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I FEEL THE EARTH MOVE Alex Kitnick on “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974” at Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Ends of the Earth “Ends of the Earth: Land art to 1974”, The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles, 2012, exhibition view, Photo: Brian Forrest

Looking at the Los Angeles art world lately has felt a little bit like gazing out over the ends of the earth. Ever since Jeffrey Deitch took the helm at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in a power move rigged by developer-art patron Eli Broad, actor-turned-artist James Franco has assumed the role of museum mascot and Mercedes Benz has taken to renting out galleries for audiovisual extravaganzas “curated” by entrepreneur-Beastie Boy Mike D (with Deitch whispering in his ear). The feedback loop between institution and corporation has become so tightly wound so quickly here that the already permeable boundaries between the two may have become irrevocably blurred for decades to come. Putting the pop back into populism, MOCA now caters to a clientele more accustomed to red carpets than white cubes. The traditional vision of the art museum has been turned around here so that the value of being seen has replaced that of seeing itself.

The opening of “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974” appeared like something of an oasis in this cultural landscape, a reminder of the old MOCA that mounted important exhibitions devoted to chapters of contemporary art. “Reconsidering the Object of Art, 1965–1975” (1996), “Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979” (1998), “A Minimal Future? Art as Object, 1958–1968” (2004), and “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution” (2007) would be the flagship shows in this category. In certain ways all of them had a bearing on the art produced at the time of their presentation and “Ends of the Earth” has been framed in a similar way. Claiming an increase in art focused on borders, territories, and ecological issues (one thinks of a range of artists from Christian Philipp Müller to Simon Starling), curators Philipp Kaiser and Miwon Kwon set out to find a prehistory for our present moment, a Land Art for today. To do so they have written a revisionist history that pushes against the prevailing commonplaces of the genre, expanding, for example, Land Art’s geographical reach from the American West to sites in places like Iceland, Israel, and Argentina. International in scope, this new brand of Land Art did not antagonize the art system, the curators argue, but rather flourished within it. And it did so, at least in part, through its reliance on new media and reproductive technologies. Photography, video, and television were just as integral to Land Art, we learn, as rocks, shovels, and dirt.

Robert Smithson, unsurprisingly, serves as the emblematic figure in this new history (as he did for an earlier one), and in many ways he functions as the show’s patron saint. Even when he went out exploring in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, for example, or further still, to the Great Salt Lake in Utah, he always came back with displaced, geometric non-sites (they look like horizontal Frank Stellas filled with rocks) and genre-type films (“Spiral Jetty”, 1970, in particular, is full of the macabre crunch of dinosaur bones and industry). Of course, other artists mined this logic of mediation and displacement as well – Alice Aycock brought grids of clay into the gallery; the Boyle Family remade a patch of earth; Adrian Piper mapped the New York City subway system onto a square of Utah; Dennis Oppenheim transplanted a gallery’s floor plan onto the snows of Ithaca; and Gerry Schum beamed images of the American desert onto German TV – and yet Smithson remains emblematic in this regard. He always set up a relay between here and there to make sure that no work of his was ever completely here nor there at once. At the same time, he also made sure that something was there. There was no presentness and no instant in his work; for him all art belonged to the longue durée of history. Even if you went to the Great Salt Lake, his “Spiral Jetty” would probably be under purple water, as it is now, and you wouldn’t be able to get the great view of it anyway unless you chartered a plane to catch it from above. You’d be better off looking at its ancient, curving, stony spiral in a book, or a magazine, or online. [1] The view you get of land from the air forms an important leitmotif of the MOCA exhibition, and it provides a lens with which to historicize much of the work on view. Aerial vision, after all, is the vision of war, bombing, and surveillance, and it was perhaps the dominant form of vision tout court from World War I on. The projects that Smithson solicited for a planned installation at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport (1966–67), including Carl Andre’s “Proposal for an Explosion”, are perhaps the most aggressive confrontations with this type of vision, but many other works from this time – including Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative” (1969) – also depended on the skies for their legibility. [2] When you walk into the museum one of the first things you see is a huge wallpaper print of Isamu Noguchi’s “Memorial to Man” (1947), a simulated study of sandy mounds to be seen from outer space that makes use of a similar vantage point. Here the land is not just cut with technology but anthropomorphized and chased with humanism: A strange face emerges from a creepy desert landscape, offering an image of the earth haunted by the memory of man in the wake of the catastrophe of World War II and atomic destruction.

The wallpaper is weird, since Noguchi never meant his work to be presented in such a fashion – and few other “exhibition solutions” appear in the show’s displays – but so is the work’s inclusion at all. One of the exhibition’s few weak points is that it is not bracketed with a start date, the implication being that land somehow comes before time; that said, most of the works date from the 1960s and 1970s. Though Noguchi’s interest in mediation might be said to have filtered down to a subsequent generation, if we are to think about Land Art historically, it must be noted that Noguchi comes out of a different artistic context entirely, one more closely aligned with modernist art and design – and if he is to be included (if the exhibition is to be more thematic than historical, in other words), the curators could have done more to flesh out these preceding vectors. Many of the most important artistic experiments of the early postwar period, such as the exhibitions “The New Landscape”, staged by Gyorgy Kepes in 1951, and “Parallel of Life and Art” (1953) derived their strength from exploring the effects of photographic technology on what was just then beginning to be called the “environment”. What is perhaps even more important to note, however, is not just that Land Art was a mediated practice, but that the turn to the land was itself an effect of mediation. “As the planet becomes the content of a new information environment,” Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1964, “it also tends to become a work of art.” [3] The emergence of this new environment of data brought one’s attention to the preceding environment, and artists made it their task to mine the connections between the two. “If the planet itself has thus become the content of a new space created by satellites, and its electronic extensions,” McLuhan continued a few years later, “then we can confidently expect to see the next few decades devoted to turning the planet into an art form. We will caress and shape and pattern every facet, every contour of this planet as if it were a work of art.” [4] And as we know from the work of artists including Smithson and Heizer, this is precisely what happened.

Despite its focus on work from the 1960s and 1970s, there was not much of the canonical Land Art of the textbooks on view at “Ends of the Earth”. Significantly and disappointingly, neither Michael Heizer nor Walter De Maria agreed to participate in the show, citing their insistence on the experience of visiting the actual sites of their works, such as “Double Negative” in the Nevada desert (and part of MOCA’s permanent collection) and “The Lightning Field” (1977) in New Mexico. Of course the experience of these works cannot be represented in gallery spaces – journeying to their recondite sites is part of what they are as artworks. The fact is, however, that these artists also made a number of works intended for gallery settings, and one is left wondering why these would not have worked within the context of the current exhibition. De Maria, for example, covered the floor of Heiner Friedrich’s Munich gallery with soil in 1968 (a later iteration of which would become the artist’s seminal “New York Earth Room” (1977), and Heizer’s projection work “Munich Rotary” (1969) was always meant to be a traveling avatar of his earth-gouging “Munich Depression”. Although portions of the MOCA show borrow from key early exhibitions, such as Willoughby Sharp’s 1969 “Earth Art” at Cornell University and the 1968 “Earthworks” show at Dwan Gallery, it significantly moves beyond these canonical histories by considering other criteria central to the movement, such as geopolitical formations, the urban scene, and the gender of participating artists. In a sense, “Ends of the Earth” is a kind of “fracking” of Land Art. It knocks the term around to see what else might be hiding in it, and some interesting things have emerged. The wealth of maps, black-and-white photographs, and other types of documents included in the show, for example, demonstrate Land Art’s affinities with certain branches of Conceptualism and performance art; indeed, it appears more as an offshoot of these investigations than a separate branch of research in itself. As it stands, in fact, there is very little actual land in the show. One of the exceptions is Robert Morris’s “Earthwork aka Untitled Dirt” (1968/2012), which functions almost like a return of the repressed in this context. A really gross pile of soil, copper piping, felt, and grease, it’s a kind of hypothetical vision of the industrialized earth vomiting, and its very vulgarity taunts Richard Long’s meditative spiral from 1970 in the adjoining room.

Standing off against this informe ooze and goo, another group of works preoccupy themselves with lines and legibility, borders and edges. Adorno’s adage that form is sedimented content had a particular bearing on these works in which the earth’s “content” has hardened into a variety of shapes. Sedimentation, of course, was a favorite theme of Smithson’s as well, but in these cases it suggests less of an entropic dead end than a deep formalism. Alighiero Boetti’s “Twelve shapes starting from 10 June 1967” (1971) for example, features a series of copper plates sized to the front page of a newspaper, each with a box framing a shape that permutes according to the shifting boundaries of Israel and surrounding territories over the course of the Six Day War. Geopolitical lines are written in the land figure just as prominently in Pinchas Cohen Gan’s photo-text work “Touching the Border” (1974) in which four participants carrying missiles walked to the four borders of Israel until the army stopped them. More bemused in tone is John Baldessari’s “California Map Project III: California-Mexico Boundary Project” (1969), which had the artist highlight a section of the international border with colorful sands. Although the politics of these works register a difference from more canonical accounts of Land Art, what is particularly engaging about them is how their politics emerge from a compounding of abstract and literal forms – the way in which they make the abstraction of the nation-state brutally, if inexplicably, concrete and real.

Framed by borders, a sense of cataclysm lies beneath Land Art as well. Abutting the Noguchi wall at the beginning of the exhibition one sees a projection of Jean Tinguely’s “Study for an End of the World” (1962), a companion to his “Homage to New York” staged at MoMA two years earlier, and in many ways this work creates the context for all the works that follow in the show. Made for an NBC news program, Tinguely’s spectacular junk machine pictures the American West less as a study for the end of the world than its realization – it is the place where myths both emerge and end up, where the bomb was tested and dropped, where the expendable excess of American imperialism manifested. This sense of imminent and just-past catastrophe is native to a number of other works in the exhibition as well, although ultimately questions of remembrance and memorialization supersede even this idea. Indeed, seen through a certain lens, “Ends of the Earth” might be said to have contained nothing but monuments and memorials, lone stellae and misplaced tombstones. [5] In many ways, Land Art might be described as an art of mourning for an elusive lost object. Although much ecological art sprang from it, very little of it seems to pine over the fate of the earth. Rather it frets over an even more profound sense of loss – one having to do with language, memory, and communication. In this art these terms alternately float away like a gas and break down into something as stupid as a molten marshmallow rubbed over a map.

To say this is another way of saying that Land Art was not simply a spatial move in the history of art, but a temporal one as well. If it took up the relative ephemerality of the mass media, it was also preoccupied with a more infinite sense of duration. Many of its best works insisted on and courted an inhuman kind of time, the time of geology that goes far beyond the “timeless” quality of traditional works of art. While such a position has often been written off as nihilistic or even childish, there is also something resistant to it, which is, in part, what makes much of this work feel pertinent today. I remember that when I first saw De Maria’s “New York Earth Room” in college, I liked how it just sat there (and had for a long time), and that nobody could live there (it is located in a Soho loft building), and that it blocked things off. One could feel the radical quality of its stasis and negation. It made its demands in a bloody-minded way – by not going anywhere. Something of this resistance flares up at times in “Ends of the Earth” but it also gets dispersed and liquidated by its emphasis on media. Today, given the precarious abstraction of finance and the tremors of global politics, the concerns of Land Art may strike one as rather distant. At the same time we are living in a moment in which the earth often quite literally moves beneath our feet with rumbles of history. “Beneath the paving stones, the beach!”, the Situationists said. And perhaps this is the fundamental imperative of Land Art as well: To question – and push against – the very constructed nature of the environment in which we live.

“Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, May 27–September 3, 2012.

Notes

[1]On the MOCA website one can see many of the “original” earthworks in situ via Google mapping technologies.
[2]Tom Holert draws out these themes in his essay “Land Art’s Multiple Sites”, in: Ends of the Earth. Land Art to 1974, exh. cat., ed. by Philipp Kaiser/Miwon Kwon, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles/New York 2012.
[3]Marshall McLuhan, “The Relation of Environment to Anti-Environment”, in: Eric McLuhan/Marshall McLuhan, Media and Formal Cause, Houston 2011, p. 24.
[4]McLuhan, “The Invisible Environment. The Future of an Erosion”, in: Perspecta, 11, 1967, p. 165.
[5]Sol LeWitt’s “Buried Cube Containing an Object of Importance but Little Value” (1968), Claes Oldenburg’s “The Hole” (1967), and Keith Arnatt’s “Liverpool Beach Burial” (1970) are just a few examples.