Getting strange with land art


“I really like parts of it,” my editor wrote in response to a video I made about my travels to a few pieces of iconic Western land art, “and then other parts do feel a little too weird.” To the uninitiated this doesn’t sound so bad, but anyone familiar with editor-speak knows what it really says: “We won’t be held responsible for the melancholic drinking binge you’re about to go on and, by the way, this thing’s unsalvageable.”

Did it hurt? Yeah, it hurt. Said editor, however, made a bit of a mistake in hopes of saving a shred of my ego: She allowed me to put the video here, to serve as a sort of parasite on the Goat blog. Watch if you dare. I’m no film maker, but then, until recently, I was no art writer either.


My journey into art criticism of the written and visual kind began this spring, when Kira Van Lil, the professor of a contemporary art class I was taking at the University of Colorado, spent an entire class lecturing on the works of Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria and others. So taken was she by these monumental sculptures in the desert that she then veered from her schedule and devoted the next class to the same topic.

I had never heard of Double Negative before that, nor had I ever thought that Spiral Jetty was a significant piece of art. Van Lil’s fascination with the pieces was enough to open my eyes to their importance.

Meanwhile, HCN senior editor Ray Ring had lined up a story about “those crazy guys who build huge sculptures with bulldozers” for our special travel issue. He was quite happy to hand the story over to me (which should have worried me, I suppose). And I was left completely baffled about what to do. Visit the artworks, of course, but then what? 

I briefly considered a sort of Fear-and-Loathing approach, which included sneaking onto Heizer's private property and investigating his unfinished City complex (really a landing sight for space aliens?). But in photos, the artist looks like a cross between Clint Eastwood and David Carradine, of the old Kung Fu shows. It's probably a good idea not to mess with him. So, instead, I contacted the Center for Land Use Interpretation, the L.A.-based organization that has long focused on the way humans interact with or abuse the landscape, and that often integrates art into their work. I was in luck. Matt Coolidge, the director, hooked me up with a group of art historians and architecture theory students affiliated with a university in Zurich, Switzerland, who just happened to be taking a tour of land art, nuclear waste dumps and other strange places in the West.

At first, I thought it was a bit of an oddball story for HCN. But the more I looked into it, the more I understood that land art not only holds an important place in art history, but it also is strongly linked to the topics we think about at HCN: the environment, the environmental movement and the place that the landscape occupies in the culture of the West. My time with the Swiss group helped me make the connection between places like an open-pit mine or bombing range, and art like Spiral Jetty or Double Negative. (I also visited Crown Burgers with them, another story altogether). It turns out that I could write about this stuff as an environmental journalist, not an art critic, after all.

I did my best to understand and communicate that in writing in the cover story in the latest issue of HCN. After seeing the “sculptures,” however, I also wanted to respond more viscerally -- dare I say artistically? -- to the work. So I made a video, replete with strange special effects, a simulation of solstice sunrise and electronic music.

It is, indeed, weird. But then, a big trench in the desert that’s called art is a bit weird, too.

The video is mostly comprised of images I captured while visiting Double Negative, Spiral Jetty and Sun Tunnels in March. Most of the people who appear in the video are members of the Swiss group, with the exception of Bob Phillips, the guy who actually piloted a lot of the heavy equipment used to build Spiral Jetty. The woman walking through the Sun Tunnel with the crazy mask is Berit Seidel, a member of the Zurich-based U5 artists’ collective. The Sun Tunnels solstice sunrise is simulated (using toilet paper tubes and a lamp). If you think that’s strange, be thankful that I didn’t throw in the Spiral Jetty constructed of lentils in a sea of tomato soup, or the mashed potato Double Negative, or the toothpick-in -sheet-cake version of Lightning Field.

The cool music is by Broke for Free.

Something Wobbly (Broke For Free) / CC BY-NC 3.0
Jonathan "a little too weird" Thompson is HCN's senior editor. 
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