Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

August 14, 2012

Land Art, reconsidered

Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 at MOCA and Levitated Mass at LACMA


Articles, Isamu Noguchi, Land Art, Michael Heizer, Richard Hamilton, Robert Smithson

I heard Anthony Vidler lecture twice this past spring — once in Boston and once in Los Angeles. The subject matter varied as a much as the venue: the East Coast lecture a trip through Vidler’s own intellectual history and at SCI-Arc a jaunty tribute to Big Jim, made tart with a couple well-placed jabs at Shumacheresque parametricism. Yet, in both of Vidler’s lectures the same slide appeared, Richard Hamilton’s collage Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing? that appeared as the poster for the Independent Group’s This is Tomorrow exhibition in 1956.

Vidler outted the collage fragment depicting Earth that looms above at the top of the composition, noting that it was torn from a 1955 issue of Life. As this view of the world entered into mainstream public consciousness via the most popular magazine on the planet it carried with it the tension between rampant consumerism and the Cold War. Entitled a 100 Mile Portrait of Earth, the composite photograph was made from stills taken by an aerial movie camera attached to a rocket. At the time, no other color photo had ever been taken from such a high vantage point.

This popularization and implied democratization of a once-privileged view mixes with a Cold War chill in the exhibition Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 at MOCA’s The Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles. This broad, historical retrospective brings together a generation of artists working under threat of nuclear annihilation, the space race, who possessed an expansionist drive to push outside of the gallery and into the unknowns of landscape.

The show opens with an atomic pair: Isamu Noguchi’s 1947 Sculpture to Be Viewed From Mars or Memorial to Man proposal fills the right wall of the gallery entrance. Designed as an earthwork face speaking to the heavens, the piece is generally interpreted as an anti-war statement — the remnants of civilization past. Adjacent to Noguchi’s piece is the equally apocalyptic Study for an End of the World, Jean Tinguely’s 1962 film shot around a nuclear test site outside of Las Vegas.

“The cold war had a huge impact,” explains Philipp Kaiser, who co-curated the show with art historian Miwon Kwon. “The space race, the moon landing, and the war in Vietnam all influenced the work. There are a number of explosion projects and we have a lot of utopian/dystopian proposals. Much of that imagery has to do with the urbanization process that was going on in the United States in the 1950s and 60s.” Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to watch Robert Smithson’s 1970 film Spiral Jetty — in which he documents his monumental earthwork from a helicopter — and not think of Vietnam-era footage. The chopper circles above the sculpture extending off Rozel Point into the Great Salt Lake. As it banks, light reflects off the lake surface and creates a blinding lens flare. There’s a hallucinogenic moment where the mind wants to substitute rice paddies for mud, salt, and basalt.

Kaiser and Kwon’s curation underscores the connection between media practice and land art, mending a historic link that was forgotten as the massive works, such as Michael Heizer’s monumental excavation Double Negative (1969–70), included in MOCA’s permanent collection, took centre stage in the public imagination in the past few decades. However, not all the evocative representation is filmic. Smithson’s diagrams and sketches for Project for Clear Zone: Dallas Fort Worth Regional Airport (1966), more closely resemble architectural representations and Smithson seems to take pleasure in the quasi-professionalism of those constrains. Similarly, the 1969 series entitled Sixteen Compass Points in Arctic Circle by Canadian art collective N.E. Thing Co. uses all the visual tropes of the industrial military complex it can muster: title blocks, gridded paper, and official seals.

By foregrounding drawings, photographs, and film and television clips by artists such as Smithson, Han Hollein, Dennis Oppenheim, and Carl Andre, Kaiser and Kwon suggest that media and documentation is as seminal to the period as digging holes. Ends of the Earth takes an inclusive and international view of land art, which includes embracing visionaries familiar within architectural circles: Gordon Matta-Clark’s early sketches created while a still an architecture student in Ithaca, NY and the comic book–like storyboards for Superstudio’s Continuous Monument. In presenting the more ephemeral side of land art the exhibition reveals a more democratic side of the movement. For example, John Baldessari’s 1969 California Map Project Part II bridges the space between the map and the everyday by placing cartographic symbols on real life locations, such as the state capital. It’s a perspective that resonates with our present Google Earth sensibility. “If you think of Double Negative, for example,” says Kaiser, “the dissemination and distribution of images was just as important as the sculptural experience of the piece.”

Which brings us to Michael Heizer’s recent sculpture Levitated Mass, a 340-tonne granite boulder placed on top of a 140-metre long concrete slot that opened to the public in late June. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) commissioned the piece, first conceived in 1969. Installed in a gravelly field just behind Renzo Piano’s Resnick Pavilion, visitors descend into the piece via the concrete slot that runs under the boulder and back up the other side: imagine two opposing handicap ramps shaded by a monolith. Levitated Mass doesn’t exactly levitate. On the recommendation of Buro Happold, two steel brackets and a dozen steel rods support the rock and keep it from rolling away in an earthquake.

The public has embraced Heizer’s sculpture, not as an act of artistic transcendence, but as a participatory process. The granite chunk was cut from a quarry in Riverside County and loaded onto a transport truck in late February. The megalith then traveled at night in a caravan of police cars and support vehicles through twenty-two cities and four counties on its way to Los Angeles. A Google map on the LACMA website tracked the procession. The spectacle of a rock riding down the roadway and through L.A. neighborhoods filled television screens, Facebook posts, and Twitter feeds. The rock arrived at the museum on 10 March, but ultimately the media event around Levitated Mass dwarfed the in-situ experience. Yesterday’s tension between consumerism and Cold War specters that Kaiser and Kwon captured in Ends of the Earth is lost and today we consume images with the same gleeful populism predicted in the poster from This is Tomorrow.