​Laura Fisher: “Land is a site for speculative thought”

Sydney writer Laura Fisher talks about deeper meanings of land art.

Michael Heizer "Double Negative" (1969) / photo: Northern Trench / Thure Johnson

Dr. Laura Fisher is a researcher at the University of Sydney and the author of “New visions of the rural” project. In her project she studies the changes that rural communities have experienced thanks to land art and other forms of contemporary art. List of Dr. Fisher’s research interests includes depopulation of rural areas caused by urbanization, ecological problems resulting from ill-considered use of natural resources and economic decline troubling village communities.

In “New visions of the rural” Dr Fisher looks upon these issues through the lens of international creative practices and refers to examples from Sweden, Great Britain, Japan, Australia and – from Russia – to Archstoyanie Land Art Festival taking place annually at Nikola-Lenivets.

In anticipation of the 11st Archstoyanie Festival opening soon in Kaluga region, Laura Fisher discusses great ideas hidden within the simple shapes of land art in a special column for Strelka Magazine.


Archstoyanie, Land and the Art of Elsewhere

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Roden Crater/ photo: Florian Holzherr / James Turrell

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Roden "Crater", 2015 / photo: Dale Nations

For an artist, the choice to make land both the context and material of one’s practice opens up a spectrum of possibilities. If we wish to link this orientation to an art movement as such, we might bring to mind the European and American ‘land artists’ who went out into the field to escape the limitations of representational and object-based art in the late 1960s and 1970s. However a more globalist viewpoint would acknowledge the deeper heritage of tribal, peasant and folkloric crafts and architectures. These occupations – whether symbolic or practical - illustrate most clearly the ecological relationship between humans and the natural world. Urbanisation, industrialisation and the virtual environments of digital culture have not made that relationship any less ecological. The earth sustains our activities in a million different ways, and we have cultivated as many ways to obscure and distort that relationship.

When we have conversations about artists who work with land, we are free to dispense with the categories we have become accustomed to in the art world: the modern, the pre-modern, the West and the rest, professional artist versus outsider artist, and so on. The questions I like to pose when experiencing any art are: does this art transport me? Does it remind me that our present circumstances are provisional? Does it spur me to imagine how we might arrange our world differently? Artists who embrace the changeable character of soil, stone, plants and other forms of organic life open their art to this kind of speculative thought. It is the changeable character of land that draws artists back again and again to find new meaning within it. We might suppose that the meanings discovered there are about land, but they are of course about us – our utopias and dystopias, our wins and our losses.

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Nimis, Lars Vilks / photo: Per-Olof Forsberg, 2013

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Nimis, Lars Vilks/ photo: Per-Olof Forsberg, 2013

The American artists for whom the terms ‘land art’ and ‘earthworks’ were created are renowned for the bold, monumental statements they made through their work. Artists like Nancy Holt, Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson and Walter De Maria produced works at a scale that suggested improbable communions with the forces and cycles that transcend human life: the sedimentation of geological time, the lightning storm, the rhythms of the celestial sphere, the solstice and the equinox. Among the most ambitious of these works, initiated in 1979 when artist James Turrell acquired the remains of an extinct volcano in Northern Arizona, Roden Crater, is now close to completion. Creating Roden Crater’s multiple tunnels and viewing areas has required mass excavation and an exacting combination of astronomical and architectural measurements. The crater will ultimately serve as a naked eye observatory and an environment in which to experience the movement of the moon, the sun and the stars and the variable light they emit in a location secluded from artificial light.

This generation of artists employed the most aggressive tools and methods human civilisation has invented to make their monumental statements. Works like Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1970), an enormous trench in the Moapa Valley in Navada, could only be realised with the aid of the technologies that extract the coal, oil, iron, limestone and other minerals that have powered humanity’s development. If we survey the works of this era we find echoes of mines, dams and quarries, and cannot help but think about the dynamite required to explode earth, the bulldozers employed to move it, and the masses of concrete needed to contain it. Now many large scale public art works are made of steel, aluminium and fibreglass: built to last. The point is not to make an ethical judgement so much as to recognise that this trajectory of destroying, extracting and making tells a story of our entanglement with the earth. It tells a story of the passage of raw material to processed material to something else, stewarded by the scientist, the engineer and the artist.

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Festival Echigo Tsumari / photo: Heidi-Axelsen

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Museum-of-Picture-Book-Art / photo: Takenori Miyamoto, Hiromi Seno.

However, there are many artists working with land who have a very different sensibility. Some of them incorporate natural materials in their art in a manner akin to the practical crafts of tribal and agrarian societies, such as weaving, latticing and carving. They also draw on architectural traditions based on wood, stone and adobe. Here we need to ignore that tired modern opposition that elevates art over utilitarian and artisanal practices. To craft something with one’s hands using whatever materials are available is a universal act, one that inevitably involves creativity. With this in mind, we can draw parallels between age-old crafts and the activities of current generations of makers who show us how bespoke design and Do It Yourself (DIY) culture can foster practices and relationships that are independent of centralised industry and commerce.

Some of us might be in the habit of thinking that artists who have this crafting sensibility tend to work on a small scale, but this is not necessarily the case for artists working with natural and discarded materials. Take the drift wood and stone constructions of Swedish artist Lars Vilks, Nimis and Arx, which he began building on the rocky shore of the Kullaberg Nature Reserve in Höganäs, Skåne in 1980. Swedish authorities have sought to have them removed, and Vilks has been able to complicate legal proceedings by selling the works to artists Joseph Beuys and Christo. In 1996 he proclaimed the region of the sculptures an independent ‘micronation’ called Ladonia, which now has more than 17 000 nomadic citizens. Here we encounter a fantastical aesthetic, a material creation that anchors a transnational idea of inclusive freedom.

For scale of conception, we might look to the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale in Japan, which began in 2000 as a result of the vision of founder Fram Kitagawa. The Festival is a poetic response to a society that industrialised so rapidly that it turned its back, in just two generations, on thousands of years of agricultural and artisanal practices that were interlinked with the forests, rivers and snowy winters of the land. As part of the Triennale, art audiences tour the small, depopulated villages of the rice-growing Echigo-Tsumari region, north of Tokyo, from which younger generations have departed for the land-eating metropolises and suburbs. The Festival has seen these vacant houses, rice fields and school buildings being repossessed by hundreds of temporary and permanent artworks, many of which are created by artists in collaboration with local residents. These artworks become sites of care among elder locals, and stand as symbols of the agency locals should have in determining the region’s cultural and economic future.

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"Beaubourg" Nicolay Polissky / photo: Alexey Lukin

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Nikolay Polissky "Universal Mind", 2012 /photo: Nikolay Polissky

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Nikolay Polissky "Universal Mind", 2012 /photo: Nikolay Polissky

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Nikolay Polissky "Universal Mind", 2012 /photo: Nikolay Polissky

Russia’s ‘Festival of Landscape Objects’, Archstoyanie, is unique in the world. The extraordinary sculptures created by Nikolay Polissky and his collaborators feel both familiar and unintelligible as forms. Borders of the Empire (2007), Beaubourg (2013) and Universal Mind (2012) are characteristic of a formal language that is at once retrospective and futuristic. Polissky pays tribute to Russian folklore and scientific invention far more than he does to any western-favoured lineage of land art. When asked to explain his sources of inspiration, he speaks often of the architectures of historic and mythic civilisations: temples, pyramids, towers and pagodas. He knows that a sense of wonder and dissonance is just as likely to be triggered by an archaeological site, an industrial ruin and a piece of imaginative architecture. Nor does Archstoyanie defer to the ideal of permanence. Whereas the iconic American works discussed above are aloof in their remoteness, costly to preserve and appreciated by all but a tiny number through photographic reproductions, the spectacle of Archstoyanie is all the more powerful because of its inclusive festival context. Decay and deterioration (if not celebratory combustion) is accepted.

Even though we know that globally the land is increasingly shaped by human activity, we also sense that its countless organic processes evolve in ways that are impervious to us. As the natural disasters that appear on our TV and computer screens remind us, the land would reclaim our houses, our roads, our cities very quickly without our vigilance. Thus there is a productive tension between artistic and earthly processes of creation and destruction. Land is a site for speculative thought because as much as it attains meaning through our engagement with it, this meaning is always open to change and reinvention. Archstoyanie’s landscape objects suggest spaces of human sanctuary and adventure. They do their enchanting work away from the metropolis and its art world, attuned to the energy generated when people spend time together in open space where there is room to move. As I see it, they are visionary in the most optimistic sense. 

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