Center for Art + Environment Blog

May 8, 2018   |   William L. Fox

Tippet Rising

Perring out from Underneath Domo by Ensemble Studios in April, the Beartooth Mountains in the distance. Photo by Deborah Ford.

In mid-February I drove from Reno down through southern Nevada and Arizona to Tucson. In April I drove east to Salt Lake City and then north up through Wyoming and into Montana. I haven’t prowled around the West as much as I would have liked the last few years, so I was looking forward to an update with my home territory—but the drives produced a sort of schizophrenia. The West is more militarized and industrialized than ever, even as art is cropping up in increasingly remote settings.

The Hawthorne Army Ammunition Depot, the country’s largest munitions storage facility, is located 95 miles south of Reno and occupies 3,500 buildings spread out over approximately 230 square miles. For the first time in years I saw armed guards checking people in an out of multiple areas. Further south, Creech Air Force Base some 45 miles north of Las Vegas was flying constant training runs with Reaper drones, and a steady stream of personnel were passing through its gates.

Hawthorne Army Ammunition Depot. Image courtesy Center for Land Use Interpretation.

Wyoming, which used to be mostly grazing country, is now overlaid with a grid of pipes, tanks, and towers. Everywhere in the basins it seems the land was being scraped, fracked, and drilled for coal, gas, and oil. Every second along the freeways, and even on some of the more remote highways, that unintended offspring of petroleum extraction intruded: plastic bags fluttered on trees, fences, signs.

Coal extraction from a surface mine in Gillette, Wyoming. Image by Greg Goebel.

At the same time, art is cropping up in unexpected places. Tippet Rise near Fishtail, Montana, which opened only two years ago to the public, has 10,260 acres cobbled together from several ranches, but its founders spent the three years prior assessing the landscape with consultants. The idea was to give the West its own version of Storm King, the outdoor sculpture park near the Hudson River that was founded in 1940. Storm King has 2,100 acres and has grown into a handsome garden inhabited by works that range from Mark di Suvero’s suspended steel geometries to earthworks by Maya Lin and Patricia Johanson. The density of works invite comparisons amongst them, much as would be possible inside a museum.

Stephen Talasnik’s Satellite #5: Pioneer. Image courtesy Stephen Talasnik.

Tippet Rise took the opposite tack, installing eight works so far apart that they aren’t really visible one from another. An enormous metal works by Alexander Calder on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum is nowhere apparent if you’re looking at the Mark di Suvero work that was originally at Storm King. Stephen Talasnik’s Satellite #5: Pioneer is a graceful assembly of wooden elements perched on uneven ground and nestled into a swale, and is almost invisible from anywhere else on the property.

The artists collaborate with the organization to site their works—which are not always site-specific—and in doing so invite comparisons of the works with the land. For example, di Suvero’s Beethovan Quartet’s sixty-foot height dwarfs the electric vans used to transport visitors over the unobtrusive network of dirt roads to get from one work to another. But looked down upon from a nearby ridge, it becomes a tiny red gesture under the Beartooth Mountains.

The three works best representing the actual land are by the Madrid architect duo, Antón García-Abril and Débora Mesa of Ensemble Studios, who met the organization through a competition for one of the music performance spaces at Tippet Rise. Not chosen, they nevertheless were invited to submit ideas for sculptural installations, one of the more successful segues in contemporary art history. Excavating spaces in the ground, they inserted rebar forms and poured concrete into them, then lifted up the results from the pits, four enormous flakes that they bolted into a pair of “portals” that look as if they were rocks transported down from the palisades of the Beartooths.

Ensemble Studio, Beartooth Portal, 2015. Image courtesy Tippet Rise.

Each of the flakes have smooth and rough sides, the former formed by laying down plastic sheets in the ground or around the concrete, the latter by letting the concrete touch and absorb the ground. They were lifted by the largest cranes in Montana and bolted together. The pair of sculptures, the only two art objects meant to be viewed simultaneously in the landscape, demand that you lay hands on them, and in some cases, desire to climb them. While the smooth enfolding sides are overtly sensual, the rough sides, with their embedded stones and pockets, invite people to add rocks.

Ensemble Studio, Domo, 2015. Image courtesy Ensemble Studio.

The culmination of Ensemble Studio’s gestures is Domo, more than four million tons of concrete and steel set into bulldozed mounds and then excavated. It’s as if three stone trees grew from the ground and formed a massive canopy overhead. This is the most powerful paleo-neolithic-retro mashup I’ve ever seen, and it also functions as an outdoor theater venue for music events, lending it a touch of ritual.

The super-sizing of the West through an upsurge in military presence and resource extraction, and the heroic scale of its art are related, all being increases in the scale of the human footprint. While big artworks don’t offset the environmental depredations of the military-industrial complex, they remind us that large gestures of any kind in the landscape have a touch of the sublime about them.

The two Portals at Tippet Rise, the only two artworks meant to be seen one from another. Image by Iwan Baan.