Showing posts with label Robert Smithson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Smithson. Show all posts

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Walk

'I have to report that one fine morning, I do not know any more for sure what time it was, as the desire to take a walk came over me, I put my hat on my head, left my writing room, or room of phantoms, and ran down the stairs to hurry out into the street...'

On Tuesday the ICA screened All This Can Happen, a new adaptation of Robert Walser's story 'The Walk' (1917).  I went along wondering why a choreographer, Siobhan Davies, had been drawn to make this film (in collaboration with David Hinton), although perhaps Walser will always attract unusual collaborations - when the Quay Brothers filmed his Jakob von Gunten they were known as stop-motion animators. In fact, the initial intention, as Davies explained at the post-screening Q&A, was to explore everyday bodily movements, inspired initially by the  chronophotography of Étienne-Jules Marey. The split screen techniques used in All This Can Happen partly came about because they were experimenting with putting together forms of film made at such an early date that there was as yet no standard frame size.  Davies thought that a walk could provide a narrative spine and Hinton came upon Walser's story in a bookshop. The old footage they have used is, I think, remarkably effective at evoking the moods of hope and sadness in 'The Walk', as it moves between the 'phantoms' of Walser's imagination and the real life of the street.

I have found several excuses to write here about Walser (one of my favourite writers) by talking about his approach to landscape, remarking for example in 'The region appeared to be smiling' on his distinctive use of the pathetic fallacy.  The voice-over in All This Can Happen included a nice example of this from 'The Walk': "I came into a pine forest, through which coiled a smiling, serpentine, and at the same time roguishly graceful path, which I followed with pleasure."  But it was inevitable that a few enjoyable landscape vignettes in Walser's story didn't make the cut, such as the incident that leads him to this conclusion: 'painted landscape in the middle of real landscape is capricious, piquant. This nobody will contest.'  The walker had been looking at a cottage that 'abounded with wall paintings, or noble frescoes, which were divinely subtle and amusing and showed a Swiss alpine landscape in which stood, painted again, another house, to be accurate a Bernese mountain farmhouse.  Frankly the painting was not good at all.  It would be impudent to maintain that it was.  But, nonetheless, to me it seemed marvellous.  Plain and simple as it was, it enchanted me; as a matter of fact, any sort of painting enchants me, however foolish and clumsy it is, because every painting reminds me first of diligence and industry, and second of Holland.' 

I have embedded here the trailer for All This Can Happen, a sequence from the film in which the narrator enters a local tax office and explains to the inspector his philosophy of walking.  'A walk.' Walser writes, 'is always filled with with significant phenomena, which are valuable to see and to feel.  A pleasant walk most often teems with imageries and living poems, with enchantments and natural beauties, be they ever so small.'  These things are to be found by simply stepping out into the street; if 'The Walk' is not already a sacred text among psychogeographers it ought to be.  In his recent book The New English Landscape, Ken Worpole likens Walser's modest walk to Robert Smithson's tour of the 'Monuments of Passaic' (1967), which treats a post-industrial landscape as a sequence of 'enchantments'. Smithson, I now recall, ends his essay with an illustration of entropy, imagining a sandbox divided into two halves of black and white and a child running repeatedly in a circle over it, gradually turning the whole thing grey.  He imagines filming this child (like one of Marey's experiments in motion) in order to play the the sequence backwards and watch entropy reverse itself.  'But then sooner or later the film itself would crumble or get lost and enter the state of irreversibility.'

This film ends, like the story and its walk, with the narrator lying down by a lake and thinking sadly about the past.  'All this rich life,' he reflects, from family and friends to the 'dear gentle roads, must one day pass away and die.'  He looks at the flowers that he had gathered earlier in the forest and the fields.

'"Did I pick flowers to lay them upon my sorrow?" I asked myself, and the flowers fell out of my hand.  I had risen up, to go home, for it was late now, and everything was dark.'

Friday, September 20, 2013

A mythical whirlpool, coiling beneath the surface of the lake

Tacita Dean describes her latest film JG as an attempt to solve the mystery of Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, a challenge posed by J. G. Ballard in a letter he sent her not long before his death.  Having watched it today I can report that the mystery remains and the film deepens it.  As a work of landscape art it is rewarding enough: turquoise pools, salt encrusted shorelines, shifts in scale from a beetle on the sand to a distant train passing into the grey hills.  But the film's originality and its blurring of any specific sense of time and space are achieved through the application of Dean's 'aperture gate masking process'.  This is described at the Frith Street Gallery site as analogous to a form of stenciling, allowing 'her to use different shaped masks to expose and re-expose the negative within a single film frame. This requires running the unexposed film through the camera multiple times, giving each frame the capacity to traverse time and location in ways that parallel the effects of Ballard’s fiction and Smithson’s earthwork and film. Among the masks used in JG is one that references the template and sprocket holes of a strip of 35mm Ektachrome slide film. The accidental black of the unexposed outlines of the other masks—a range of abstract and organic forms that suggest mountain horizons, planets, pools, and Smithson’s Jetty, appear to be traced by hand' (Frith Street Gallery).

Anyone who felt slightly underwhelmed by Tacita Dean's installation at Tate Modern in 2011 (Film), which explored some of these techniques, will, I think, be much more impressed with how they have been used in JG.  In a short Guardian interview with Adrian Searle you can see, for example, at 1 min 44, one of the semi-abstract compositions created through this process: a panoramic saltscape overlayed with three circular images that may be close-ups of rock particles (it is hard to judge).  There is an indefinable strangeness to some of these sequences, as if a view is being overwritten with the after-image of some other place.  Sound is used to telling effect throughout the film, as you would expect from Tacita Dean's previous work.  Back in 1997 she approached Robert Smithson's submerged land art through a soundwork, Trying to find the Spiral Jetty (not so hard these days, as she says in that interview, now that there is a road sign pointing to it).  In JG you hear lapping water, buzzing flies and slide projector clicks, occasionally interrupted by words: "If only one could rewind this spiral it would play back to us a picture of all the landscapes it has ever seen."

The film's deserts, lakes and salt formations evoke the parched, drowned and crystalline worlds of Ballards fiction.  There are explicit references to 'The Voices of Time' (which Robert Smithson had read), in which a character constructs a giant mandala in the landscape. Re-reading this story just now, the correspondences with Spiral Jetty are obvious: 'He turned the car off the road along the track leading towards the target range.  On either side of the culvert the cliff faces boomed and echoed with vast impenetrable time fields, like enormous magnets.  As he finally emerged between them on to the flat surface of the lake it seemed to Powers that he could feel the separate identity of each sand-grain and salt crystal calling to him from the surrounding hills.  He parked his car beside the mandala and walked slowly towards the concrete rim curving away into the shadows.  Above him he could see the stars, a million cosmic voices that crowded the sky from one horizon to the next, a true canopy of time...'

Tacita Dean has written at the Pew Centre for Arts & Heritage that both Spiral Jetty and 'The Voices of Time' 'have an analog heart, not just because they were made or written when spooling and reeling were the means to record and transmit images and sound, but because their spiraling is analogous to time itself.  Ballard proposed that it was a clock that berthed at Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, which, he imagined, would have brought the gift of time to the Utah desert, whereas time is counting down inside the laboratories of his own fictional world. While Smithson’s jetty spiraled downward in the artist’s imagination through layers of sedimentation and prehistory, in ancient repetition of a mythical whirlpool, coiling beneath the surface of the lake to the origins of time in the core of the earth below, the mandala in 'The Voices of Time' is its virtual mirror, kaleidoscoping upwards into cosmic integration and the tail end of time.'

Friday, November 16, 2012

Ice welding land to sea

'Millenial bergs from the glaciers, morbid, silent except for waves breaking on their flanks, the deceiving sound of shoreline where there was no shore.  Foghorns, smothered gun reports on the coast.  Ice welding land to sea.  Frost smoke.  Clouds mottled by reflections of water holes in the plains of ice.  The glare of ice erasing dimension, distance, subjecting senses to mirage and illusion.  A rare place.'
This is Newfoundland, described in  Annie Proulx 's novel The Shipping News.  The book was partly inspired by The Ashley Book of Knots (1944), an eleven-year project by artist-writer-sailor Clifford Warren Ashley who dies shortly after completing it.  Chapter 29, for example, begins by quoting Ashley's description of the bite, 'a curve or arc in a rope no narrower than a semicircle.  This corresponds to the topographical meaning of the word, a bight being an indentation in a coast so wide that it may be sailed out of, on one tack, in any wind.'  In 'Big Skies, Empty Places', a New Yorker piece on her influences, Proulx talks about the 'specialised phrases and names that have come out of human work and travel through the landscapes.'  She has collected dictionaries of logging and maritime terms but regrets that they are 'nearly always sanitized', when they should be 'rich in graphic sexual imagery.'  Another very different influence is Robert Smithson: 'the map he makes out of a heap of broken glass, or his vanishing points that do not vanish, or his mirrors 'displaced' in the landscape.  He once photographed rocks in situ, then removed the rocks and photographed the holes in the ground - absent presence.'  She likens the role of women in rural communities to an absent presence, which is why they are rarely the main protagonists in her fiction.  And she says that when she writes, 'I try to make landscapes rise from the page, to appear in the camera lens of the reader's mind.  The reader is also an absent presence, but one that's leaning a sharp and influential elbow on my shoulder.'

Friday, June 22, 2012

Pine Barrens: Trees

In 1969 Robert Smithson was invited to exhibit in an ICA show, ‘When Attitudes Become Form’, and so he and Nancy Holt took the opportunity to come over and make their own kind of picturesque tour of England and Wales.  In an interview in Tate etc. magazine, Holt talks about their route, taking in Chesil Beach, Old Sarum, Pentre Ifan, Stone Henge and the Cerne Abbas Giant.  But 'besides the books on prehistoric monoliths in Europe and England that we had brought with us, Bob also had a book on Welsh mines. We visited many gravel pits and quarries, often quite out of the way. One place labelled Ash Hill on one of the slides is likely where Bob made a mirror piece called Untitled (Zig-Zag Mirror Displacement), probably on the outskirts of Tredegar. We found these abandoned, edge-of-the-world places intriguing; mines that had at one time railroad tracks and tunnels to transport rock. These structures are now overgrown and broken down. Bob and I both grew up in northern New Jersey, where you could find hidden quarries, forbidden places, scattered throughout the landscape. The coal mines in Wales were like that too. These socalled depressing, forgotten places that fall within the gaps of one’s consciousness are often described negatively. But if you look at them with a neutral eye, you start to see them differently; you begin to see a beauty in their entropic condition.'

Nancy Holt currently has a really nice exhibition of photo works at Haunch of Venison (five minutes' walk away from the Burtynsky show covered in my last post).  You can see in it two works made on her trip with Smithson: Wistman's Wood and Trail Markers.  I've mentioned Wistman's Wood here before - Smithson and Holt were stunned by it and Holt made her first Buried Poem piece there. She says in the interview, 'a site evokes a person, and I bury a poem for that person and later the person a booklet including maps, detailed directions and a list of equipment (such as a compass and shovel) in order to find it. To me, Wistman’s Wood conjured up Bob’s persona in a striking way…' Trail Markers is a set of photographs of Dartmoor rocks, each distinguished by an orange paint spot, used to identify a route across the moor.  As I looked at these I felt a strange sense of recognition, perhaps recalling other trails like this from childhood holidays in the seventies: was this how most such trails were marked out before the spread of wooden sign posts?  Holt says 'I hadn’t seen markers like these before. I didn’t know if they were unique to this place or not, but in any case they lent themselves to my project.'

The exhibition includes other works derived from the trips Holt and Smithson made together: Ruin View (1969), for example, showing the Temple of the Sun at Palenque (Smithson used photographs of the dilapidated Hotel Palenque to illustrate his notion of a 'ruin in reverse').  Her best known work, Sun Tunnels, is represented by photographs of light and shadow, taken at half hour intervals one summer's day in 1976.  These are hung near a very different work about sunlight - California Sun Signs (1972) - eighteen colour shots of garish signs in which the sun is word or symbol signifying some kind of retail opportunity.  The same year, at the other end of the country, she made View Through a Sand Dune, inserting a piece of pipe into the sand of Narragansett Beach, Rhode Island, and photographing the sea through it.  The circular view created by this pipe-frame has a curious distancing effect, like a seascape seen through an old stereoscope.  After seeing this I promised myself I would pack a bit of piping with the bucket and spades next time we head for the seaside... 

Not everything in the exhibition relates to landscape (there is, for example, a beautiful series of Light and Shadow Photo-Drawings), but I'd like to end this post by mentioning Pine Barrens: Trees (1975), a seven by four grid of video stills showing solitary stunted pine trees in a wilderness area of New Jersey.  In the original film local people can be heard describing the area and its local myths, but here the images are stark and silent, their transfer from the original 16mm film giving them a slightly blurred quality that reminded me of Chinese ink paintings.  In her Tate etc. interview Nancy Holt traces the origin of this piece to that 1969 trip with Robert Smithson.  'Looking back, I feel that the Pine Barrens film may have been seeded in our visit to Wistman’s Wood. Walking on that Dartmoor trail was a pivotal experience. Not long before our visit there, we had seen Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill. It all works on the psyche.'

Friday, May 13, 2011

Beyond Twelve Nautical Miles

Two photographs in magazines I’ve been reading this month caught my eye.  The first, from Tate etc. (Summer 2011) is Magritte’s Les Idées Claires (1955), an image chosen by Jeff Koons (who likens the boulder floating over the sea to one of his basketballs in water).  The second, from The Wire (May 2011) is Herbert Distel’s Projekt Canaris (1970), showing a three metre long polyester egg which the artist launched from the coast of West Africa.  A similar piece is referred to in David Clarke’s recent book Water and Art – in Beyond Twelve Nautical Miles (2000) Zhan Wang set one of his stainless steel rocks adrift at sea near Lingshan Island.   And I have written here before about David Nash’s Wooden Boulder, which began as a sculpture in the landscape but after describing the course of a river ended up as another of these art boulders, set free on the sea.  As far as I know the current location of Wooden Boulder remains a mystery.  Distel’s egg  was driven by trade winds across the Atlantic and reached Trinidad seven months later.

I wonder why there hasn’t been more ‘sea art’, floating equivalents to the famous land art projects of the American West?  Tacita Dean may have had trouble ‘Trying to Find Spiral Jetty (1997) but tracking down a sculpture in an ocean could have been even more interesting.  Herbert Distel sought help from the Cuban authorities in locating his egg after it sailed beyond the Canary Islands and was thought to be heading into the Caribbean.  It was eventually spotted by the captain of a Dutch ship who sent a telegram: ‘Egg seen on 6 December 1970 gmt 17.50, about 100 km east off the island of Trinidad.’ Of course I’m not really advocating that we litter the sea with permanent floating art works.  Instead sea artists might take inspiration from Buster Simpson, who has an ongoing project to drop disks of limestone into the Hudson River: rocks that will gradually dissolve and counteract the effects of acid rain.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reflected landscapes

Zora Palova, Virtual Reality, 1999

I took the photograph above at Goodwood Sculpture park a few years ago. The Cass Sculpture Foundation website describes Palova's sculpture thus: 'These five double-sided mirrors rotate around central pivots within their frames. They move in response to the wind or by being pushed or brushed against. The reflections render the form almost invisible when static, but in effect Palova has cut out sections of nature and framed them precisely. The framework remains the same but the pictures change almost continually.'

Anish Kapoor, C-Curve, 2009

I was reminded of Palova's work when shown a picture of Anish Kapoor's mirror, C-Curve, installed on the South Downs for the Brighton Festival. A relative of mine has noticed the similarity of this piece to optical display mirrors used on flight simulators and expressed concern in an email that "a huge amount of power can be concentrated at the focal point of the mirror – e.g. enough to boil a kettle full of water within seconds!" There don't seem to have been any singed spectators, but I see from the Evening Argus that the mirror itself was cracked by high winds.

This is not the first mirror sculpture Anish Kapoor has installed - his Cloud Gate for example reflects the urban landscape of Chicago. And artist-installed mirrors in the landscape go back at least as far as Robert Smithson's Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1-9) (1969). Here are some other recent examples:
  • Michel de Broin's Superficial (2004): 'Upon invitation to reflect on the notion of transparency, that led me into the forest to envelop the contour of a large stone with fragments of mirror. The large stone, tucked away deep in the woods, became a reflective surface for its surroundings. In this play of splintered radiance, the rock disappears in its reflections. Because it reflects one cannot be mislead by its presence, yet we cannot seize it, rather it is the rock that reflects us.'
  • Julia Davis's Meniscii (2008): 'Sydney artist Julia Davis' Meniscii is so uncomplicated that its materials are listed as "mirror, sky, landscape". ... The work was intended to float on a lake in the gardens, but the biting drought caused the lake to recede and necessitated moving the Meniscii on to dry ground. "Water restrictions have gone up," Davis recalled being told in a January telephone call from the organisers. "You're going to have to re-think your work."'
  • Steve Messam's Drop (2008): 'Drop will be moving about the Lake District, taking up residence at some of the "viewing stations" nominated by Thomas West in his 1778 book "Guide to the Lakes". Drop will act like another 18th Century device when inflated, the "Claude Glass" a small shaped mirror that early tourists would use to view the beauty of the Lakes through! But unlike the Claude Glass, which was held at arms length, this modern version can be touched and flexed allowing people to create their own reflected landscapes.'

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A crater formed by a one-ton bomb, or an acre of bluebonnets

Visiting somewhere like Orsanmichele in Florence, we are grateful for the opportunity to see the combined talents of artists like Donatello, Nanni de Banco and Ghiberti, who were each commissioned to provide sculptures for the site. Land art nearly had a special place of this kind: the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. If things had gone differently in 1966-7, the airport could now have had pioneering Earthworks by Robert Smithson, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt and Robert Morris. Here’s how Robert Smithson described the project at the time:

‘The object of this proposal is to “program” the landscape and define the limits of the air terminal site in a new way. Such a project would set a precedent and create an original approach to the esthetics of airport landscaping. All these works will be close to ground level (the highest being 3 feet). Robert Smithson and Robert Morris will build forms that will be visible to aircraft as they take off and land. Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre will provide works that will deal with the “sub-site,” and exist as underground landmarks.’

The story of the airport project is told in Suzaan Boettger’s book Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties. Walther Prokosch, an architect with the Manhattan firm T.A.M.S., had heard Smithson give a talk in June 1966, in which he described the city as a “crystalline network”, an idea similar to the modular design being developed for the airport by T.A.M.S. Smithson was taken on as a consultant and began thinking about the kind of sculpture necessary for an airport. First there could be ‘aerial art’ – large, flat, low lying works placed between the runways and building and visible from the air. Second, there were works inside the terminal but linked to the sites outside – these interior works were ‘non-sites’. Smithson’s proposals include Aerial Map – Proposal for Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Airport (1967), an obvious pre-cursor to Spiral Jetty. In June 1967 he published ‘Towards the Development of an Air Terminal Site’ in Artforum, but that same month funding for Smithson via T.A.M.S. from the airport board ceased and the project never came to fruition.

For his contribution, Robert Morris created a Model and Cross-Section for Project in Earth and Sod (1966). It is a neat, minimal elevated disk, depicting an outdoor sculpture which clearly pre-figures later Earthworks, although not the work pursued in the late sixties by Morris himself, like the pile of soil and industrial detritus made for the EARTH WORKS show two years later.

Carl Andre’s proposal was a crater 12 inches deep and 144 inches in diameter, created by an explosive charge ‘detonated by the sculptor, Carl Andre.’ Smithson published the proposal (with echoes of Vietnam and flower power) as: ‘A crater formed by a one-ton bomb dropped from 10,000 feet, or, An acre of bluebonnets (state flower of Texas)’.

Sol LeWitt proposed to Smithson a kind of anti-monument: ‘encase a six-inch wooden cube containing something in an eighteen inch cement cube and bury it someplace on The Tract. The precise spot would not be designated...’ There is some irony to this given the monumental scale of later Earthworks and the increasing importance of land art sites for cultural tourism. The airport lost its chance to host this early work by Sol LeWitt, but it naturally now has a public art programme, including a piece by LeWitt.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Here's an extract from the interview Robert Smithson gave to Paul Cummings in 1972:

"CUMMINGS: Would you like to say something about your visit with William Carlos Williams?
SMITHSON: Yes. Well, this took place I think in either 1958 or 1959. William Carlos Williams was going to do an Introduction for Irving Layton's book of poems. So I went out to Rutherford with Irving Layton... He talked a lot about Allen Ginsberg coming out at all hours of the night, and having to spring poets out there. Allen Ginsberg comes from Paterson, New Jersey. I guess the Paterson area is where I had a lot of my contact with quarries and I think that is somewhat embedded in my psyche. As a kid I used to go and prowl around all those quarries. And of course, they figured strongly in Paterson. When I read the poems I was interested in that, especially this one part of Paterson where it showed all the strata levels under Paterson. Sort of proto-conceptual art, you might say. Later on I wrote an article for Artforum on Passaic which is a city on the Passaic River south of Paterson. In a way I think it reflects that whole area. Williams did have a sense of that kind of New Jersey landscape."

The strata levels section Smithson is referring to comes towards the end of Paterson Book Three (1949). Williams included an extract from William Nelson's History of the City of Paterson which lists the materials found at various depths when an artesian well was bored at the Passaic Rolling Mill, Paterson. At an initial depth of 65 feet there was "Red sandstone, fine". Then we encounter mostly shale and sandstone at other depths until we reach 2,100 feet down: "Shaly sandstone". The most interesting part of this vertical, one-dimensional landscape seems to occur around 1,170-1,370 feet, with some selenite, pyrites and quicksand. Williams also quoted the conclusion that beyond 2,100 feet there was no point in further digging as water would be unfit for use. This text is juxtaposed in Paterson with extracts from a letter by Ezra Pound exhorting Williams to do more reading, e.g. Golding's Ovid and "all the Gk tragedies" (Pound's canon of good writing as literary historical strata to dig down into...)

Paterson covers many subjects - art, poetry, love, religion, economics... However it starts in the New Jersey landscape: an image of the city lying like a man with his head near the Paterson Falls. Williams quotes his dictum, no ideas but in things, and then describes the view: 'From above, higher than the spires, higher / even than the office towers, from the oozy fields / abandoned to grey beds of dead grass, / black sumac, withered weed-stalks, / mud and thickets cluttered with dead leaves - / the river comes pouring in above the city / and crashes from the edge of the gorge / in a recoil of spray and rainbow mists...' You can hear Williams read these lines here.

In another 1972 interview, with Gianni Pettena, Robert Smithson said "I like landscapes that suggest prehistory. As an artist it is sort of interesting to take on the persona of a geologic agent where man actually becomes part of that process rather than overcoming it - rather than overcoming the natural processes of challenging the situation. you just go along with it, and there can be a kind of building that takes place this way. I did an article once, on Passaic, New jersey, a kind of rotting industrial town where they were building a highway along the river. It was somewhat devastated. In a way, this article I wrote on Passaic could be conceived as a kind of appendix to William Carlos Williams' poem Paterson. It comes out of that kind of New Jersey ambience where everything is chewed up. New Jersey like a kind of destroyed California, a derelict California."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Spiral Jetty under threat

I feel a bit bad for not writing before now about the threat to Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty. As the New York Times put it, 'a Canadian company’s plan to begin oil-drilling from a pair of barges near Rozel Point, on the edge of the lake... is not much different from drilling through the heart of Smithson’s earth sculpture.' DIA Foundation Director Jeffrey Weiss has said 'The expansive natural setting is integral to Smithson's artwork, providing an essential frame for experiencing the Spiral Jetty. Any incursion on the open landscape, including the proposed drilling, would significantly compromise this important work of art.'

The public comment period for the drilling application ended on February 13, so I guess we're now just waiting for the verdict. Living in a country where public sculpture is all the rage it seems improbable that the State of Utah would let this happen, but who knows? I was wondering where the best place is to keep up to date on this story. The DIA foundation site for Spiral Jetty says they'll post news. There's also a French site which is posting regular reports.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Dead Sea

Last night some friends were showing me photographs of Bonneville Salt Flats. I immediately dredged from childhood memory the name of Gary Gabelich, who set the land speed record there in 1970. Bonneville was in fact the site for all the land speed records from 1935 (Malcolm Campbell) to 1970: most of the earlier record breaking attempts took place on beaches like Daytona Beach (which has always sounded highly glamorous to me) and Pendine Sands in Wales (which doesn't). The most recent records have been set in Black Rock desert, which may look less spectacular than Bonneville, but which is still a fairly extreme landscape. Water speed records have also taken place in spectacular places of maximum flatness: Malcolm Campbell, for example, sped across the Romantic settings of Lake Maggiore (1937) and Coniston Water (1939).

The Bonneville photographs also reminded me of a trip I once made to the Dead Sea where I convinced our host to keep driving and driving in the hope of finding some spectacular salt landforms (no luck). I had in mind the kind of thing Michel Tournier describes towards the end of his novel Four Wise Men (1982): 'the blue surface of the water was sprinkled with white dots... they were great mushrooms of white salt, rooted in the bottom and emerging at the top like reefs.' Tournier goes on to tell of elephants spraying each other with the salt water and inadvertently crystallising themselves (the kind of thing that makes you question where, in a landscape like The Dead Sea, realism ends and magical realism begins). Salt's tendency to encrust and transform has always lent itself to metaphor (Stendhal's description of love, for example). The transformation of Lot's wife in the Bible seems like a story straight out of Ovid's Metamorphoses, except that the mention is all too brief: "But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt."

Geological formation overlooking the Dead Sea, called Lot's Wife (from Wikimedia Commons)

The growth of salt deposits has continued to affect the appearance of Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty. Smithson chose to work at the Great Salk Lake partly for the blood-red colour of the water. However, it wasn't his first artwork based on a salt landscape: Mono Lake Nonsite (Cinders Near Black Point) brought some rocks collected at "The Dead Sea of the West" into the gallery. There is a film of the 1968 trip Smithson made to the lake with Nancy Holt and Michael Heizer, described by Lennie Bennett here as "guileless and optimistic, a self-portrait of three young artists on the brink of fame, scrambling around the ancient landscape with voiceovers by Smithson and Heizer reading passages from books about the lake. Smithson picks up handfuls of rocks that he later incorporated into an installation, along with his famous mirrors. At the end, they set fire to a map of the area; Smithson also used the cinders as part of that installation."

In one of his conversations with Denis Wheeler, Smithson talked about Mono Lake and pointed Wheeler to Mark Twain's Roughing It (1872). There Twain says "This solemn, silent, sailless sea—this lonely tenant of the loneliest spot on earth—is little graced with the picturesque. It is an unpretending expanse of grayish water, about a hundred miles in circumference, with two islands in its centre, mere upheavals of rent and scorched and blistered lava, snowed over with gray banks and drifts of pumice stone and ashes, the winding sheet of the dead volcano, whose vast crater the lake has seized upon and occupied." But Twain does find something of the picturesque in the some landforms that recall Tournier's description of the Dead Sea: "all around its shores stand picturesque turret-looking masses and clusters of a whitish, coarse-grained rock that resembles inferior mortar dried hard; and if one breaks off fragments of this rock he will find perfectly shaped and thoroughly petrified gulls' eggs deeply imbedded in the mass. How did they get there? I simply state the fact—for it is a fact—and leave the geological reader to crack the nut at his leisure and solve the problem after his own fashion."

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Spiral Jetty

The Guardian has started an artsblog with a list of 20 artworks "to see before you die". It includes two landscape paintings - Vermeer's View of Delft (c.1660-61) (for which you need to visit the Mauritshuis in The Hague) and Cézanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire from Les Lauves (1904 - 6) (entailing a trip to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow). The choice of Vermeer reminds me of Proust's character Bergotte who makes the effort to see the View of Delft before he dies, and then dies looking at the painting. I think if I had to contribute to global warming with twenty flights to see landscape art I'd be tempted to visit more site specific works: gardens and landscape architecture, landscape-themed furnishings and frescos, environmental and land art.

Following the recent Robert Smithson retrospective in New York and the re-emergence of Spiral Jetty, there seems to be an ever growing number of people making the pilgrimage to Rozel Point. A quick search reveals several recent accounts of journeys: Jerry Saltz, Contemporary-Pulitzer, Mike Owens... I can imagine going all the way to Utah and finding the place full of land art Grand Tourists (next stop De Maria's Lightning Field). Already the trip Tacita Dean made in Trying to Find Spiral Jetty (1997) seems to belong to another age. In the artsblog Jonathan Jones says "I think a work of art worth travelling to see has to be a really great statement about serious things. Something not just to fill your life but deepen it." Perhaps Spiral Jetty doesn't really fulfil these criteria, but I wouldn't really know as I've not yet seen it...

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

View of Notre Dame

Back in 1999 Art News did a list of the ’25 Most Influential Artists’ of the twentieth century. These were: Beuys, Bourgeois, Brancusi, Dali, Duchamp, De Kooning, Judd, Kandinsky, Le Corbusier, Malevich, Man Ray, Matisse, Mies Van Der Rohe, Mondrian, Nauman, Monet, Paik, Picasso, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Sherman, Smithson, Stieglitz, Warhol and Frank Lloyd Wright. It seems a reasonable list to me, although worth bearing in mind perhaps that Louise Bourgeois was much talked about when the list was compiled. It is possible to find some connection to landscape in any of these artists, but here are a few specific links mentioned in the Art News article:

  • Henri Matisse’s View of Notre Dame (1914) was a source for some of Robert Motherwell’s Open series. Matisse was also an inspiration for Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series.
  • Similarly, Claude Monet’s landscapes and water lilies led towards semi-abstract and abstract paintings, although his Water Lilies can also be seen as precursors of the sensory spaces created by artists like Walter De Maria and James Turrell.
  • Constantin Brancusi’s minimalist sculptures and his monuments at Târgu Jiu prefigure more recent art in the landscape, like Carl Andre’s Secant installation and the lines walked by Richard Long.
  • Clearly Frank Lloyd Wright has influenced landscape architecture, for example the environmentally sensitive designs of William McDonough.
  • Finally, Robert Smithson’s multi-facetted work leads to and from landscape in various ways. Projects by Mel Chin (Revival Field), Mierle Ukeles (Flow City) and Michael Singer and Linnea Glatt (Phoenix Solid Waste Management Facility) all relate back to Smithson’s proposals for an art of land reclamation.