Research: Land art & artists

Land art is defined as art that is created with and embodied by the physical landscape and my proposed outcome sits partially in this genre but it is an installation and not made from natural materials. However, the ethos of taking my work out of the gallery and into a site-specific natural context is central so a study of land art is valid to understand how key artists in this field connect with the landscape. I also need to understand the options for documenting my project (as land artists often make the documentation of the work the actual art), from photography and video to maps and text but there is also the potential to bring the installation into the gallery after the live event so I’m keen to learn how other land artists have achieved this.

Richard Long

Richard Long’s work is rooted in direct experience of the real world. He tries to draw man and nature into balance, proportion and equilibrium. Having studied his work before, my own impression is that he has a deep resonance with nature and he expresses the beauty and fragility of this relationship. He feeds the mind and imagination and his walks are often linked to events in relation to a particular journey or place. His journeys often comprise a walk in a straight line across a landscape and they often have a temporal quality. His walks are often about endurance, such as his journey from Aldeborough to Aberystwyth on the Welsh coast. Interestingly, we are not told what he felt on many of these journeys, he sometimes picks up stones or other artefacts and the journeys themselves are recorded in simple words.

Long’s words below remind me of my own journey along the River Erewash as part of my current project. The act of walking is his work, and he then curates a simple objective memory of that experience to share with the viewer. My project is very much about the journey I’ve been on and I must not forget that my travels should be considered when I decide on the nature of the outcome. The thoughts and feelings I had along the way are embedded in my memory and will impact the nature of what I create whether I like it or not. Long had a plan to summarise his walk in 14 words and I have a similar challenge and he has reminded me that I need a connection or mechanism with which to connect these words together.

I have the most profound feelings when I am walking, of touching natural materials in natural places.

―Richard Long

His piece below titled Seven Day Walk is a wonderfully symmetric summary of the experience. Very clinical, explicitly objective, we can only summarise that the 7 pairs of words in black and orange were captured on each of the seven days. But we are left wondering how the pairs relate to each other, some are objects and thoughts but others don’t fit this pattern. Some of the words are natural forms and descriptive but then we read suicide and our thoughts explode. Where has that come from? I find myself connecting suicide to granite and then skylark in an attempt to delve into the mind of the artist. I also enjoy how a passage of time and landscape has been recorded in such a simple way. I find myself filling in the gaps in between the words with my own expanding understanding of the experience. I start thinking about how walking in a landscape is often completely overwhelming, there is too much to take in so is Long showing us the satisfaction of focussing on a single thing and have a quality, memorable experience rather than try to absorb a meaningless plethora of stimuli?

This mirrors my own project closely as I’m trying to consolidate something physically large and incomprehensible (the entire course of the river) into a few words on rotating paddles. The choice of words and their relationship is therefore so critical as even one misplaced or misjudged word could throw the whole experience out of the window.

A Seven Day Walk on Dartmoor, England by Richard Long, 2021

So what other mechanisms does Long use to organise his words? His piece below, Walking in a Moving World, was a 5-day walk in Powys in 2001 concerned with relativity. The text is arranged by listing phenomena in the order of the speeds at which they are moving, from fastest to slowest – from fleeting clouds to an imperceptibly slow glacial boulder. I enjoy how this is not explained to us, we are left to read the words and consider their relationship. Do we slow down our thinking as we reach the bottom of the list? I certainly do and I think this closing in on time is a powerful technique. I think my own project could use geography to bring the viewer from a macro to a micro view of the world – but I’ll explore that later.

Walking in a Moving World by Richard Long, 2001

So how does Long present his walks to the viewer? The relationship between the idea for a walk, the walk itself and the physical evidence of the walk combine as fundamental elements in Long’s work. The walk’s lack of permanence is intimately bound up with the subject, nature is changing hence so the artwork is only temporal. He presents his experience of the walk using maps, photographs and text. These artefacts feed the imagination of the viewer.

So I need to consider whether my project is based on my own experience of walking or is it a grander vision of history, landscape, politics and encroaching development on the humble river Erewash? I appreciate how Long’s actual walks are not recorded, which reflects the changing environment through which he has moved. The geographical nature of my own project is very significant as I want to portray the scale of the river in some way but I’m also influenced by history, environmental threats and politics, so there is thinking to be done here.

Hamish Fulton

Hamish

Hamish Fulton is a land artist who, like Richard Long, leaves nothing behind him in the landscape. But unlike Richard Long, with his exhibitions of stone circles and his mud works, Fulton brings nothing back to the gallery. Over the years, Fulton has found a number of ways of condensing his experiences into simple forms. Sometimes he uses typography: a bright and fluid sans serif typeface might be used for the word ‘WATER’ or italic font for ‘PATHS’, as if the word itself is leaning forwards, wanting to move on.

In his recent work he uses more objects, such as the pieces below, which use wooden sticks and shapes nailed together in a skyline of peaks. The eye goes up and down this switchback, arriving at the end with a sudden revelation: that this little structure, so sharp, so graphic, describes the memory of crossing the Alps. Fulton didn’t record a film of this walk as we assume that would be too full and too revealing. We can draw parallels with Richard Long here as both artists deliver us their curated view of the memory of an experience, Fulton uses forms but Long only text.

If I take anything from Fulton’s work, it is the sharp disconnect between where we are and what we are looking at and what we imagine Fulton’s experience might have been. Is he highlighting our disconnect from nature? Or is he encouraging us to go on the same journey, as on a micro scale it appears perfectly clean and achievable (if a little sharp)? The artist has compressed an experience into a vastly scaled down abstract visual interpretation, and it makes me as a human feel both small and huge at the same time.


14 Pieces of Wood for a 14 Day Circular Walk by Hamish Fulton, 2016
Hamish Fulton “A walking artist” at Galerie Thomas Schulte, Berlin •Mousse  Magazine
Mountain Skyline: 21 Day Walking Journey Via The Tops Of Seven Small Engadin Mountains by Hamish Fulton, 2007

“An object cannot compete with an experience”

― Hamish Fulton

Fulton declared below how he prefers an experience to an object, which makes me question our consumerist lifestyle. We have an obsession with recording everything we see and do, but for who do we do this? Is the memory of that experience just as (or more) valuable and recounting that story far richer for others to experience? Some might say that Fulton’s work (and Long’s for that matter) is way to simplistic and does an injustice to the landscape but I believe there is far more going on here. The art does not stop with the lines and text on the wall, that is only the start and we must let go of our objectification of landscape and get a far richer experience. These are all thoughts I will absorb and take forwards.

Robert Smithson

Robert Smithson was a pivotal figure in the evolution of post-war sculpture and his iconic land art radically changed ideas about the making and viewing of art. He worked with unconventional materials including soil, rocks, disused industrial sites, and language and explored different geological formations to find metaphorical links. He worked in the landscape because he was very dismissive of galleries, and we can assume that this work was a reaction against commodification and commercialism in the art world.

“Objects in a park suggest static repose rather than any ongoing dialectic. Parks are finished landscapes for finished art .”

― Robert Smithson

His best-known work remains Spiral Jetty (1970), a large basalt formation in the shape of a coil, extending out into the waters of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Smithson is reconnecting with the environment in this grand project and the scale of this work dwarfs a human, who is left feeling small in the presence of nature’s beauty and maybe we are forced to look up at the heavens. In fact, when this piece was constructed was just after the first moon landing and the jetty may well be a galaxy. The artist has also humanised an otherwise drab location with what seems like a pointless intervention but it’s far from that. The jetty resonates with nothing around it but seems to illustrate man’s attempt to impose order on the chaos of nature.

Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson, 1970

Summary

I’ve learnt much from the work Long, Fulton and Smithson. All artists used nature as inspiration but gave it a different interpretation. Long and Fulton created text and visual reimaginings of walks through the landscape, giving the viewer scant detail, but encouraging them to build their own narratives and imagined experiences. Smithson on the other hand re-sculpted the landscape from natural materials on a site specific grand scale.

I see my work being inspired by all these artists. I can learn from the confident simplicity of Long and Fulton as well as the grand gesture of Smithson, as my work will also be site specific. My project will exist in the landscape as well as in an exhibition so I have to consider how these different phases will interrelate and how much of the site specific exercise I bring into the exhibition and how much I abstract it from its original location. This has been a very useful exercise and I need to think on…

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