Sometimes referred to as land art or earthworks, earth art utilises the landscape itself as a canvas, and sculpts vast structures and installations to sit within it. Most popular amongst American artists, perhaps because of the large, wide open landscapes absent from most of Europe, the artform developed from an intersection of conceptualism, minimalism, and environmentalism. It arrived as modern art was turning to post-modernism and contemporary work, and artists sought to escape the commodification of art, drawn to ideas like arte povera and social sculptures.
In line with the inspiration points, using the land as a canvas and the natural materials within it, such as stones, water, and soil, for sculptural elements; much like the ancient builders of monuments like Stonehenge. Creating such large original artworks outdoors, also meant they had to stay outdoors, gradually being eroded away by the elements until nothing would be left, in complete opposite to the carefully protected oil paintings and sculptures of more traditional art forms.
As a result, the choice of location was critical; something set in a desert would have a vastly different feel to something in a forest, and each would have very different building materials available to it. By virtue of cost and size of space needed, many earth art pieces were also very remote and hard to get to; again questioning the value and purpose of art if it can only be viewed by a few people.
The contemporary art shift away from art galleries and into new spaces
Modern art had always been questioning what are was, but even as it did so it created artworks that would eventually end up in an art gallery; even if it was a Brillo packaging box or an everyday urinal. As modern began to mix into postmodern contemporary movements there was a continuation in the concept of redefining art, but this time as far from art institutions as possible. Art happenings, performance and street art all attempt this, but none has been quite so successful as earth art, which for all the money in the world cannot be transported to a contemporary art museum.
The genesis of the movement arrived almost by accident, with the artist Richard Long deciding to make an artwork of the tracks left in a field by walking over it. A Line Made By Walking is exactly what you would expect, and would have disappeared from the site within days as the grass sprang back up, but it fired imaginations. This was an artwork that couldn’t be sold, relocated, or claimed by a private collector; decades before Banksy’s artwork shredded itself, earth art created truly disappearing contemporary art, that existed after the fact only in photographs and other documentary materials.
Following pop art’s somewhat sarcastic embrace of colourful consumerism, which simply ended in more high brow multi-million artworks, the emerging contemporary art movements very deliberately rebuffed commodification of their work, and even the gallery space itself. Evolutions of this idea have worked with patterns drawn in snow or salt lakes, and even those crafted from rock will fade away eventually; tying with the environmental and ecological concerns that began to form around the same time in the west.
Seeing a vast landscape of opportunity for earth art
From simple beginnings of walking a dent in some grass, earth art began to develop in fascinating ways; much like digital art, once the box was opened, artist began to realise just how much might be possible. Walter de Maria created a grid of metal poles primarily with the aim of drawing lightning to it, illuminating the work at night, and many artists have explored use of the sun and astronomical alignments, inspired by ancient objects such as Stonehenge or long barrow burials.
As may be expected, the art world rarely stays out of things for very long, and recessions have repeatedly made it difficult for artist to finance these vast pieces, pushing many towards more conventional installations, which have become hugely popular since. Pieces still happen though; the light artist James Turrell has been working for years on a huge piece set in a meteorite crater, and Michael Heiser recently completed is mile and a half long original masterwork City, under construction since the 1970s.
New variations may come, but when land, weather, and the movement of the sun in the sky are all available to incorporate into contemporary art, there’s little doubt that land and earth art will remain a canvas for artists for millennia.