Twenty First Century Land Art

Heart of Reeds

'We Talk of drought while the flood breaks over us'
Sean Virgo, Running on Empty

With increasingly panicky environmental stories appearing almost daily in the broadsheets, along with a sense that the scary, near-future Climate Change scenarios are beginning to hit home to the general public, one might expect the art world, with its long held role as avant-garde cultural antennae to wider society, to have long ago picked up on the unfolding ecological catastrophe. But no, a brief look through the art media and compared to all other concerns the art world is seduced by, shows a consistent disregard for most things environmental, and beyond. Arguably, the various issues – be it the big Global Warming themes, sustainable art practice, or just how disconnected our relation to the natural world has become - reveals just how far removed the art world is from the reality of these issues. Okay, so Rachel Whiteread can fill Tate Modern with Antarctic ice cool white cubes, but the core meta-message coming from Art Centrica remains ‘this isn’t an interesting/relevant/hip enough subject’ for the hipper-than-thou mavens. Small wonder that a well-known and established environmental artist remarks how angry he is about the art world. ‘They’re on another planet’ he exclaims with irritation. While Bill McKibbon, the highly respected environmental writer, declared last year, “What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art... Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?”

Symbolically, if any part of the art landscape represents environmental art in this country, it is the Land Art movement. Its leading artists, David Nash, Richard Long, Andy Goldsworthy, may not talk directly of ice caps melting or rising sea levels, but the sensibilities which inform this wilder, defiantly non-urban, peripatetic practice felt, back in yesteryear, like part of an ecological answer to the grim futures becoming visible on the horizon. An answer, which other practitioners across the culture table seemingly either failed to be interested in, or if they were, have done so without the land artists poetic consideration. In the years since the BritArt paradigm took hold across metropolitan art scenes, the rupture of the urban based, theoryhead and theory-led art establishment to the environmental art world and its beauty, skill/craft, past and rural oriented aesthetic, feels as if it has only grown. If Land Art was a cultural mirror to a larger rediscovery of ‘nature’, of which the modern green movement is the most visible expression, land artists form a bridge between art and ecological worlds. Yet much of the art establishment either ignored or couldn’t take on board the broader paradigm message, of interdependency, of human beings as part of, rather than apart from, the natural world. In places such difference became a fault-line beyond which the rule-books of the Western urban art establishment hit a brick wall of serious difficulty. Be it humanism or Postmodernism, tacit knowledge learnt through the body and experience in the natural world just didn’t fit in. One result was the nineties uptake of ‘nature as construct’ running riot, snaking across University department MA’s, with post-structuralists and others vying to do down the natural.

FingerprintDespite this, and despite it taking a lot of flak, particularly around the ‘relevance’ question mark, the nature-art connection continues, as does Land Art itself. Digging a bit deeper into the mulch and undersoil, a counter-history can be unearthed; fertile resilience and the relative adaptability of the art-nature connection both giving much more credence to a holistic ecological consciousness. The extent to which the art mainframe is able to take on board such mindsets today, may well determine the chances of mature ecological art practices continuing tomorrow.
There’s a younger generation, unnoticed by the metropolitan scene, working away, their relative youth (forty-somethings) meaning that although they are just as exposed to new assemblages of current technologies as others of their generation, technologies are approached differently. So experiments with installation, performativities, multi and mixed media, video, sound and light art can be found across the eco-frame. Also, the expression of relation to the natural world emerges differently, the patina of harsher eighties experience, not unrelated to post-punk: but the actual connection to ecological consciousness is as engaged as any land artist.

As for the original land artists, the way leading lights, Nash, Long, Goldsworthy, as well as Peter Randall-Page, Hamish Fulton, and Chris Drury, response to cultural change is noticeably individual. Twenty or so years on from when many of these first hit the art headlines, even if age is catching up, they continue responding to the changed cultural context, dynamically and with interesting if varying results. Others with more personal paths, expand languages long established.

Never as uniform as the catch-all tag ‘Land Art’ implied, the individual characters of the people involved reveal themselves in the way they have dealt with the changing world. David Nash, for instance, has followed his organicist ‘language of trees’ muse, a prolific output continuing, the latest contribution in this country to the new midlands National Forest of England; Six Noons, six fourteen foot eye-sun way markers, the sun shining through at true noon light lines on the shadows cast by the markers. Implicit in these, as with all his work is a solar cosmology, as part of Nash’s uneasiness about the modern world’s scientistic and technological mindset. The lo-tech approach is embodied in Ash Dome, a naturally grown dome of 22 fletched ashes, planted thirty years ago ‘as an act of faith in the future’, near his Sencehome in Northern Wales; as timely today in an age of renewed anxiety, fear and pessimism as it was originally. By contrast, Peter Randall-Page’s big new work at the Eden Project, embraces the modern and hi tech. Hewn from a giant slab of Cornish granite this carved seed sits amidst seriously hi-tech surroundings: Grimshaws architects latest Eco-Tech wonder within the garden theme park, an educational research building. Both seed and building celebrate geometry and nature, symbolised by the Fibonacci Sequence. Here hi-tech is mixed with the timeless fixity of ideal geometry, and its Renaissance derived past. The stoneseed branded as sacred centrepiece, a kind of heart within the modern, profane, theme park. A strange, discomforting meeting, but very much of these time. Nothing like this for Richard Long, who continues on his walking way, an occasional London show giving hints of where his recent treks have found him. At the last of these, The Time of Space, amidst the photographic record and mud installations, I wondered whether he feels he has to maintain his foot in the art door, and might feel just as happy to disappear altogether - as that most ephemeral of artists, Hamish Fulton, has always done in his interventions.

Goldsworthy, by dint of his age, who Nash has described as a bridge between popular culture and the likes of Richard Serra and Donald Judd, also acts as a bridge between these tribal peers and the younger, next generation. And in part, perhaps age also explains his willingness to try out versions of a web-cast between his Scottish home and the Haines Gallery in San Francisco: A webcast of his 2000 London Barbican Snowballs in Summer, and also at mixed media, performance experiments with dance troupe Ballet Atlantique (see Fourth Door Review 6) . Perhaps tellingly, Goldsworthy hasn’t pursued these forays since and there are no plans to do so.

SpiralsTo my mind most interesting in this roll call of British art-nature land workers, is Chris Drury’s ongoing experiment with Complexity and the Chaos sciences. Long immersed in observing change and flow in the natural world, Drury has moved into investigating the connections between the complex, chaotic forms uncovered in the natural world and those in both the body, particularly the heart. In a series of beautiful works, entitled ‘Body as landscape’, an installation such as Heart of Stone tirelessly recreates the whirlpool form from thousands of slate fragments; Edge of Chaos uses patterns found in hospital echocardiograms fused with redwood bark patterns; River of Stone, a public art commission at Dudley’s Russell Hall Hospital, tries similar stone swirling experiments in a health context in this instance, courtyard. Most ambitious is Heart of Reeds, in his hometown, Lewes, Sussex; where a sizeable chunk of a nature reserve has been given over to reed bed channels dug out again in the shape of the heart’s ventricles, with reed beds gradually emerging. Drury’s work shows a dynamic accommodation with the overlapping scientific and medical worlds. They are post, rather than pre-scientific. Heart of Reeds also doesn’t only sit there, a la Spiral Jetty: it also functions ecologically. Whether hybrid or not, these pieces point contemporary pathways for Land Art to pursue This whole chapter of Drury’s work is explored fully in the recent edition  of Fourth Door Review, no 8.

Heart of ReedsFor other kinds of work that ‘does’, rather than ‘is’, travel no further than Brighton’s Red Earth. Their core artists, Simon Pascoe and Caitlin Easterby, have been pulling sculptural elements from Land Art into their performance pieces for well over a decade. Ritual and cross-cultural connections with the shamanic also open doors into their pieces, both seeking to activate the land, drawing their participant audience across liminal thresholds. Having reprised a triad of ‘90’s performances last year via a renewed collaboration, Geograph: Drawing the Landscape, with Indonesian dance teacher-shaman, Parmin Ras, they are heading out overland for Mongolia this summer. The Geograph project is reported on further in Unstructured 4’s complementary Red Earth piece. The Performance/Land Art connection is a limited splinter, Goldsworthy having tried such hybrid performance-land art in his work with Ballet Atlantique and showing no inclination to take that experiments further. Walter Bailey, another Sussex based wood sculptor, who spent some years working with Nash in Wales, and Brighton based dancer, Charley Morrissey, also tried pushing this envelope, though with ice, some years ago, in Absolute Zero. Again, this sort of experiment hasn’t been repeated.
Parmin Ras StructureIf Land Art and it’s ripples is one thread of a thorough going ecological art that has emerged through the last two decades, Performance, nature and the shamanic also informs much of Social Sculpture, the Post-Beuysian’s who complement the Land Artist’s attachment to a living tacitally sensuous, rather than inert, connection to the earth. Beuys’s 7000 Oaks, suggesting prehistoric reforested futures, maintains a mythic pull on younger generations. Direct links to landing stripland art is tangential; the closest may be Shelley Sacks, who worked with Beuys in the eighties and presently runs Britains’ only Social Sculpture MA at Oxford Brookes University, sees both her practice and pedagogy as embedded within the wider ecological consciousness. Others pursuing the Beuysian imperative, for instance, PLATFORM, begin from a far more traditional political reading of Social Sculpture. Much of their work’s focus is both activist, (oil, corporations, globalisation) and human centred. Which may be why PLATFORM’s James Marriott was so glowingly received by green art academics at the first of the Annual Arts and Ecology Desire Lines conferences held late last year at Dartington College.

Interestingly one of the main on-line green arts fora, California’s likes to see itself as, in some ways, a Beuysian social sculpture. Meanwhile in another forest, Kent’s Kingswood, Jem Finer, late of digital art and Longplayer, see moving fast from new media into aleatoric and indeterminate pieces, is imagining the work as ephemeral, just a different kind of ephemerality to that of decaying wood. Score for a Hole in the Ground is a water chamber with raindrops falling on a mobile, causing randomly generated chime sounds, which are then amplified by a standing horn, and is reported on in Fourth Door Review 8. Sound Sculptural in quality, Hole in the Ground, while not close to land art, per se, does, in Finer’s apparent abandonment of computers for tree’s, water-drips and natural environments, provide food for thought for those of the ‘art and nature as moribund’ tendency.

Why land? Why wildness? And what happens once the extended generation who make up much of the land art community quit the scene? Even if land art as currently understood, becomes identified with just a few decades at the end of the twentieth century, the earth mind that pulled these artists out into the wild and the land seems likely to endure. Given this, the mindset and relationship to land re-found by these artists – come unstoppable urbanisation; come hard rain and storm warnings – has put down deep enough roots to make its mark. Enough, to hold out intimations of ecological futures in, rather than out of, balance with the natural world, for any who come searching.

This is a full  (and slightly updated) version of a shorter, edited piece, which was published in Art Review, summer 2006, albeit with the introductory discussion of the ‘green consciousness’ issues, which is discussed under the rubric ‘ecological art’ at the beginning of the piece seriously pruned. Although the situation has changed somewhat, art magazines remain loathe to feature pieces, which venture beyond art-world categorisation’s and interpretations of ecologically hewn work. OL