Field Reports: Documents and Strategies from Land Arts of the American West
Temple Gallery, Tyler School of Art
For those who prefer their art “bite-size,” the exhibition Field Reports: Documents and Strategies from Land Arts of the American West is a test of endurance. Funny, that’s exactly how it seems for the students involved, as evidenced in the show’s photographs, journal entries and videos that offer a glimpse into a life-changing semester of study and artmaking.
Begun in 2000, Land Arts is an interdisciplinary field program co-directed by Chris Taylor of Texas Tech University and Bill Gilbert of the University of New Mexico. Over the course of many weeks and more than 8,000 miles, groups of studio art and design students spend the early fall trekking across the rugged landscapes of the American West. They cook, camp and hike together, while studying topography and permaculture, absorbing indigenous folklore, working with natural and environmental features and engaging with local inhabitants. All of this is an effort to understand the land and the impact of humans on the landscape. This semester “abroad” also includes encounters with seminal earthworks like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative in Nevada.
“A photograph of a site and an experience of place are two radically different things,” writes Taylor. “Land Arts teaches us the value of committing to the energy of experience, of investing time in the subtle reading of site, of understanding a sense of place.” While acknowledging this disparity, the exhibition nonetheless uses documentary photographs and texts to immerse the viewer in the students’ observations, onsite projects and artistic epiphanies.
For example, one student, Julie Anand, writes in 2002 of her encounter with Heizer’s Double Negative: “At first I didn’t feel much. I was having that premeditated experience, like when you’re standing at the base of the Taj Mahal—like you’ve stepped into a postcard. Then I started to notice the details…the plants finding shelter in the base…Double Negative is integrated into the landscape by processes that use the change that Heizer effected to effect more change.” Or Alexandra Codlin, who writes in 2004 about experiencing Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, a 1976 work made of concrete culvert sections placed on the plains near Wendover, Utah: “Out here, your relationship to art changes…there are no guards telling you to keep a comfortable distance…out here, art becomes something else.”
In and amongst Field Reports’ various-sized photographs and typed texts are a handful of small video monitors. These present art projects that have taken form over the course of the Land Arts program, including: Horizon Run by Veronica Giavendoni, a replicating image of the artist running deep into the Bonneville Salt Flats; Operation CryptoBiotic by Grant Davis and Jonathan Loth, where The Flash and The Incredible Hulk duke it out in the cliffs above Monument Valley; and Muley Rap by Gabe Romero, in which the artist brings hip-hop to the tight confines of a stone cave.
But the most compelling aspect of Field Reports is the gut sense and very real evidence of learning that takes place out there in the wilderness (demonstrated in the well-produced 2006 documentary screened in the exhibition). The students’ abstract pronouncements (e.g., “I was very interested in discovering what is the actual boundary between design and fine arts”) take on meaningful shape when tested in the landscape. For instance, one group passing through New Mexico identifies a slope suffering from erosion. In a sort of conga line, the students process along a surveyed path, dragging one foot to the sound of clicking stones. This performative intervention starts the creation of an arroyo, or streambed, to help slow and control the flow of water. Watching this action, one can’t help but think of the spiritual rituals of the indigenous peoples who once lived in this spot, and how the past and the present connect within the same landscape.
The documentary also helps to explain the significance of some of the exhibition’s photographs, which can be somewhat mute without these insights. The seductive but puzzling images of students lying on their backs with their heads hanging over the edge of the Grand Canyon make sense with Chris Taylor’s explanation: “You can actually frame your view by the limits of the optics of your eye rather than by the landscape you’re in…removing all the foreground allows you to see as far as your eye can see rather than a view framed by a road, trees or objects and buildings.”
Focusing on perception and the real-time experience of the landscape over preconceived project ideas guides the students toward ever-more relevant work. As the documentary reveals, the students converse fluently and collectively by the end of the semester, easily weaving theoretical concerns into their encounters with specific sites and drawing upon the accumulated wisdom of the preceding weeks. In their interventions, they create art from experience, from observation and reaction, or the “art of life,” as one participant calls it. For example, after many failed adaptations to a difficult site, their project in Deming, New Mexico—Projecting Art Lies into the Void—comes off elegantly and simply, a broadcast tower mounted on a van that traverses the terrain, broadcasting “culture” back into the landscape.
In January, students from the Tyler School of Art took up the working methods of Land Arts and applied them to the landscape of Philadelphia. As a companion to Field Reports, a charette of their efforts was installed in the basement of Temple Gallery, with projects conducted in the surrounding Old City. Notable among these were David Rueter’s abstract map of Toxic Release Sites of the Mid-Atlantic depicted in soil from beneath the Benjamin Franklyn Bridge mounted on translucent acetate; Gretchen Batcheller’s blind contour drawing of neighborhood features on a paper scroll that stretched many feet around the room; and Jenna Price’s displaced trash and found ephemera. Field Reports was also accompanied with a series of lectures by Thaddeus Squire, Matthew Coolidge of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Kate Wingert-Playdon, Chris Taylor and Winifred Lutz.
John Ewing is a freelance writer and editor based in New York. He is the copy editor of Art Lies.