquake spread into the fluttering stillness, into a spinning sensation without movement.”

Britain was also a prominent site for the production of Land Art. The artist Richard Long began making work in response to the epic treks and journeys on foot that he would take in diverse locations from rural and remote parts of his native Britain to far flung environments including Canada, Mongolia and Bolivia. Long is represented in the exhibition by his work A Line the Same Length as a Straight Walk from the Bottom to the Top of Silbury Hill (1970/2012).

For this piece, Long cast his footsteps in clay and arranged them in a precise spiral on the gallery floor that is equivalent to the number of steps necessary to move from the base of Silbury Hill – the largest prehistoric man-made mound in England – to its peak in a straight ascent. Produced when the artist was only 25 years old, this work was first presented in a solo exhibition at Virginia Dwan Gallery, New York, in 1970. Long has described his process of walking as art as “using the landscape in new ways. Each walk, though not by definition conceptual, realised a particular idea. Thus walking – as art – provided a simple way for me to explore relationships between time, distance, geography and measurement. These walks are recorded in my work in the most appropriate way for each different idea: a photograph, a map or a text work. All these forms feed the imagination.”

British artist Keith Arnatt is also included in the exhibition, with his piece Liverpool Beach Burial (1968). This piece quite literally involved the submerging of the artwork’s participants in the territory of the site. Equally spaced Manchester College of Art students were buried in the sand on Liverpool Beach according to instructions laid out by Arnatt, including the stipulation that participants dig their own hole. While this is a human interaction with the earth, it is also in a sense an expression of our reliance on our landscape and territory.

Another well-known work of Land Art included in the exhibition is Christo and Jean-Claude’s Wrapped Coast – One Million Square Feet (1968-69). Arguably the largest single artwork ever made, Wrapped Coast was situated in Little Bay, Sydney, Australia, on 28 October 1969. This temporary site-specific work remained on view in location for 10 weeks. This artwork is a pure, humorous and profoundly gestural conceptual work that has often been interpreted as an act of protection, concealing and ultimately revealing the landscape. Produced in collaboration with over 100 professional climbers, volunteers, students, teachers, academics, engineers and workers, Christo and Jean-Claude fully wrapped approximately one and a half miles of coast, including cliffs up to 85 feet high, using synthetic fabric and rope.

The title of Ends of the Earth is provocative and ambiguous, with the word “ends” referring both to “purpose”, “means” and “finality”. In many ways, this exhibition explores, as many of the works included in it do, a sense of ultimatum when it comes to human interaction with and relation to the earth. However, the exhibition also suggests that Land Art itself has, in some senses, become a closed artistic category through its institutionalisation. It is for this reason that the curators decided to end the timeframe of the exhibition in 1974: “Art Park in Buffalo opened and the Dia Foundation was established in 1974. Before 1974, only four monumental works were realised. After 1974, the category of Land Art gets institutionalised and many projects become bigger and bigger in scale. Museums and other institutions start to commission massive projects that lead to landscaping etc.”

However, as Richard Long has commented: “Nature has always been a subject of art, from the first cave paintings to 20th century landscape photography.” More than anything, Ends of the Earth demonstrates the innovation and intuition of artists when it comes to dealing with the landscape and the natural world. It’s inconceivable that artists won’t continue to “use the landscape in new ways”, undoubtedly expanding Land Art into a new century.


Colin Herd