Some art installations can’t fit inside any gallery. Some artists think on such a large scale that they could never buy the amount of materials needed to put it on canvas.
These artists turn to the land itself, turning acres and acres of landscape into a gallery.
The land art movement in its current iteration started in the 1960s-70s, but humanity has been creating art on a large scale for very long time. Everyone’s heard of Stonehenge, the Easter Island sculptures, and the Nasca Lines in Peru (which are too large to truly see except from far above, making them even more amazing because they must have been created before airplanes were invented).
Nasca Lines, Peru. Source: Bates Littlehales, via National Geographic
Land art installations were numerous from the 60s onwards. Some from the early parts of the movement are still in their original state, slowly eroding. The idea of land art continues in popularity, and artists install new works every year. Many are situated in deserts, because it’s the best place to find an awful lot of land that isn’t developed. One notable modern land artist was Robert Smithson. Smithson’s most famous work is arguably his Spiral Jetty, a spiraling path of rocks in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. It measures 1500 feet long, and the path is 15 feet wide. An estimated 6000 tons of rock and mud were used to build it, and were put in place by front-end loaders. The work was made in 1970, and soon was covered with water. Spiral Jetty was built during a drought, and only re-emerges during droughts. This changeable nature and the realization that the art piece may not stay there or stay the same forever is a key concept of land art. These artists changed the landscape and often documented it right after, realizing that eventually the dirt would erode or the sand would blow away or the art would be disturbed. They accepted this and often didn’t let their pieces be “repaired” once they began to deteriorate.
Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, photo from James Cohan gallery
The Lightning Field, Walter de Maria. Photo from Atlas Obscura.
The Lightning Field is an art installation on the high desert plain of New Mexico. It consists of 400 20-foot stainless steel poles arrayed evenly over a flat plain 1 kilometer wide and 1 mile long. The poles attract lightning during storms and reflect the golden light of sunrise and sunset. The poles have flat tops that are all the same height despite the slight rolling hills of the landscape, and the tops form a horizontal plane. The sculpture is meant to be walked through and people can visit it, staying in a cabin nearby for a night so that they can spend as much time as they want in the Lightning Field. The poles get scorched every time they are hit by lightning so occasionally some of them have to be replaced, though the earth around them is left in its scorched state. The exact location of the work is kept secret. Visitors can go to Quemado, a town nearby, and obtain transportation from the caretakers of the work to actually go see the sculpture.
Sahara Circle by Richard Long. Photo from the Tate collection, tate.org.uk
Richard Long was another influential land artist. His contribution to the land art movement started focusing on the temporary marks humans make on their environment by walking. Then, he moved on to works like Sahara Circle, which temporarily change their environments using materials found in the environment. These works are both intrinsically human and intrinsically strange: you could imagine this circle of rocks being created by anyone from an ancient society to an alien ship that landed in the desert.
View of one of Noah Purifoy’s works, photo by corrinealexandra (Atlas Obscura).
Noah Purifoy’s ranch is covered in strange pieces of art in various stages of decay. And it’s meant to be like that. The pieces are mostly made of found objects or built of wood and metal. Purifoy started adding to his museum in the ‘90s and continued until 2004. His art is less land art than it is sculptures that form an outdoor museum, but it’s based on many of the same principles of putting art in the desert and allowing the natural processes of decay to occur. Purifoy will not allow his works to be “maintained.” The 7 acre museum is located in Joshua Tree, California.
Desert Breath, seen from above. Photo from Danae Stratou.
In the middle of the Sahara desert is Desert Breath, a 1997 art piece consisting of a two-armed spiral, one arm a row of holes in the sand and the other are a row of conical sand forms. The piece is too large to fully see from the ground. The piles of sand start at two meters tall and get smaller as they go toward the center. Danae Stratou, the main artist behind the project, made the piece to symbolize infinity and the power of the desert and the sea. Since then, 20 years have passed and the water in the center of Desert Breath has evaporated. The sand is returning to levelness, but the spiral can still be seen. The piece is returning to the sand. It was never intended to be permanent, because as hard as we try, nothing is permanent.
Wheatfield: A Confrontation, seen from above. Photo from Agnes Denes via artsy.net
Agnes Denes is an influential concept artist. One of her best-known works is Wheatfield: A Confrontation (1982), a project where the artist acquired a lot in a landfill in lower Manhattan and, over the course of months, transformed it into a two-acre wheatfield. Four months later, she harvested the wheat and it travelled in the “International Art Show For The End Of World Hunger.” Denes planted the earthwork to call people’s attention to how we use the land around us, and what the potential of said land is. The land she used was written off as a place to dump trash, and after a few months she made it produce over 1000 pounds of grain.
Southern Cross by Lita Albuquerque, photo by Jean de Pomereu via artsy.net
Lita Albuquerque’s works focus on drawing the connection between earth and sky, and making viewers realize their size in contrast to the size of the universe. Her early projects were composed of pigments in the desert, representing stars. This piece, Southern Cross from Stellar Axis: Antarctica, Ross Ice Shelf (2006), also represents the stars. It’s a series of 99 fabricated blue orbs on the Ross Ice Shelf that correspond in size and placement to the brightness and location of stars. As the seasons changed, this piece stopped correlating with the patterns of stars as the stars moved. Southern Cross was the first artwork ever installed on Antarctica, and like many of Albuquerque’s works it draws the viewer’s eyes and mind to the sky and past it to the stars. Its placement in Antarctica admittedly puts a damper on visitor numbers, but because it has been documented online anyone can experience it without making a trip to Antarctica.
“Throne Room” at Dibbles Quarry. Photo by Michelle Enemark, Atlas Obscura.
Dibbles Quarry was a source of bluestone and operated until the late 1800s. At some point after that, wanderers came across the quarry and used loose stone to build large thrones, fireplaces, benches, and part of a staircase. This place isn’t easily classified as the work of a single artist, but that’s part of its intrigue. The unknown origin of the chairs and the way they meld into the landscape, recalling humans and at the same time barely needing humans to exist, is land art at its finest. These mysterious chairs are wonderful, magical, and apparently quite comfortable.
Seven Magic Mountains, Ugo Rondinone. Photo source: sevenmagicmountains.com
Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains rise out of the desert ten miles outside Las Vegas, up to 30 feet tall and colored in blinding neon. This piece opened May 11, 2016, and will be in place until 2018. It doesn’t exactly fit with the theme of the land art movement of the 70s; instead of fitting with the landscape and making people consider their places in nature, this piece stands out and recalls human innovation in the desert. However, in scale and location, Seven Magic Mountains is definitely land art. Its beauty yells in neon, in direct contrast to the older land art pieces that calmly whisper in earth tones. It’s a product of the bright, loud time we live in. The sculpture echoes Las Vegas ten miles away: a bright and optimistic sculpture put in the middle of a desert by people who just want to have an impact on the world.
Cornelia Konrads’ Passage (2015) Photo from inhabitat.com
Usually, we think of doors as going from one enclosed space to another, or from an enclosed space to the outdoors. Cornelia Konrads’ Passage (2015) is a doorway in the middle of the woods, causing the viewer to question where they’re coming from and where they’re going. The sudden, surreal appearance of a doorway in the woods makes you stop and wonder for a minute. Many of Konrads’ works involve the illusion of floating objects, often suspended on wires or rods that are not immediately apparent to the viewer. These works make the viewer pay attention to their surroundings, fitting into the environment and yet entirely unexpected.
Land art as a movement came as a result of artists thinking deeply about the environment and their place in it, and it will continue as long as artists pay attention to our place in the universe. As long as there are artists who prefer to work in large, site-specific, outside installations, land art will continue in some form. It will continue to puzzle, amaze, and surprise everyone who comes across it. Readers are encouraged to look up these artists and others if they’re interested, as this article is only a small sampling, and there are many more great land artists and installations out there. If you’re ambitious, you could even try to make some land art of your own.