What is: Land Art?

Ben Tufnell

‘Time, place, relativity, experience. These are the key concepts in Land Art.’

– Ben Tufnell

Curator and writer Ben Tufnell maps out a definition of Land Art, a creative practice associated with the broader conceptual art movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Moving away from traditional media and the gallery, land artists set out to make work directly in the landscape, often using the natural materials they found there. But there were some notable divergences in the gestures and structures made by American and European artists of the period. Tufnell outlines these differences and the long-reaching and important legacy of the movement in our time of climate crisis.

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Time, place, relativity, experience; these are the key concepts in Land Art.

Land Art is one aspect of a whole kind of matrix of revolutionary art practices that developed in the 60s, which we might call Conceptual Art. Conceptual Art is a way of making art that really prioritises the idea, and the process, over the finished object. So, instead of considering a carving made of marble, or a painting in oil on canvas, we think about processes, ideas, and how those are played out — not necessarily in the gallery. In the case of Land Art, these ideas are often played out in nature, in the landscape.

I think there’s a fundamental difference between Land Art as manifested in America in the 60s and 70s and what was happening in Europe at the same time. So, a lot of the American artists were using the great open spaces of the American deserts to make these huge experiential structures. But in Europe, where the landscape is much more worked over, it’s kind-of somehow more intensively historicised, artists tended to make much more ephemeral gestures. So that might be Richard Long simply inscribing a line across a meadow by walking backwards and forwards.

The idea that walking can be a way of making art is beautiful and revolutionary. What Long was interested in is making very simple gestures that carry great philosophical weight. To inscribe a line on the ground with footsteps is, in a way, registering your existence in the world, on the world. It’s a way of making something out of nothing. And there’s a beautiful poetry to that, I think. And this very simple gesture seems to me to say something about the way we touch and change the world with our presence.

Land Art has a long-reaching and important legacy, and a lot of the artists who first came to prominence in the 60s and 70s continue fascinating and innovative work, but there are also a number of younger artists who have taken inspiration from those earlier gestures.

Julian Charrière, a young Swiss artist, has made work in remote places around the world, often engaging in what might be called quite absurd or quixotic gestures. For example, he travelled to the Arctic, and using ice-climbing equipment, climbed onto a huge iceberg and then attempted to melt the iceberg using a blowtorch. Of course, as Charrière attempts to melt the ice it freezes again immediately. For me, the work is about the absurdity of the gesture. But the image of the artist standing precariously on this huge mass of ice, in the middle of an empty sea, is very moving. It says something about the contemporary condition of the climate and man’s place in the world.

And as we live through what may well be the late Anthropocene — the time of ongoing climate crisis — I think that an art form that draws our attention to the planet that we live on is of real significance and importance.

With thanks to

Studio Julian Charrière

Lisa Le Feuvre

Lisson Gallery

Parafin

Richard Long

 

 

Archive

Artimage

Getty Images

Holt / Smithson Foundation

 

 

Music

Audio Network

Freesound

 

 

Credits

Wide shot of sunlight flare through leaves

Strangetheatre / Getty Images

 

The Wack! Exhibition at MOCA. Mary Kelly’s ‘Post-Partum Document: Documentation I’

Lawrence K. Ho / Getty Images

[Post-Partum Document: Documentation I
Analysed Fecal Stains and Feeding Charts
Mary Kelly, 1974]

 

Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, Carmen Lamanna Gallery, November 1971

Ron Bull / Getty Images

 

Canova: Eternal Beauty, Palazzo Braschi

Archivio Marilla Sicilia / Mondadori Portfolio Getty Images

 

Visitors looking at the painting visitor looking at the painting ‘Olive Trees, Saint-Remy, June-July 1889’ by Vincent van Gogh at the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland

NICHOLAS RATZENBOECK / AFP / Getty Images

 

MS AERIAL TU Shot of desolate desert

Smithsonian / Getty Images

 

A helicopter flies over desert
Aerial Filmworks / Getty Images

 

Spiral Jetty 

Robert Smithson, 1970

Great Salt Lake, Utah.

Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, water. Coil: 1,500 ft long and 15 ft. wide.

Collection of Dia Art Foundation

Photo by Gianfranco Gorgoni

© Holt/Smithson Foundation, licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York

 

Exmoor National Park, aerial view over the moors and farmland

Gavin Hellier / Getty Images

 

Tracking shot through tall grasses in meadow

BBC Universal / Getty Images

 

A Line Made by Walking

Richard Long, 1967

© Richard Long. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

 

204 Somerset beach stones in 17 lines of 12 stones

Richard Long, 1972 – 73

Somerset beach stones

9 x 542 x 663 cm

© Richard Long

Courtesy Lisson Gallery

 

Muddy Water Circle

Richard Long, 1994/2013
Clay on black wall
Dimensions variable

© Richard Long
Courtesy Lisson Gallery

 

Julian Charrière attends his exhibition ‘All We Ever Wanted was Everything and Everywhere’ at Museo MAMbo, 2019

Roberto Serra – Iguana Press / Getty Images

 

The Blue Fossil Entropic Stories I

Julian Charrière, 2013

Copyright the artist; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany

 

The Blue Fossil Entropic Stories, Detail

Julian Charrière, 2013

Copyright the artist; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany

 

The Blue Fossil Entropic Stories II

Julian Charrière, 2013

Copyright the artist; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany

 

Huge white mass of ice at Disko Bay during sunset

DigitalVision / Getty Images

 

Aerial of Greenland Arctic Glacier and icebergs

Spotmatik / Getty Images

 

Freesound contributors:

Onderwish

Eroika

NLM

Zarina Hashmi, ‘Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking’, Tate etc., 27 November 2013

Simon Grant and Nancy Holt, ‘Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson in England, 1969’, Tate Etc., 25 June 2019

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty’, Smarthistory

Holt / Smithson Foundation

Julian Charriére, Official Website

Land Art’, Art Term, Tate

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