Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels, 1976
Photo: Cecilia Alemani
Back To The Land (art)
Forty years after the legendary “Earth Works” show at New York’s Dwan Gallery that launched the Land Art movement, Cecilia Alemani explores some of the most famous works of Earth Art, on a 9000-km long road trip through remote deserts and valleys, on the trail of Robert Smithson, Donald Judd, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, Nancy Holt, James Turrell, and other eccentrics who withdrew to the borderlands of civilization to find a new solitude in the vast American Southwest.
August 5: New York - Marfa, Texas
The first stop is Marfa, the mecca of Minimalism. Back in 1974, when Donald Judd decided to buy up several properties here, this Texas town looked very different. Far off in a remote corner of northwest Texas that is squeezed between New Mexico and Mexico, Marfa is now a small town that combines a frontier feeling - hotels straight out of a black-and-white movie, cowboys sauntering through the dusty streets - with New-York-chic boutiques, dizzyingly expensive restaurants where you might run into Christopher Wool on any given evening, and art galleries worthy of Chelsea. Today, a building in Marfa can cost up to two and a half million dollars, a figure that the gruff Judd would never have dreamed of coughing up, since he came here to escape the chaotic lifestyle of New York and to find unlimited space for creating his ideal museum. Starting in the mid-Seventies, Judd spent about six months out of the year in Marfa, where he founded a true empire of Minimalism. Buying up private homes, a former supermarket, a bank, an entire military base with hangars and barracks and an unknown number of houses, Judd turned this Texas town into a destination worthy of a secular pilgrimage. Marfa has only one stoplight and two motels, but any passerby can point out Judd's house, and your waiter at dinner one evening might be your guide the next day on a tour of his aluminum cubes.
August 6: Chinati Foundation, Judd Foundation
Judd's legacy is now administered by two foundations, the Chinati Foundation - which Judd himself set up as a private museum for exhibiting his work and that of the artists he most admired, such as Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain - and the Judd Foundation, founded by Judd's heirs, after his death, to manage the houses, ranches, studios, and his enormous private collection. Judd left everything just as he wanted it: the artwork in silent dialogue with the vast spaces of Texas, the installations kept exactly as the artists left them, without captions or labels, like a temple where the work is the absolute focus, and viewers are almost reduced to a marginal, barely tolerated presence. The Chinati Foundation displays one of Judd's most famous projects, 100 untitled works in mill aluminum (1982-86), one hundred cubes that play with the light filtering in from the large windows. Installed in two military hangars, the sculptures have the same outer dimensions, while their inner layout is completely different, with intersections and variations that create spectacular changes in light and volume. The Chinati Foundation occupies a giant area that used to belong to a military base: the sheds, warehouses, and hangars have all been converted into simple, majestic spaces; the renovations and the design of even the simplest details, like doors and tables, were overseen by Judd. The foundation was also meant to run a residency program for artists, which is still in operation. The Chinati has many pieces by Carl Andre, Ilya Kabakov, Roni Horn, and John Wesley, showing that Judd's tastes weren't limited to Minimalism, but also embraced Pop Art and Conceptual influences. In the private homes administered by the Judd Foundation, we instead get a rare chance to admire Judd's much lesser-known proto-Minimalist work, dating back to the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, when the artist focused on abstract paintings made with textural marks and geometric extroflexions that foreshadowed some characteristic traits of the Minimalist aesthetic. One can also see Judd's vast collection of early 20thcentury furnishings, and visit one of the artist's many studios. Judd's house is an odd cross between a permanent exhibit and a giant loft, with sculptures scattered around the vast spaces, often cheek-by-jowl with domestic elements that interrupt the sacred feeling of the place. It seems that Judd suffered from insomnia and liked to rest during the day, so in every room, surrounded by his sculptures, is a bed - designed by the artist, of course. Judd led a 100% minimalist life: out in the yard is a jeep that Judd used in the ‘70s for exploring Texas and New Mexico. The back seats have been removed to house a series of steel compartments that seem to echo his aluminum boxes. /1
August 7: Ballroom and Prada Marfa
Judd isn't the sole ruler of Marfa. In recent years, the Texas town has come to house galleries and alternative spaces, like Ballroom, one of the most interesting non-profit venues. Founded in 2003, this summer it is presenting Hello Meth Lab in the Sun, a complex, maze-like installation that is a collaborative project by Jonah Freeman, Justin Lowe, and Alexandre Singh. Not far from Marfa, on the only road that links the little town to El Paso, one comes across Prada Marfa, a tongue-in-cheek site-specific monument by the duo of Elmgreen & Dragset: a bonafide boutique for the famous Milanese designer, which seems to have somehow sprouted in the middle of the Texas desert, and has become the regular target of potshots by local residents. /2
August 8: Lightning Field, New Mexico
Heading towards Albuquerque, along the Rio Grande and not far from Roswell, the "UFO town", we find the site where, Walter De Maria planted his gigantic Lightning Field in 1977, one of the best-known, best-preserved works of Land Art. It is a plot of land, one kilometer long and 1600 meters wide, where the artist has installed a grid of 400 stainless steel rods, evenly distanced and all six meters high. The visit involves a sort of initiation ritual: the artist asks that each spectator spend at least twenty-four hours with the work, and that only six visitors be admitted a day. TheDia Foundation, which owns the piece, handles bookings with an almost religious zeal. They recommend making a reservation at least six months before the planned date of your visit, which is organized like a kidnapping: you have to show up at a certain time in a designated place in the middle of the desert, where you leave your car and get in a jeep driven by a local rancher, who takes you down dirt roads to a sort of cabin where you are to spend the night, all for the modest sum of $250 per person - including a dreary pre-cooked burrito or meatloaf dinner. It would seem that the most spectacular time to see it is during a storm, when lightning strikes the rods, an event that is actually quite rare. But even during the day and at sunset, the visit has something mystical about it, with the rods reflecting light in a concert of chromatic reverberations. /3
August 9: Taliesin West and Arcosanti, Arizona
Solitude and isolation must be contagious diseases in the United States. The Southwest has also attracted certain renowned architects, who retreated to Arizona to perform some of their more extreme experiments. In 1937, near Phoenix, Frank Lloyd Wright began building Taliesin West, a winter home and openair university, while not far away, Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri dedicated his life to designing Arcosanti, an environmentally-sustainable community, based on the concept of arcology (a blend of architecture and ecology), that has now sadly fizzled into an ugly example of construction ideas for zonked-out hippies. /4
August 10: Roden Crater, Arizona
Moving on through northern Arizona in the direction of Utah, not far from Flagstaff, one comes across the Roden Crater, a work-in-progress by James Turrell. The site is not yet open to the public, although work began in 1974. After innumerable pleas and attempts at string-pulling, I give up only upon receiving an email from Turrell himself: "At the moment" - a moment that's lasted over thirty years - "it is not possible to visit the crater". And so I have to make do with reading articles about the piece and trying to glimpse its silhouette above the Arizona flatlands. Turrell has been working on it for decades, trying to turn a volcanic crater into an observatory where visitors can learn how to see the light of the sun and the stars as if they were visible for the very first time. A complex system of tunnels and rooms, resembling the structure of an Egyptian pyramid, branch off inside the crater, which is transformed into a giant camera obscura or an open-air theater of the spirit.
August 11: Spiral Jetty, Utah
In Utah, the landscape becomes rockier and more monotonous. I reach Salt Lake City, the capital on the shores of Salt Lake, an enormous expanse of salt water. As soon as I get out of town, the landscape becomes surreal: vast stretches of white, salt crystals veined with pink, a truly Martian aridity. My visit to the Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson's most famous piece, turns out to be, like the others, a rather extreme adventure. There's no lack of signs, in part because the site is now managed by the Dia Foundation, but the only way there is a rocky road that takes you down twenty-five kilometers of jolts, curses, and dented oil pans, in a deserted area on the north side of the lake that Smithson chose not so much for its natural characteristics, but rather, paradoxically, for its traces of industry, abandoned jetties and old oil wells. Like other works of Land Art, usually admired only in photos, the Spiral Jetty also looks much smaller than I had imagined. Built in 1970 with basalt rock taken from the site, Spiral Jetty stretches out nearly 450 meters, unwinding from the shore like a child's drawing in the sand, surrounded by a vast expanse of salt. Shortly after its construction, Spiral Jetty sunk below water level, becoming almost invisible for nearly thirty years. When it miraculously re-emerged around 2004, its surface was encrusted with salt crystals, the spiral tinted a dazzling white. Changes in the local climate, dry spells and sudden rises in water temperature are an important element in the Jetty's entropic process; they keep it alive and modify it ad infinitum, making it what may be the only work of art in the world that is meant to be transformed by geological rhythms. Today, Spiral Jetty looks mostly black, with small encrustations of salt along the edges. The lake around it seems like a pool of primordial liquid: the water, its colour ranging from white to pink to blood red, is inhabited by microscopic creatures, bacteria, and algae that give the landscape an almost sinister hue at times. Like all visits to works of Land Art, this one also takes place in utter solitude; there is really something sublime about walking across the salt flats, and the possibility of ending up lost and forgotten in this remote part of the world - where cell phones don't work - is very real. /5
August 12: Sun Tunnels, Utah
My visit to the Sun Tunnels by Nancy Holt - Robert Smithson's wife, and one of the few women artists to have eked out a place for herself among the cowboys of Land Art - is one of the most complicated endeavours. Located a few hours from Salt Lake City, the Sun Tunnels, which aren't well-known even among those in the field, can be reached with directions downloaded from the Internet, following satellite photos from Google Earth and obscure geographical coordinates that aren't much help to people like myself, armed with just a normal map. As is the case for many other earthworks, finding the Sun Tunnels is a matter of luck, patience, and tenacity. The nearest town, Montello, has a population of 189, and I don't dare ask for directions, in part because the map I downloaded from the Center for Land Use Interpretation says that the Sun Tunnels are over forty kilometers from the nearest paved road. The landscape is so flat that it seems like you can clearly perceive the curvature of the earth. Driving along dirt roads and past animal carcasses, I manage almost by chance to catch a glimpse of something on the horizon. It might just be a shack, but bit by bit the Sun Tunnels come into view: four cement tubes approximately three meters in diameter, laid out in an X shape, which during the summer and winter solstices seem to become perfectly aligned with the sun. Begun in 1973 and completed in 1976, the tubes are approximately six meters long; their surface is dotted with holes that correspond to the constellations of Draco, Pegasus, Columba, and Capricorn. In comparison with the Spiral Jetty, the Sun Tunnels seem more artificial, even industrial, and the landscape around them is less of a moonscape, although equally unreal - just a few steps away from the sculptures, I come across hundreds of bullet casings. One has the impression of being at a strange altar for astrological rites. The passage of time takes on a significance that is more liturgical than geological. /6
August 14: Double Negative, Nevada
I leave Utah and head west into Nevada, an enormous expanse of nothingness, interrupted by the two capitals of vice, Reno and Las Vegas. Equipped, as usual, with directions downloaded from pirate websites, I head towards a bleak mesa about an hour from Las Vegas. This time I'm looking for Michael Heizer's Double Negative, one of the simplest, craziest works of Land Art, a double trench carved into the ground with bulldozers and dynamite. The way there is obviously via dirt road, with dozens of forks in it. Without a compass, and following directions that only talk in terms of north, south, east and west, I navigate for at least an hour along the top of the plateau, following dirt tracks that literally take me to the end of the mesa. I park the car and proceed on foot, under the 43° C sun. Then suddenly, almost camouflaged among the bushes and scrub, a chasm opens up before me. Begun in 1969, and currently owned by the Los Angeles MOCA, Double Negative consists in two aligned rifts in the ground, straddling a canyon. These two ramps are respectively 230 and 100 meters long, nine meters wide, and slope fifteen meters into the canyon. Conceived as two negative forms, Double Negative was created by excavating about 240,000 metric tons of earth. At the time of construction, the edges of the trench were perfectly straight and uniform, while today they are more ragged and eroded, as if nature wanted to reclaim jurisdiction over this strange work of art. Double Negative also looks much smaller than I imagined. Heizer said that his works should never be too big, just big enough to get the idea across. Moreover, the appeal of Double Negative doesn't really lie in its dimensions, but more in the impression of having reached the end of the world, literally at the brink of an abyss. At the bottom, a stretch of green vegetation opens up in the valley below, and the rift takes on an almost Biblical dimension, as if the plateau had split open to protect this promised land. /7
August 15: Las Vegas - New York
Double Negative is the last stop on this journey; I don't dare try to visit City, another monumental project by Heizer that stands about 120 kilometers from here. Since 1972, Heizer has been building a giant city inspired by ancient Mesopotamia, what would appear to be the world's largest work of art. Heizer, who believes he is under government surveillance, will admit no visitors, and they say the artist takes potshots at anyone who tries to get too close. In an age of real-time hyper-accessibility, an era of art via jpg and millions spent over the phone, perhaps Heizer is not just defending his work, but the idea of a kind of art that still aspires to be mystery and magic - an idea as old as the mountains. /8