As a planner, I have an interest in just about anything land-related, including any exhibit with the word “land” in its title. Wanting to learn more about “Land Art”, I recently visited Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) to view the Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 exhibition. This large-scale, historical-thematic display deals broadly with Land Art, which is generally understood as an art form that uses the earth as a medium and locates its unique works in sites far from more familiar art contexts. According to MOCA, the exhibition highlights “the early years of untested artistic experimentations [1960s] and concludes in the mid-1970s before Land Art becomes a fully institutionalized category.” The exhibition does not intend to romanticize ideas of “return to nature” or an “escape from culture”, but instead focuses on and reveals how the movement engages socially and politically with the historical conditions of its time.
Ends of the Earth is an interesting show that features more than eighty artists and projects from North and South Americas, Europe, Israel, and Japan. Before going to MOCA, I suggest that visitors first check out the interactive map on the museum’s website available at www.moca.org. This feature maps key artworks included in the exhibition, showing their original locations and revealing the global nature of Land Art and its relationship to real places and times.
For the most part, I enjoyed this multi-media exhibition which involved photographs, films, texts, maps, and sculptures. One piece that immediately grabbed my attention was Wrapped Coast by Jeanne-Claude and Christo, a married couple who created environmental works of art such as the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin, the Pont-Neuf bridge in Paris, the 24-mile long artwork called Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin counties in California, and The Gates in New York City’s Central Park. Wrapped Coast took place at Little Bay, nine miles southeast of the center of Sydney, Australia. I was amazed at the grand size of this project. The cliff-lined South Pacific Ocean shore area that was wrapped is about 1.5 miles long, 150 to 800 feet wide, 85 feet high at the northern cliffs and was at sea level at the southern sandy beach. One million square feet of erosion-control fabric were used for the wrapping. The coast remained wrapped for ten weeks in 1969, and then all materials were removed and recycled and the site was returned to its original condition. The project was financed entirely by the artists themselves.
Aside from photographs of the project, I was also fascinated by all of the background documents, including letters, reports, maps, and drawings, needed to plan for the wrapping of the coast. For example, the artists had to seek approval from local authorities to execute the project and prepare detailed illustrations of their proposal, some of which can be viewed at christojeanneclaude.net. As a planner, I found Wrapped Coast very thought-provoking as it made me consider questions like: can this be done in California? Would anyone even attempt it today given strict environmental and coastal regulations? What would the California Coastal Commission think about such a project? Would the general public be receptive? Would an environmental impact report be required?
Another piece of particular interest to me was Spiral Jetty by American sculptor Robert Smithson. Constructed in 1970, this sculpture was built entirely of mud, salt crystals, basalt rocks, earth, and water on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. It forms a 1,500-foot-long, 15-foot-wide counterclockwise coil jutting from the shore of the lake which is only visible when the water level drops below an elevation of 4,198 feet. When the jetty was constructed, the water level was unusually low because of a drought. Within a few years, the water level returned to normal and submerged the jetty for the next three decades. Due to another drought, the jetty re-emerged in 2002 and was completely exposed for nearly a year. The lake level rose again during the spring of 2005 due to a near record-setting snowpack in the mountains and partially submerged the jetty again. In the spring of 2010, the jetty was again visible and walkable when lake levels receded. As of late June 2011, runoff from record snowpack has all but completely submerged the jetty. One unique aspect of the Spiral Jetty exhibit was a 32-minute film by Smithson to document the construction process. This film may leave viewers a bit disoriented as it was taken from a helicopter following the curves of the jetty.
Looking at pictures of Spiral Jetty also prompted me to think about the artificial archipelagos in Dubai, United Arab Emirates which were created with vast amounts of sand and rock, and extremely costly to build. It is doubtful that any artist would consider projects like Palm Islands and World Islands as Land Art because they were conceived by ambitious developers and executed by dredging and marine contractors, and specialists in land reclamation. However, I must say that at least visually, the projects could appear to be like Spiral Jetty, but at a much larger scale.
One last exhibit I would like to discuss is Italian avant-garde architecture collective Superstudio’s Cube of Forest on the Golden Gate which is a collage with photo gravure and alterations in crayon. Created in 1970-71, this piece is controversial and visually stunning, but is obviously an unexecuted proposition. Also, given today’s advanced graphic and animation tools, one may even ask: what is so impressive about this? After all, photo-simulations using Adobe Photoshop and other similar software are commonplace, especially in urban planning which relies on such technology to help decision-makers and the public to visualize a proposed project and consider its impacts on aesthetics and light/glare.
Overall, Ends of the Earth is a fascinating exhibition and may have a special appeal for planners because of its focus on land as the art medium and setting. You can get a taste of the exhibition by checking out the images on MOCA’s website. Ends of the Earth runs until September 3, 2012. Please visit MOCA’s website for more information.
Author’s note: Special thanks to my sister for brainstorming with me and helping me get back into writing.
Ends of the Earth banner by Clement Lau
Wrapped Coast from Museum of Contemporary Art
Spiral Jetty from Wikipedia
Palm Islands from Wikipedia
Cube of Forest on the Golden Gate from Museum of Contemporary Art
(Museum images under Fair Use Doctrine – review; Wikipedia images under Creative Commons License)