Land Art . . . from page 1
Problematizing this position even more is Nancy Holt’s description of Lucin, Utah, the ghosttown where her Sun Tunnels is located.|1| She writes, "It is a very desolate area, but it is totally accessible, and it can be easily visited, making Sun Tunnels more accessible really than art in museums . . . A work like Sun Tunnels is always accessible . . . Eventually, as many people will see Sun Tunnels as would see many works in a city-in a museum anyway."2
Similarly, professors Chris Taylor and Bill Gilbert, who lead a study abroad called “Land Arts and the American West,” based out of Texas Tech University, emphasize the authentic land art object believing that, “Land art hinges on the primacy of first person experience and the realization that human-land relationships are rarely singular.” Of course, Sun Tunnels and Spiral Jetty can be seen in person and do actually exist, on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, or isolated and aloof in Utah’s west desert, made as much from rock, salt or cement as land and sky.
Art world tourism to Sun Tunnels is accessible as Holt claims. But it requires from its patrons a full day’s commitment of time, out in the vastness of the desert,|2| driving through the Bonneville Salt Flats; and even when equipped with the best of Google maps, you will feel disoriented, misdirected.|3| You turn around, stop, make u-turns, eat at grubby truck stop cafes and hear Jack Kerouac echoing and echoing in your head, “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
Visiting land art on location is a slow art experience. It displaces you from the urban, from the mass-produced, and from the Fordist factory-line methods of display. Trips to such sites allow you to experience Holt’s vision of the sublime conflation of sun- and starlight and cause you to imagine and romanticize the western desert as a blank, vast and empty canvas.
Such was the trip organized by the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and their contemporary art board, the Young Benefactors, on October 20th. The group included Holt herself, along with droves of Utah’s art world elite, who traveled out to the sculpture arriving just in time to see the picturesque sun reddening and then disappear through ocular cement passageways. There at the tunnels, littered with art fans, with Holt herself, the feeling emerged that we were doing something hauntingly ritualistic or, at the very least, symbolic.|4| Gathered, as we were, around her and around her tunnels.
Perhaps it was a feeling of celebratory melancholy for Holt, at a moment of historic importance that is more looking back than forward, or perhaps it was the reality of the location and the myth of the desert, as a silent and neutral location, but something had started to deconstruct. In fact, by being there, it became clear that the desert is not a blank canvas as had been imagined in textbooks—and well crafted museum exhibitions -- disjointed from location.
As Lucy Lippard reminds us, in her article Peripheral Vision, “Land art takes much of its power from the myths of the Old West, but its place in the New West is often ignored or ambiguous.” While at Sun Tunnels one can still see far and wide, much discussion was made on our trip regarding the proximity of the new settlement of off-the-gridders, who have homesteaded the land close to Sun Tunnels, along with their tire farm.|5| So, does the presence of emerging populations in Lucin disrupt the poetics of the work?
Myths aside, disruptions and evolutions are, and have always been, part of the desert landscape. Such entropic shifts in the land, and in the works themselves, are central to Land Art. So who is taking the helm at addressing this contemporary landscape, tire farms and all, as it exists outside of mythology? Well, Geffen Contemporary is investigating land art from the pristine walls of a Frank Gehry building. It is a start, but perhaps a different method altogether than what Lippard called for because it seems detached from the land, from the ever-changing place of “the New West.”
Enter Matthew Coolidge, Director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI),|6| a research organization “involved in exploring, examining, and understanding land and landscape issues.” CLUI, while represented publicly by Coolridge, is not a single entity or person. Rather, it is more like a place created for collaborative conversations from an ever-changing array of artists, environmentalists, writers, and geographers, to name a few, whose often multidisciplinary work focuses on researching & interpreting land and its many uses.
As Coolidge explained while we stood together talking in the middle of the Great Basin Desert, CLUI “examines the nature and extent of human interaction with the earth’s surface.” Such examinations certainly include Holt’s Sun Tunnels, but also include mundane subjects like swimming pools, power plants, waste-water treatment centers, bomb shelters, and tire farms. So CLUI researchers and artists look at all types of land, both product and byproduct and they don’t, according to Coolidge, ignore “things at the margins.”
While officially based in Culver City, California, CLUI has locations all over the United States, often in obscure, off-the-beaten-path places. A perfect stop on our Sun Tunnels pilgrimage, CLUI: Wendover is located on airport-leased land and includes an artist-in-residency program, studio space, dilapidated barracks, two exhibition halls, and the infamous Enola Gay hangar.|7| There, you'll encounter a public art radio tower that collects from local sources like the Burger King drive-in, regional police scanners, and Nevada casino feeds.|8| Behind the gallery stands a clapper-board garage that houses a bizarre looking four-person bicycle designed by the German artists collective The E-team.|9| Equipped with a GPS system and audio tour, the bike acts like a sightseeing outfit that informs its rider about the many splendors of the arid region. The current artist-in-residence, a photographer named Kathleen Schaffer, is using her time at CLUI to take pictures of the airport, photographing fly patterns. Regardless of the media, all of the works focus on the land surrounding CLUI: Wendover and each seeks to interpret the various ways it is used, by commerce, by industry, by government, and otherwise.
For CLUI, all land interventions reveal something about our national identity and function like the mundane but significant objects found in the Smithsonian. Coolidge explains this by saying, “in the museum of the American Land, the material artifacts are places and spaces, and they cannot be housed in a vitrine,” because the landscape is the context.
So in addition to having a spot in Wendover, CLUI locations have sprung up all over the United States. For instance, they have a trailer, or mobile exhibition hall, that is located near Lebanon, Kansas, the geographic center of the lower 48. There, in the middle of what looks like wheat fields, CLUI held a traveling exhibition called, “Centers of the USA” that explored the various types of centers in the United States (see here).|10|
Learning what Matt Coolidge calls the "language of land use on location" comes with “a deeper awareness of the relationship between humans and their environments.” CLUI:Culver City organizes bus tours of seemingly abject spaces, like Los Angeles landfills, in an effort to discover new ways of seeing the many uses of “terrestrial and geographic resources” and to more explicitly draw attention to the landscape of consumerism. Throughout it all, CLUI merges the boundaries between land art scholarship, land art projects, all the while emphasizing the actual location of Land Art.
Yet, much of what I personally know of CLUI’s projects, and even Sun Tunnels, outside of this singular mid-October trip to Wendover & Lucin, has come from books, Nato Thompson’s Experimental Geography, or through photographs seen in art magazines. I’ve heard about CLUI and Land Art in lectures given by Monty Paret or Analisa Coats Bacall, and read about their collective projects like happenings on the internet. In fact, many of these projects, like their land art predecessors indexed in Kwon and Kaiser’s exhibition, are designed to be mutli-sited, and have many components displaced from the land, including film, photographs, guidebooks, and web locations.
So, perhaps even the act of writing and photographing these experiences draws out the contradictions and complexities ever-present in Land Art. It’s both a singular place and an ever-transportable site. Now, more than ever, environments are both physical and abstract, institutionalized and isolated, seen and unseen. Yet, we who wander these landscapes continually in the digital age, do it with everything ahead of us, as is ever so.
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Tutored by the Land
Stephen Trimble and students go to Montana to learn from the land
Henry David Thoreau famously said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
The wilderness calls to the imagination, and for many people the outdoors is a refuge from the daily grind. In the West it’s easy to leave the bustle of city life and escape to the outdoors. One of the great pleasures of getting away is to breathe in the crisp fresh air and to absorb beautiful scenery. A 9 to 5 routine clutters a person’s head, but once outside the stillness of nature settles in the mind and people begin to ponder a question that many have asked before and continue to wonder: “What does the land have to teach me?”
In early September, local author and photographer Stephen Trimble pursued that question as he led a writing and photography workshop titled, “Tutored by the Land.”|1| Participants traveled to the University of Utah’s Environmental Humanities Education Center in Centennial Valley, Montana -- an ideal place, says workshop participant Laura Chukanov,|2| to escape and contemplate. “The purpose of going to this location is that it’s very serene. It’s a wildlife refuge and completely isolated from anything,” says Chukanov, the administrative program coordinator of the U’s Go Learn Program, which organized the trip. “It’s the perfect place to soak in nature.”
For five days, Trimble led the participants in a series of exercises to help them connect with the land and articulate that experience through writing and photography. One of the writing exercises was simply to take in what participants saw. “I asked them to simply sit and look around for a while, and just listen and absorb. Then I asked them to make a quick sketch, even if they weren’t an artist and do an inventory of their senses.” Trimble says. He asked them to think about what they heard and smelled in their environment. Then he told them to simply write whatever they felt in the moment.
“The other prompt that I thought was quite powerful, was I asked students to think of a photograph they had on their computer or phone but not look at it and write about it as they remember it, a photograph that was important to them in some way. And then after they’d done that for a little while, to pull out the photograph and write about what they saw in it that they hadn’t remembered,” Trimble says. And then the third step is to think about the photograph as somebody else’s, to step outside the photograph and address it from an outsider’s perspective, outside of their own life. That was a great writing prep that also combined people’s interest in photography.”
Then came the art of articulating their experience through a medium. “We can experience the land, wild places and nature, just for the pure joy of it and the relationship that we have with the land and the people we’re with in that place,” says Trimble. “And then we can try to articulate that joy, that emotional response in some creative way. That can be writing or photography, or drawing, or video, or audio, music, painting, any number of ways. My skills are writing and photography so that’s what I talked about but I really try to get people to pay attention and think about all those different kinds of ways they can respond and then how they can refine that response into something that’s worth sharing with other folks.”
Diane Bradford, who participated in the workshop, says Trimble’s exercises and teaching style created a collaborative work environment that fostered competence and confidence. Fellow participant Gerry Johnson echoes this sentiment and adds that the land itself helped create a collaborative work environment. The quiet and stillness allowed him to collect his thoughts and embrace the feedback of his peers. “Listening to others helped broaden my experience, we all look at things differently,” Johnson says. He added that for him and many others the land offered silence, “It allowed me to become aware of experiences, thoughts and feelings I don’t think I would have recognized. In a busy life, we don’t always see what’s there,” Johnson said.
For Bradford, the place allowed her to respond to the land and produce a work that she feels satisfied with. “I finally have photos that I would be proud to sign and put on display,” she says. Her piece “Sunset on Sheep Mountain” shows pink light filtering through a stormy sky, illuminating a granite peak.|3| It’s a look at the land as she saw it. Throughout the exhibit, all ten participants offer a unique perspective on the same place. Johnson captured playful clouds in his piece titled “Joy” |0| and caught a golden moment at dawn in his photograph “Morning has broken.”|4| Other people gravitated indoors. Jim Dowling |5| photographed an inviting chair next to a wood stove in one of the center’s restored cabins.|6| “Wood-Stove Still Life” is a reflection of what he gravitated toward at Centennial Valley.|7|
Tutored by the Land, the exhibit of works by workshop participants now up in Salt Lake, offers sweeping vistas, crumbling barns, and the open sky for which Montana is justly famous. The recurring theme throughout is the participants’ exploration of the natural, wild surroundings where they were “tutored by the land.” Each person walked away with different lessons, but ones that enriched their lives and enhanced their skills as photographers. To see their work at Artspace Commons is to get a glimpse of how they perceive the land and what they learned from it.
“I think relationship is the key word to describe the kind of work that we were trying to do at Centennial Valley. It has to do with a response to the land. And the kind of photography that has to do with capturing a little bit of the spirit of the place as perceived by people,” Trimble says.