Land Art: investigating humanity’s relationship to nature

The 1960s movement popularized taking art outside of the museum

Upon first glance, Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking (1967) appears to be a simple monochrome photograph of a grassy field with trees in the distance. The photo, however, only serves as a form of documentation of the artwork itself, which is Long’s interaction with the terrain. This avant-garde form of artmaking is classified as Land Art.

Also known as Earth art, Land Art is created with the surrounding landscape, often taking the form of a performance, sculpture, or installation, and serving just as great of a political purpose as one driven by aesthetic.

The genre gained traction in the 1960s as part of the conceptual art movement, characterized by the notion that the concept behind the work takes precedence over the finalized work itself. In the same respect, Land Art holds its significance due to the idea of the artist’s physical intervention with their environment.

Notable figures who contributed to the movement’s popularity include Richard Long, Nancy Holt, Michael Heizer, and Robert Smithson, all of whom used natural elements as a means of investigating and creating a narrative about humanity’s interactions and relationship with the surrounding environment.

One of the most acclaimed works of Land Art is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970). Situated on the shore of the Great Salt Lake, Utah, the installation uses over six thousand tons of black basalt rocks and earth to form a spiral-shaped sculptural installation along the shore. The otherworldly work resembles a galaxy and, according to Art & Place, published by Phaidon, the nearly 460 metre-long spiral was created by bulldozing material from the shore into the lake.

“Built at the mouth of a terminal basin rich in minerals and nearly devoid of life, ​Spiral Jetty ​is a testament to Smithson’s fascination with entropy,” reads a statement on The Holt/Smithson Foundation website, demonstrating the ways in which Smithson was greatly inspired by geology and the natural sciences.

The site on which the installation is located is owned by Dia, an art foundation dedicated to preserving artists’ visions by commissioning and exhibiting site-specific installations. The foundation welcomes visitors to the site and advises them to “leave no trace” behind. In other words, visitors mustn’t interfere with the environment or the art, leaving it exactly how they found it in an effort to preserve it for future generations of viewers.

Aside from the grandeur of Smithson’s work, what makes his collection particularly fascinating is its volatility; being made entirely of natural resources means that the work can dissipate at any given moment, should it be subject to a slight disruption.

Nancy Holt, on the other hand, explored the genre through a different approach. Holt’s series Trail Markers (1969) consists of photographs that document the artist’s journey through Dartmoor National Park in England.

“Holt resists the panoramic, all-encompassing view, offering instead an experience of the landscape that is at once dynamic and myopic,” states the work’s description on The Holt/Smithson Foundation website.

The photographs, which are all focused on very specific parts of the landscape, neglect the vastness of the mountains, instead giving viewers an encounter that is representative of the artist’s experience within the space.

Whether it be through photographs or an expansive installation, Land Art serves as a reminder of nature’s grandiosity and impermanence.


Graphic by Taylor Reddam.

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