Somewhere in the Great Basin desert outside of the ghost town of Lucin in Utah, four massive concrete tunnels, 18-feet long and nine-feet wide, lie in an X configuration. Each tunnel is positioned facing the sun. They are aligned either with the sunrise or with the summer and winter solstice. On top of each tunnel is a series of holes. These holes reproduce the constellations of Draco, Perseus, Columba and Capricorn. The diameters of the holes differ according to the size of the stars. They scatter the sunlight inside the tunnels and plot an incredible map of the stars. It is a powerful piece to contemplate. The desert – its majestic nothingness – is all the more apparent next to something outside of its nature, a man-made insertion. The installation is Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels” and it is described as a land art piece.
Land art is an artistic form which uses landscape and nature as both a canvas and a source of materials. This distinct style originated in the 1960s in America as a reaction to the increasing commercialization and artificiality of art.
The initiators of land art wanted to create something that could not be bought or owned and would therefore not be a mere symbol of wealth and intellectuality. The pieces normally include natural matter, such as rocks, sand, plants and wood, often directly taken from the piece’s final location. The whole of nature is therefore summoned to take part in the piece. As it is a part of the landscape, it is left to the forces of nature, which creates alterations or eventually destroys it completely. The ephemerality that characterizes land art demonstrates that nature is constantly changing. It also opposes the general idea of ownership and the preservation of art. Hence land art leaves the framework of the museum and take us to another dimension. The world becomes an interactive gallery and the site an experimental lab.
In an attempt to overcome modernism, land art transforms the concept of context. It has an organic connection with the earth that is no longer in a permanent, crystallized form. Space itself is celebrated. Time is also important. If we are witnessing a site that was created several years ago, our perspective will be truly different compared with when the piece was first constructed. It has been modified by the passage of time and moulded by the elements. The piece is not only in dialogue with space but also with time. The fulfillment of the artist’s intention, its concretion and our perspective at that very moment, meet at a unique horizon. New strains of identity are born by placing the work; the piece mingles with the site and becomes a part of the environment’s identity. Imagine the Giza Plateau without the pyramids. The place would be naked, empty of meaning. It would no longer be the Giza Plateau.
This is why the relationship between the piece of art and the spectator has space and time as its protagonists. The commercial aspect of art – the place where it is perceived such as a museum, for example – is thereby put into question. This aspect is now performed by spatial-time dimension itself and by the spectator’s journey to the site, a ritual which becomes a part of the work itself.
Travelling assumes an important role. By experiencing art outside of a museum, we are now engaged in a journey which is already affecting the interpretation of the work.The piece is shrouded in mystery; there is an expectation of astonishment and bewilderment. Of course this expectation is connected to the kind of site chosen by the artist as well. During the movement’s early years, using vast empty areas such as deserts became its trademark. Works like the “Lightning Field” by Walter De Maria or the “Amarillo Ramp” by Robert Smithson provide good examples of such use.
The type of land art developed by this early phase was and still is the subject of some criticism, however. The ecological impact of the work, and the extent to which the artist cares about this, has been called into question. Many projects require heavy industrial equipment which certainly contaminates the site. Moreover, the financial resources needed to carry out these types of projects are astronomical.
At first glance therefore, such an attitude may collide with the telluric relationship one would expect from this movement. But it is not that simple. It is the contradictory nature of land art that makes it so fascinating. It encompasses both a bucolic return to nature, as well as bulldozers, as art tools. This contradiction has led to different art movements such as site specific art, environmental art and eco art which have tried supersede it. The act of imposing something on nature could be at odds with the environmental concerns that now hold sway over art. Will land art thus become obsolete?