Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: LAND AND ENVIRONMENTAL ART – Kastner and Wallis, eds. [Vol. 3, #42]

“Concretized, Identifiable, Specific Locales

A review of
Land and Environmental Art.

Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis, eds

Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.

Land and Environmental Art.
Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis, eds.
Paperback: Phaidon (New, Abridged Edition), 2010.

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“We should begin to develop an art education based on relationships to specific sites. How we see things and places is not secondary, but primary.” — Robert Smithson

LAND AND ENVIRONMENTAL ART  -  PhaidonWriting in 1972, artist Robert Smithson is here specifically proposing his art practice for reclaiming an Ohio strip mine. Smithson’s work in the late 60’s and early 70’s, along with artists such as Nancy Holt, Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim and Robert Morris, was the start of a trend in art, later to be called by many names including Earth Art or Land Art. The practices of these artists happened out of doors and galleries, related to particular places, and used naturally-occurring processes and materials to inform the content and form of their work. Since these earthworks of the 60’s, a variety of artists have taken up work that deals directly with land, and the cultural practices that inform it; these works are brought together in a new edition of Land and Environmental Art, edited by Jeffrey Kastner and Brian Wallis, in which they “[intend] to expand, rather than circumscribe, traditional definitions of the genre.”

Many of the artworks included in this anthology have become touchstones for me in imagining new understandings of our relationship to the land and to particular places; as art practices, they suggest that bound up in any of our ideas about ‘nature’ are also cultural practices. Robert Smithson’s Non-Sites, geometric minimalist forms containing rocks or dirt that relate back to specific locations; Ana Mendieta’s Silueta sculptures and photographs, in which she fashions the shape of her body into the land with the materials at hand – mud, sand, grass, snow; Hans Haacke’s Grass Grows and Ten Turtles Set Free, both of which are just what they sound like; Andy Goldsworthy’s delicate and inherently placed sculptures of leaves, rocks, sticks, or ice; all included in this volume, are all helpful in considering current questions about the land.

As I have argued in these pages before, while language about land ethics is undergoing significant transformations in a visible scope, images of the land continue to be much the same as they ever were: generic, anonymous, place-less. It is just for this reason that Land and Environmental Art comes at just the right time, as these Earth Artists model ways of viewing and engaging the land that, as Elizabeth Baker writes, makes “the sites become places, as vivid as the works themselves – they become concretized, identifiable, specific locales” (emphasis added; “Artworks on the Land,” Art in America, Jan – Feb 1976).

It seems helpful to try to say clearly why exactly it is that I have been so attracted to these artists:

1. Sensitivity to specific places, landscapes, ecologies, histories, and geographies; context as primary to the work; similarly,

2. Revealing that ‘nature’ is inflected by culture, and that culture is likewise given clarity and limits by its place. As Wallis writes, “Land Artists[’s] work often addressed the specific histories and social uses of their environmental context even as they transformed that space. Frequently the works addressed the history and representation of nature, the patterns of growth or decay, as well as the complex historical and social issues pertaining to the site’s ecology. A central idea was that of nature as defined and shaped by culture, or, more specifically, the history and phenomenology of man’s inhabitation of the landscape – what geographer John Brinckerhoff Jackson calls the ‘vernacular landscape” (28).

3. Use of materials that have their origins in natural processes, furthermore linking the artwork to a particular place or region. For instance, a scan through the material lists in the captions to artworks turns up “wheatfield, harvester;” “rocks, earth, salt crystals, water;” “earth, peat, bark;” or “Gro-tux lights, wood, earth, dwarf citrus trees, avocado trees.”

4. Understanding that representations effect how we view the world, and the subsequent presenting and re-presenting of the work these artists make also changes the way we view that world.

These four points are perhaps lessons to be re-learned as we ask new questions about sustainable agriculture, placed communities, responsible use of resources, and the like, as well as the ways in which our human culture is intimately tied to the larger ecosystem, which, in fact, includes everything. Land and Environmental Art beautifully brings together a number of artists who have been asking just such questions, and whose artifacts help change the visual imagination necessary for a renewed understanding of the land.


Brent Aldrich is Art Editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and adjunct professor of photography at Herron School of Art (Indianapolis).

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

Reading for the Common Good
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