Thursday, 3 May 2007

Week Nine: Environment and ecological aesthetics

Walking Art and Environmental Ethics:

Walking the Line Between Interpretation and Intention

Sarah Bertness

In the mid-twentieth century modern artists were pushing the historical boundaries of art, trying to produce new and innovative interpretations of traditional subjects. Landscape art was re-interpreted in abstract and surreal ways by the likes of Paul Nash and Paul Delvaux. Though these artists were certainly original in their depictions of landscape, they still used the traditional method of painting. It was not until the late 1960s when a new and truly innovative group of artists would interpret landscape in a radical way that questioned the definition of art itself. Dubbed Earthworks, or Land Art, these works of art were the landscape itself, manipulated in different ways by the artist. Right from the start, art critics attempted to assess the meaning of these works and attribute them to the contemporary American social and political climate. The 1960s were an era when attitudes towards the environment shifted from reactive to proactive. It was this environmental movement and the trend of eco-awareness during the years when Land Art and Walking Art emerged that led many critics to draw their own conclusions as to the artist’s intentions. But did these works really have a political message? Or was there a division between critics’ interpretations and the artists’ intentions?

Ecological issues were pushed to the forefront of public attention following the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, excerpts from which were published in the New Yorker in June of that same year.[1] In the book, Carson, a biologist by profession, spoke of the ecological dangers of DDT chemicals and the alarming degree of negative human impact on the environment. The controversy raised by the publication increased environmental awareness across the country and sparked-off the passing of legislation and founding of many environmental protection bodies. Groups such as the Sierra Club used art to convey their message of environmental protection, exemplified in their 1963 series of coffee table books featuring photographs of picturesque wilderness areas[2]. In September of the following year, the US Senate adopted the Wilderness Act, primarily focused on preserving the undisturbed plains in the West, an area which would soon serve as a setting for the works of Michael Heizer, Robert Morris, Walter De Maria and Robert Smithson, among others. Then, on the first of January, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, aiming “to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony”[3]. Two days prior Robert Morris’ Spaces exhibition opened in the Museum of Modern Art, composed of stainless steel vats filled with soil and planted Norwegian spruces[4]. To many the exhibit reflected the political climate of the time. Four months later, on April 22nd of that year, Earth Day was founded, further shifting public attention to environmental protection and care.

The timing of these works alone was enough for critics, in the words of Ben Tufnell, to interpret Land Art as “an art form of environmental consciousness and protest”[5]. These eco-friendly interpretations were further supported when the Land artists began taking part in so-called land reclamation projects across the United States. The land reclamation movement aimed to ecologically reclaim areas that had been stripped bare by mining operations, turning them into places of public recreation, as well as giving them a newfound aesthetic value. Smithson, Heizer and Morris all wrote proposals to both the mining companies and government councils attempting to secure new commissions for works on ecologically destroyed sites. In a letter to the President of the American Mining Congress, seeking approval for a reclamation project in Ohio, Smithson wrote:

“Our new ecological awareness indicates that industrial production can no longer remain blind to the visual landscape. Earth art could become a visual resource that mediates between ecology and industry. Current land reclamation projects lack sufficient imagination to catch the public eye…Many ecologists tend to see the landscape through nineteenth-century eyes, while many industrialists see nothing but profits.”[6]

Smithson spoke of a “new consciousness” that could develop through land reclamation projects such as his Tailing Pond, Creede, Colorado of 1973 and Robert Morris’ 1979 Seattle land reclamation work, commissioned as a response to the 1977 federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act[7]. Smithson’s aforementioned work consisted of residue from the coal ore manipulated into tailings taking a semi-circular form. Morris’ work was the site of a former industrial gravel pit, the carved out shape of which remains but is planted over with rye grass and cut off tree stumps[8]. The reclamation projects tended to reflect the sites’ traumatic pasts, emphasizing the need for global eradication of such environmental destruction. They did not attempt to return the land to what it once had been, reflecting the inability of many effects of ecological destruction to be reversed, but rather created an artificial but pleasingly aesthetic landscape.

Critics were forced to reassess their interpretations of these land reclamation projects and the opinion that the Land Artists had gone green when Robert Morris wrote in 1980 that the projects had “a potential sponsorship in millions of dollars and a possible location over hundreds of thousands of acres throughout the country”[9]. Five years later, when Michael Heizer was commissioned by the Illinois Abandoned Mined Lands Reclamation Council to complete a project in Ottawa, Illinois, he denied that the work was in any way environmentalist in nature. Heizer is quoted as saying: “I don’t support reclamation art sculpture projects. This is strictly art. I love mining sites.”[10] Heizer sculpted the former strip-mine site into large earth mounds, called tumulis, which took the shape of animal effigies, as the Native Americans had done many years past[11]. The work, Effigy Tumuli, seemed to have an idyllic pastoral quality and the Native American inspiration could easily be interpreted as a message of a ‘back to the land’ reverence towards the earth. But Heizer’s comments undermine these interpretations. Heizer voices his environmental apathy, leading the viewer to question all of the Land Artists’ true intentions behind the reclamation projects. Following suit from Morris’ statement, perhaps the artists were simply taking advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves. Given the Land Artists’ fascination with bleak and scarred sites, the cost of large spaces of land with which to work, and the artists’ ambivalence feelings, one must wonder whether the land reclamation projects were indeed political statements, or strictly artistic commissions. Land reclamation works are the most obvious examples of “art of environmental protest and awareness,” but the artists remain indifferent to these protests and awareness messages[12]. Herein lies the contradiction between interpretation and intention.

Once recognizing this contradiction with reference to the land reclamation works, the meaning of the Land Artists’ other works becomes even more difficult to distinguish. Some pieces, Heizer’s Double Negative for example, have been controversial from the start due to their ecological impact. Heizer’s 1969 artwork in Mormon Mesa, Nevada consists of two parallel scores into the earth, creating a deep void that extends for 457 meters[13]. Though the sublimity of the massive trench in the desert in undeniable, it is difficult to romanticize Heizer’s works when one considers the process of the art. In the creation of Double Negative, 224,000 tons of sandstone were cleared with dynamite and bulldozers from the near 90 acres of purchased land. Images of Heizer with the work show him in Stetsons and a cowboy hat, bulldozers nearby. The image of the cowboy clearing out the land is far from the image of a tree hugger. However, the sensation generated by the environmental movement led critic Phil Leider to romanticize Double Negative, stating that “the piece was huge, but its scale was not. It took its place in nature in the most modest and unassuming manner, the quiet participation of a manmade shape in a particular configuration of valley, ravine, mesa and sky” [14]. Heizer has been consistent in his denial of an environmental message behind his work. Though Double Negative, Complex One and other Heizer works are set in the West, the vast wilderness of the United States that was an area of specific importance to the 1960s environmental protection movement, Heizer refutes any claim of use of the land for its romantic connotations. To Heizer, the earth provides a blank canvas for his work and the plains in the West are places where land is cheap and the materials that he uses, sand, sludge and stone, are prevalent. His work is about size, scope and impact, not the preservation of nature.

Robert Smithson’s intentions are not as simple to comprehend as Heizer’s. In a 1973 interview with Moira Roth, Smithson states that ecological morality and ethics are indeed a part of his work, however many critics tend to associate him with an apathetic view similar to Heizer. This is likely due to the fact that his works seem to be equally as disruptive to the environment as Heizer’s. They share similar aspects of scale and ownership. Works like 1969’s Asphalt Rundown and 1970’s Spiral Jetty modify the landscape in ways that some have seen as ecologically damaging. Further, permission to create a work which Smithson proposed in 1969 involving broken glass on a Vancouver island was denied due to fears for the area’s wildlife[15]. However in interviews Smithson seems genuine in his intentions behind land reclamation works, speaking of a new social consciousness which could be achieved by giving aesthetic value to these forgotten lands[16]. Smithson also understood the ability of his artworks to bring public focus to what he referred to as “wilderness nostalgia” [17]. Although Smithson was focused first and foremost on the artistic statement of his works, he also acknowledged and embraced their environmental statements. Though his career was cut devastatingly short, the proposal for Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan Island suggested that Smithson’s works were evolving into more overtly political eco-friendly statements. The Floating Island, which was completed posthumously in 2001, echoed Robert Morris’ Spaces exhibition in its’ artificial placement of lush greenery in an area where there none. The work therefore reminded the viewers of what was missing from Manhattan Island, preaching a message of wilderness nostalgia and protection. So although Smithson’s works are often grouped with Heizer’s, his intentions were far more eco-friendly and environmentalist in nature.

While Smithson and Heizer were producing works in remote areas of the United States, across the Atlantic British artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton were completing innovative landscape works that reflected a different cultural attitude towards landscape. Rather than creating sculpture in the landscape and having the landscape thus become the work, Long and Fulton would take walks and then represent these walks in a visual way to viewers in the gallery. The walks themselves were the work of art. This reflected both the British Romantic treatment of landscape art, exemplified by J.M.W. Turner, and the nineteenth century British tradition of walking the countryside as a means of what Michael Auping refers to as a “communion with the fundamental entities of nature”[18]. Both Long and Fulton’s artworks share a romantic and reverent quality. They reflect upon man’s personal relationship with nature through the medium of walking. While the American Land Artists’ works shared qualities of permanence, ownership and man manipulating nature, Long and Fulton’s works were, in contrast, temporary, without ownership and about man admiring nature.

As a student at St. Martin’s, Richard Long demonstrated an interest in revitalizing the subject of landscape. Long stated that he “had a very strong feeling that art could embrace so many more things than it was at the time, that it could be about things like grass and clouds and water, natural phenomena, rather than just the slightly sterile academic, almost mannerism of welding bits of metal together, or using plaster, or the general kind of works at that time”[19]. In 1967 Long produced a simple but radical artwork titled A Line Made By Walking. To create the work, Long had walked back and forth in a straight line in the English countryside until his footprints created a visible path through the grass. The work epitomized the artist interacting with nature since the artwork was his experience itself. By walking the countryside as art, Long conveyed a message of a celebration of and reverence towards nature. In expressing his experience with the landscape to the viewer, by documenting his walk with a photograph which would hang in the gallery, Long conveyed his own personal relationship with the landscape. Ben Tufnell describes as this relationship which is present in all of Richard Long’s works as one of “respect, wonder and curiosity”[20]. In a most understated and unspoken way, Long advocated a respect of the environment. His body of works have remained to present day very rarely intrusive upon the landscape. Suzaan Boettger writes that Long’s most destructive piece is a 1968 artwork in which he removed daisy flower heads over two crossing paths, forming an X in the landscape[21]. In other works, such as 1972’s A Circle in the Andes or 1977’s Circle in Alaska, Long would order stones or branches from the sites into simple forms during his walk. When removing these materials for use in a gallery display, Long always makes sure to take only that which he needs and can carry[22]. His impact on the environments in which he works is therefore both respectful and ecologically sound. In his own words, Long’s work was and remains “ almost invisible, or made only by walking, or (using) the land in a free way, without the need for possession or permanence”[23].

Long’s fellow St. Martin’s classmate, Hamish Fulton, preaches a similar artistic code of conduct. Fulton very poignantly celebrates a first-hand solitary experience with nature and then expresses this experience to viewers in the gallery by displaying a combination of photographs and text. His message of environmental respect and non-interference is taken a step further than Long’s, abiding by the wilderness motto “Leave No Trace” when completing his works of art[24]. Fulton often makes political statement in his work, bearing witness to the landscape within which he is walking. In To Build is to Destroy. No Man-Made Obstacles for Winter Winds, 14 Seven Day Walks, Cairngorms, Scotland, a series of walks completed from 1985 to 1989, Fulton walks a snow-covered mountainous area of wilderness that was being considered as a site for a new ski-lift[25]. His work thus questions man’s impact on nature and conveys a message of environmental protection. Fulton’s works of walking art promote a love and respect of landscape. Fulton states, “The physical involvement of walking creates a receptiveness to the landscape. I walk on the land to be woven into nature”[26].

Land and Walking Art emerged in the midst of the 1960s environmentalist movement, leading many critics to draw their own conclusions about the intentions of the artists. These eco-friendly and environmentally protectionist interpretations were correct in some cases and almost entirely unintended in others. While many of the Land Artists involved themselves in land reclamation projects, it seems that Smithson was the only one who truly believed in them. Michael Heizer seems to just have an interest with natural materials and open spaces. The Land Artists’ attitudes towards the environment differed greatly from that of their British counterparts, the Walking Artists. This dichotomy seen in their works, between permanence and impermanence, and ownership and communality, reflects their environmental views. The walking artists revere nature. Their art is about a personal respect and enjoyment of the environment, and sharing this respect and enjoyment with others.


Auping, Michael. “Earth Art: A Study in Ecological Politics.” In Alan Sonfist (Ed.).

Art in the Land: A Critical Anthology of Environmental Art. E.P. Dutton, Inc.:

New York. 1983.

Baker, Elizabeth C. “Artworks on the Land.” In Alan Sonfist (Ed.). Art in the Land: A

Critical Anthology of Environmental Art. E.P. Dutton, Inc.: New York. 1983.

Boettger, Suzaan (Ed.). Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties. University of

California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, London. 2002.

Friedman, Kenneth S. “Words on the Environment.” In Alan Sonfist (Ed.). Art in the

Land: A Critical Anthology of Environmental Art. E.P. Dutton, Inc.: New York.


Tiberghien, Gilles A. Land Art. Princeton Architectural Press: New York. 1995.

Tsai, Eugenie (Ed.) with Cornelia Butler. Robert Smithson. University of California

Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles and London. 2004.

Tufnell, Ben. Land Art. Tate Publishing: Millbank, London. 2006.

[1] Boettger, Suzaan (Ed.), Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties, Pp. 39-40, University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, (2002)

[2] Boettger, Earthworks, P. 40.

[3] David Lowenthal in Boettger, Earthworks. P. 219.

[4] Boettger, Earthworks, P. 219.

[5] Tufnell, Ben. Land Art, p.13, Tate Publishing: Millbank, London, (2006)

[6] Smithson, Robert in Boettger, Earthworks, Pp. 231-2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Tufnell, Land Art, Pp. 98-99.

[9] Morris, Robert, Quoted in Tufnell, Land Art., P. 97.

[10] Heizer, Michael, Quoted in Tufnell, Land Art, P. 140.

[11] Boettger, Earthworks, P. 240.

[12] Tufnell. Land Art, P. 13.

[13] Ibid., P. 51.

[14] Boettger. Earthworks, P. 219.

[15] Auping, Michael, “Earth Art: A Study in Ecological Politics”, In Alan Sonfist (Ed.),

Art in the Land: A Critical Anthology of Environmental Art. P. 96, E.P. Dutton, Inc.: New York, (1983)

[16] Boettger, Earthworks, Pp. 231-33.

[17] Smithson, Robert, from Moira Roth, “An Interview with Robert Smithson (1973)”, In Eugenie Tsai (Ed.) with Cornelia Butler, Robert Smithson, P. 88, University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, (2004)

[18] Auping, “Earth Art”, In Sonfist, Art in the Land, P. 99.

[19] Tufnell, Land Art, P. 23.

[20] Ibid., P. 31.

[21] Boettger, Earthworks, P.172.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Long, Richard, In Boettger, Earthworks, P.172.

[24] Tufnell, Land Art, Pp. 76-77.

[25] Ibid., P. 107.

[26] Ibid., P.76.

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