Environmentalism is a subject that goes through ebbs and flows of popularity in contemporary discourse, reaching fever pitch at various moments in history correlating to new data or a recent disaster. With the last decade being dominated by the themes of global warming and carbon emissions, land art as a movement has finally found some stability.
It’s difficult to ignore exactly how popular talk of sustainable, eco-friendly and the environment has become. Through the power of purchasing, consumers are now demanding greener brands and these larger brands are being forced to answer.
Similarly, the environment as an artistic medium has become a consistent motif over the last decade or so too, being used to make a statement on how we treat it. Land Art as a movement is as old as the land itself and could actually be traced back to being the origin of things like graffiti, sculpture and installation. Working with what they had, primitive people made their mark on the land with things from the land.
This is a wholesome process. Nothing is taken, nothing is lost, nothing is destroyed. Considering the heavy use of acrylics and oils in art, seeing something that both interacts with and incorporates natural elements is extremely refreshing, offering artists the freedom to connect with the earth in a very profound manner - manipulating it to make something, without leaving lasting damage.
Land Art is defined not only by that which it stands for, but that which it stands against. Predominantly hailing from the United States and the United Kingdom, these often large-scale outdoor pieces reject the creeping commercialisation of art - a message first defined in the 60s when capitalism enabled businesses to soar at a cost to the planet.
Coinciding with new age and spiritual movements, land art was a connection to land in a paganistic manner, divorced from the Christianity that was beginning to wane in popularity, where practitioners experienced a void as urban society developed with little regard for the natural world. For a whole generation, there was no divine.
Subverting the concreteness of urban dwelling was one of the key principles behind Alan Sonfist’s work, a pioneer of the movement. His most relevant piece is still thought of as ‘Time Landscape’ which is experienced as a photograph of a junction with queued cars beside a voluptuous tree-filled park. The art itself isn’t the photograph though, but the trees captured in it.
This experimental project took place in New York City and raised important issues for those living and building there. What is nature and what is natural? Trees existed in New York, but maybe not right there. By planting the trees, Sonfist invaded the landscape. But we don’t really see it that way because what he put there were trees, not a sculpture made of stone, for example. Expanding on these ideas in his 1968 essay ‘Natural Phenomena as Public Monuments’, the artist set the tone for practitioners of land art.
Examining the loaded interplay between the wild natural and controlled nature, land artists paved the way for contemporary ecological movements as well as challenging the role of the urban planner. By showing what was possible early on, it has become increasingly rare for new ‘natureless’ building complexesto arise - as they had in the 60s and 70s.
For many, these land artists embodied the human conscience. They were a reminder of what is all around us, thus highlighting the innate value of nature as something beyond a well of raw materials to exploit. Nature was endlessly magic and the land art movement made leaps towards creating a recognisable dialogue about our complex relationship with it.
Their legacy lives on not only in the cities that have turned towards rooftop gardens and larger park spaces, but in artists like Bordalo II and Andy Goldsworthy. Their lineage is that of the Ancient Egyptians who built pyramids as elaborate tombs, or the mysterious Stonehenge, erected for burial and ceremonial purposes. Land art has left its mark well beyond art, but it is in art that these important topics were first raised and it is through art that environmental issues will continue to be examined in an accessible manner.
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