Category Archives: Land Art

Beverly Buchanan, Marsh Ruins (1981)

Beverly Buchanan (1940-2015)

This text originally appeared in ART PAPERS Fall/Winter 2020, Monumental Interventions, as part of a special dossier highlighting seven artists who have fought—and continue the fight—to transform their public spaces by uncovering suppressed histories, resisting oppression, and telling formerly silenced truths. 

Beverly Buchanan’s practice referenced southern vernacular architecture to interrogate relationships between Black people, history, and the landscape. In 1981 Buchanan (1940–2015) placed a triangular formation of three sculptural mounds on the edge of the tidal marsh in Brunswick, GA. Titled Marsh Ruins, the large amorphous forms were made by layering concrete and tabby—a concrete made from lime, water, sand, oyster shells, and ash—and then staining the forms brown. This grouping is the most referenced work in the series of sculptural markers Buchanan placed in Georgia to memorialize sites of Black presence. Buchanan often explored the concept of ruination to uncover the transformative powers of distress and destruction. These markers symbolically bear witness to the 1803 mass suicide of enslaved Igbo people who collectively drowned themselves off the coast of nearby St. Simons Island. Although their exodus was forced by the traumatic capture and abuse of their bodies, their act of defiance made them free. The work remains visible to the public, though it is not clearly marked and blends in with its natural surroundings.

Tabby was used throughout the American South to construct shacks and quarters for enslaved people. This material functions as a protective shield for Marsh Ruins. Buchanan’s use of tabby, rather than such enduring materials as marble or steel, gestures to the material historically employed to construct Black people’s homes, which she revered. Vulnerable to nature and unstable marsh ground, these forms were intended to be lost to erosion. Buchanan welcomed nature to shift, fragment, and disintegrate her sculptures, knowing that, like the body, they would one day be completely obscured or forgotten. Succumbing to the earth, the materials live on in new forms. Marsh Ruins rejects the representational form of conventional monuments and memorials to speak poetically through the languages of materiality and ephemerality.” (credit)

There is also a 96-page book on this artwork.

Lucia Monge, Plantón Móvil (2010-)

Lucia Monge (1983-)

“Lucia Monge started bringing people and plants together as Plantón Móvil in Lima, Peru. This is a participatory, walking forest performance that occurs annually and leads to the creation of public green areas.

“Plantón” is the word in Spanish for a sapling, a young tree that is ready to be planted into the ground. It is also the word for a sit-in. This project takes on both: the green to be planted and the peaceful protest. It is about giving plants and trees the opportunity to “walk” down the streets of a city that is also theirs. This walking forest performance culminates with the creation of a public green area.

Plantón Móvil started in 2010 while I was walking around Lima, my hometown, and noticing how many trees and plants had their leaves blackened with smog, were being treated as trash cans, or even used as bathrooms. I started to put myself in their place, and thought I would have left town a long time ago. Instead they are sort of forced to sit there and accept this abuse because of their planted “immobile” state. I wondered what it would be like to encounter a walking forest that had taken to the streets like any other group of people would do, demanding respect.

Plantón Móvil, however, is not a group of people carrying plants: at least for that time being we are the forest. I find it important to make this distinction because it changes the nature of the gesture. This is about lending our mobility to plants so that they can benefit from the speed and scale that draws people’s attention. In return; we may momentarily borrow some of their slowness. Essentially, it is about moving-with as a form of solidarity.” (credit)

Alan Michelson, Mantle (2018)

This work sits at Richmond’s Capitol Square Park in Virginia. The spiral shaped walking path honors the original inhabitants of the region, especially seventeenth-century Chief Powhatan (d. 1618) who united thirty-four Algonquian tribes. The site incorporates cast images of corn, squash, and bean plants around the edge of a reflecting pool, and is surrounded by groves of trees native to the area. The site requires active participation, unlike a statue on a plinth, thereby becoming a reflective activation of this space of reintroduced Native life and cultural memory.

— Michelson, Alan. “Mantle, 2018,” Alan Michelson. Accessed June 25, 2022: https://www.alanmichelson.com/mantle

Ana Mendieta, Silueta Series (1973-78)

“The “Siluetas” comprise more than 200 earth-body works that saw the artist burn, carve, and mold her silhouette into the landscapes of Iowa and Mexico. The sculptures made tangible Mendieta’s belief of the earth as goddess, rooted in Afro-Cuban Santería and the indigenous Taíno practices of her homeland. Exiled from Cuba at a young age, Mendieta said that she was “overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature).” Seeking a way to, in her words, “return to the maternal source,” she used her body to commune with sand, ice, and mud, among other natural media, as a way to “become one with the earth.”

Yet these works resist easy categorization in form or theme. The “Siluetas” are not self-portraits or performance pieces, except perhaps to the few who witnessed them. Each piece was subsumed by the earth, meaning photographs are the only remaining traces. Similarly, the thematic complexity of Mendieta’s life and these sculptures resist collapsing into neat categories of nation, diaspora, race, or gender. By using the body as both an image and medium, these aspects of identity are complicated. Mendieta’s earthworks occupy a liminal space between presence and absence, balancing the inevitable politicization of the self while searching for meaning in older, sacred traditions. …

The “Siluetas” were an ongoing, ritualistic relationship between Mendieta and the land. I read each work as a spell, a fragment of an ongoing incantation that was not “the final stage of a ritual but a way and a means of asserting my emotional ties with nature,” as Mendieta once said. She wanted to send “an image made out of smoke into the atmosphere,” so that each work was designed to disappear, to be reclaimed by the force she revered in an effort to come closer to it.” [credit]

“Spanning performance, sculpture, film, and drawing, Ana Mendieta‘s work revolves around the body, nature, and the spiritual connections between them. A Cuban exile, Mendieta came to the United States in 1961, leaving much of her family behind—a traumatic cultural separation that had a huge impact on her art. Her earliest performances, made while studying at the University of Iowa, involved manipulations to her body, often in violent contexts, such as restaged rape or murder scenes. In 1973 she began to visit pre-Columbian sites in Mexico to learn more about native Central American and Caribbean religions. During this time the natural landscape took on increasing importance in her work, invoking a spirit of renewal inspired by nature and the archetype of the feminine.

By fusing her interests in Afro-Cuban ritual and the pantheistic Santeria religion with contemporary practices such as earthworks, body art, and performance art, she maintained ties with her Cuban heritage. Her Silueta (Silhouette) series (begun in 1973) used a typology of abstracted feminine forms, through which she hoped to access an “omnipresent female force.”¹ Working in Iowa and Mexico, she carved and shaped her figure into the earth, with arms overhead to represent the merger of earth and sky; floating in water to symbolize the minimal space between land and sea; or with arms raised and legs together to signify a wandering soul. These bodily traces were fashioned from a variety of materials, including flowers, tree branches, moss, gunpowder, and fire, occasionally combined with animals’ hearts or handprints that she branded directly into the ground.By 1978 the Siluetas gave way to ancient goddess forms carved into rock, shaped from sand, or incised in clay beds. Mendieta created one group of these works, the Esculturas Rupestres or Rupestrian Sculptures, when she returned to Cuba in 1981. Working in naturally formed limestone grottos in a national park outside Havana where indigenous peoples once lived, she carved and painted abstract figures she named after goddesses from the Taíno and Ciboney cultures. Mendieta meant for these sculptures to be discovered by future visitors to the park, but with erosion and the area’s changing uses, many were ultimately destroyed. While several of these works have been rediscovered, for most viewers the Rupestrian Sculptures, like the Siluetas before them, live on through Mendieta’s films and photographs, haunting documents of the artist’s attempts to seek out, in her words, that “one universal energy which runs through everything: from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant, from plant to galaxy.”²

Nat Trotman

1. Ana Mendieta, quoted in Petra Barreras del Rio and John Perrault, Ana Mendieta: A Retrospective, exh. cat. (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1988), p. 10.

2. Ana Mendieta, “A Selection of Statements and Notes,” Sulfur (Ypsilanti, Mich.) no. 22 (1988), p. 70.” [credit]

Walter de Maria, Mile Long Drawing (1968)

“For “Mile Long Drawing” (1968), the artist chalked two parallel lines 12 feet apart for the length of a mile in the Mojave Desert in California. This was one of his first land art pieces which saw him transport his minimalist ideas from the gallery to the outdoors. Obviously, the markings didn’t last long as they were drawn with chalk, and so the temporary nature of the work draws attention to the passing of time and the idea is that change is constant.” [credit]

Walter De Maria, Las Vegas Piece (1969)

Walter De Maria (1935-2013)

“A large, simple etching on the earth, made with four shallow cuts from the six foot blade of bulldozer, two one mile long, two a half mile long, forming a square with half mile lines extending from it. Made in 1969 by the artist Walter de Maria, in a remote location north of Las Vegas, the piece was not maintained, and is only faintly visible today, to some.” [credit]

“The question is not whether you can visit Walter De Maria’s Leaving Las Vegas; the question is, does it still exist?
Already in 1972 when discussing the land art project with Paul Cummings, Walter de Maria seemed to emphasize the difficulty of actually experiencing Las Vegas Piece as part of the actual experience of Las Vegas Piece. He’d graded a mile-long square onto a barren desert valley north of the city, and you’d have little chance of even finding it, much less seeing it, much less seeing it all:

it takes you about 2 or 3 hours to drive out to the valley and there is nothing in this valley except a cattle corral somewhere in the back of the valley. Then it takes you 20 minutes to walk off the road to get to the sculpture, so some people have missed it, have lost it. Then, when you hit this sculpture which is a mile long line cut with a bulldozer, at that point you have a choice of walking either east or west. If you walk east you hit a dead end; if you walk west you hit another road, at another point, you hit another line and you actually have a choice.

And on and on for several hours, until your choices and backtracking end in some combination of experiencing the entire sculpture on the ground; declaring victory or defeat partway through; and dying of exposure in the desert because you can’t find your car.” [credit]

Patricia Johanson, Stephen Long (1968)

aerial photo of striped path

Patriciat Johanson (1940-)

“…functions almost like a piece of the landscape—continually reflecting the changes going on around it. 1600-feet long and painted red, yellow, and blue… at times the entire spectrum was visible due to optical mixing along the borders, and the painted colors were constantly in flux due to changes in the color of natural light. At sunset, for example, when red light was falling on the sculpture the blue stripe turned to violet, the yellow stripe to orange. Because the space-projection literally went beyond the field of vision, movement and aerial views also became particularly important.” – © Patricia Johanson, “A Selected Retrospective, 1969-1973”, Bennington College, Vermont, 1973 [credit]

“Inspired by the enormous canvases of the Abstract Expressionists, Johanson created huge sculptures such as Stephen Long (1968) which went beyond the field of vision and interacted with the environment. ” [credit]

a person standing next to a striped trail

Patricia Johanson and assistants assembled “STEPHEN LONG”
along an abandoned Boston and Maine railroad bed in Buskirk, New York, 1968. [credit]

Dennis Oppenheim, Ground Mutations – Shoe Prints (1969)

Ground Mutations – Shoe Prints, November 1969, printed 2013

Black-and-white and color photographs and text on two panels

“Shoes with 1/4” diagonal grooves down the soles and heels were worn for three winter months. I was connecting the patterns of thousands of individuals… my thoughts were filled with marching diagrams.”

Robert Smithson, The Monuments of Passaic (1967)

“Six photographs of unremarkable industrial landscapes in Passaic, New Jersey depict evidence of man-made history, yet the title of “monument” seems ironic. Stripped of any apparent artistic agenda, the images appear photojournalistic—without an accompanying news article to inform our perception. Smithson was perpetually intrigued by suburbia; in its sameness he saw a version of eternity defined by formal repetition rather than temporal longevity. By framing the mundane sites as “monuments,” Smithson challenges the conceptions of aesthetic merit and historical significance.  Monuments of Passaic exists as three manifestations: a published article in Artforum, a photowork, and a photographic series.” [credit]

Robert Smithson – A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic (PDF)

He drew further attention to site-specificity and the passage of time via his walk along the river and industrial sites.

Michael Belmore, Coalescence (2017)

“Michael Belmore’s Coalescence was conceived as a single sculpture in four parts, [as part of LandMarks2017/ Repères2017 invites people to creatively explore and deepen their connection to the land through a series of contemporary art projects in and around Canada’s National Parks and Historic Sites from June 10-25, 2017.]. Sixteen stones, ranging in weight from 300 to 1,200 pounds, are fitted together and inlaid with copper, then situated to frame the vast distance between the southernmost boundary of the Laurentide Ice Sheet near Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, to one of its points of drainage into Hudson Bay in Churchill, Manitoba.

stone with copper

Sites in Riding Mountain National Park and The Forks National Historic Site, both in Manitoba, punctuate the stones’ migration. Together, the four locations mark meeting points between water and land: ancient shorelines, trade routes and meeting places, sites of annual mass migrations of animals, as well as the forced displacement of peoples.

Belmore uses copper as a way to invest the stones with labour and value. The stones come against each other to create a perfect fit, while their concave surfaces move apart slightly to reveal the warm glow of copper to reflect light. Each crevice is filled with a fire that will be extinguished with age, turning brown, then black, and reaching a luminous green hue as it settles into the landscape. They are a marker of how everything comes from the ground and returns to it, and how these processes stretch far beyond human understanding of time.

Belmore has created a moment of connection between deep geological time of stone and the linear human time of labour. On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Confederation, this connection acts as a reminder of how the timelines of national celebration do not take into account the timelines of the land on which they take place. The stones were going to traverse a land familiar with rising and falling waters to reach their locations, but spring 2017 brought a record snowstorm and a spring melt that washed out the rail line that serves as the main transport artery between Churchill and southern Manitoba.

The political negotiations that followed have left the responsibility for its repair unresolved — part of the continued legacy of colonialism, the challenges of northern transportation and migration, and the importance of international trade routes that go back to Canada’s first trading posts. Belmore’s piece remains intact in Churchill, its splitting and migration halted by the processes that reach out from its conceptual core.” [credit]