Finding Richard Long
I often parse early earthworks from the late 1960s and 1970s into two broad categories. One branch tended toward large permanent installations, such as Michael Heizer’s Complex One (now part of his larger City work), and Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field. The other strand consisted of more ephemeral works, a type exemplified by the walking works of Richard Long and Hamish Fulton. Earthworks was less a movement than a loose rubric under which any artist who displaced dirt was relegated; my use of these two categories is meant only to initiate a dialogue about the evolving nature of what soon became known as Land Arts. Heizer, for example, has made short-lived works, and Long created sculptures and paintings intended for the duration of a lifetime.
It’s a fallacy to suggest that the American strain of Land Art is all about large heroic gestures and that the other, more transitory works are exclusively European. Both can be seen as part of the larger movement in art to make a creative imprint on the land that was in step with the spread of the human footprint around the planet following World War II, and urbanization metastasized everywhere except the Antarctic.
Land Art is, therefore, an important category of study at the Nevada Museum of Art, and it was natural to include it in the large exhibition we’re opening this August about the Lake Tahoe-Donner region. In 2005 Richard Long was engaged by San Francisco gallerist Cheryl Haines to create one of his walking works in the Sierra Nevada, which he did in September of that year, hiking 250 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail from Ebbetts Pass to the northern fork of the Feather River in Northern California. Along the way he committed modest interventions typical of his works, including a small circle of stones atop Donner Pass. Although Long’s work does not appear in the show, we included an image of it in our book accompanying the exhibition.
Long has been making circles since at least 1967, and I often use an image of one done in Peru in 1972 in my lectures to illustrate the shift from artists painting and photographing landscape to actually making work on and with land. Long’s work is especially appropriate in that context as the works consist of the walks that he makes, the marks in the land that he leaves along the way, and the photographs he takes of his tracks and stone re-arrangements.
The Donner Pass Circle site is only a forty-five minute drive, and then a half-hour hike from the Museum, and in mid-July I went to find the piece, part of my preparation for the exhibition. Long has committed walking pieces every continent, and in 1995 he walked for twelve days through the southern Sierra; along his route he made a circle of stones atop Muir Pass.
To find Long’s circle on Donner Pass, I hiked along the user trail that parallels the Pacific Crest Trail heading north from old Highway 40—the original Donner Pass on what was the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway in the country. It’s also the location of the first railway route across the Sierra, and evidence of the original construction by Chinese workers during the 19th century litters the landscape. Donner Pass was a challenge to cross not least because of its granite outcroppings, and the reason I think I know where Long’s work sits is that I’ve been hiking and climbing here for more than forty years on those same crags.
Ann Wolfe, our curator of the Tahoe exhibition, asked one of our volunteers, Bob Anderson—who has long been a leader in the project to build the Rim Trail around Lake Tahoe—if he thought he could locate the work by comparing the photo to the landscape. Bob and I talked about the likely area for the work, which I thought would be just off the Pacific Crest Trail about halfway between Interstate 80 and Highway 40—and sure enough, that’s where he found it. After twenty-five minutes of walking I reached the highest point of the hike between those two roads, and there was the circle—or what was left of it. Here’s the photograph taken by Long of his circle.
I sat on a granite bench above his circle to eat my lunch and contemplate the remnants of his circle. Long made the sculpture in an engaging little flat of sandy decomposed granite nestled in a small rock amphitheater. The circle was about twenty-four feet in diameter, incorporated a couple of larger rocks in its circumference, and has been pretty well dismantled during the last ten years. The only way I could be sure I was looking at the right place was by lining up foreground boulders with Donner Peak, which Long centered in the background of his photo. It was clear that he picked the site not just as a flat area upon which to make the circle, but also one that had a handy vantage point, one elevated enough to frame the trace of the work in the image.
Hikers had partly dismantled Long’s work to construct a smaller circle within, this later version about the right size for a campfire. There are fewer backpackers now in the U.S. forty years ago, but many more casual day users—hikers, runners, and high school partiers. And many of them want to leave their own mark on the land. Donner Pass is littered not just with remains from the railroad construction, but fire circles, wind breaks, and innumerable cairns, all made by rearranging rocks.
Long’s work, the hiker cairns on Donner Pass, Alfio Bonanno’s monumental cairn sculpture I wrote about in the Lofoten Islands, and Michael Heizer’s sculpture in the Alps—they are all part of the ways in which we are making our mark in the world. We are as relentless in our re-formation of the Earth, in our terraforming, as ants. That’s not to denigrate ants, which are a critical part of the global ecosystem, but simply to point out that humans and ants are both driven to move prodigious quantities of earth each year.
Scientists and policy makers are debating whether or not we should deploy massive technological measures to counter climate change. Paul Crutzen, who coined the term “anthropocene,” is one supporting such efforts. Using technology to fix a problem caused by technology in the first place is a worrisome problem, given the ever-present risk of unintended consequences. Logic and politics aside, however, I look at Heizer and Long, and at the watershed restoration work of Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien—all of which involve sculpting land—and I think I know what choice we’ll make.
Lofoten Islands, Norway, part 2—June 2-7, 2015
Because we had only four days of driving within the islands, we looked for a central place from which to forage for art. The Sandtorgholmen Hotel is a small historic property that sits at the end of a small peninsula on the sound separating the island of Hinnøya from the mainland. Sandtorgholmen has been a storied trading post since the early 1300s, and when we drove up to its lawn and checked in, we found its accommodations spacious and warm, the perfect alternative to the chain hotels that are expanding in the larger towns.
We stayed in a room overlooking the water, ate in the wooden-beamed restaurant—and, much to our surprise, discovered a contemporary sculpture installation on the rocks right at the tideline. Fremskritt (“Progress”) by the glass artist Linn K.M. Klamath and sculptor Håken Lindgren was commissioned by the nearby municipality of Harstad in 2004 for the Festival of Northern Norway. The funding disappeared, and the owners of the hotel, Alice and Rolf Trulsen, purchased the work.
When we walked out to examine the steel and glass figures, we were dive bombed by an oystercatcher nesting atop the grass-roofed earthen cellar built in 1557, which in 1752 was converted into northern Norway’s oldest wine cellar. As in Svalbard, I’m bemused by the emphasis above the Arctic Circle on the entombing and eventual consumption of good wine.
The rusting steel human-sized figures were bolted into the rocks, their matte sand-cast glass faces both visible and not, depending on your vantage point. Seven of the figures were arrayed in a line as if marching down to the water, but there’s a gap where one had seemingly stepped “out of line,” exercising some agency. The lowest two or three figures actually descend into the intertidal zone, and in fact Sara found an upside down sea urchin that had been torn off the rocks and deposited halfway up the sculpture.
During our time in the Lofoten Islands we found, documented, and discussed dozens of public and private sculptures located in plazas, on highways, in front yards, and saw some of the best highway architecture in the world, roads that soared and twisted and curved over rivers and around mountains, engineering that achieved a level of perfection all of its own. But one of the most arresting works we discovered wasn’t on our itinerary—we just happened to drive right to it on the way back to Tromsø on our last day. Immediately after crossing a bridge over the Målselva River on our right stood a 20-foot-high pile of large boulders stacked within a circle of 55-foot-tall dead trees.
We pulled into the small parking area to examine the structure, so massive and deliberately primitive that it looked as if erected by an ancient race of giants. A well-used fire ring was set within a small spiral off to one side, lending a ritual air to the site. The gray slabs and boulders within the trees were cold to the touch, the trees themselves scorched and shorn of branches until above the rocks, where they formed a tall thorny crown.
There was no signage, although from the wear and tear on the grass, it was obvious that the site is a much-visited rest stop. The only other time we’d seen a formal fire pit at a rest stop, however, was atop Furka Pass in Switzerland, where a sculpture of four granite blocks by Max Bill defined a minimalist fire ring.
It takes much internet searching once home, and using Google Earth™, to discover that the work by the river, Målselv Varde (“Cairn”), is by the Sicilian-born sculptor Alfio Bonanno, who was commissioned in 2000 to make a work for the municipality’s site celebrating the turning of the millennium. The enormous cairn, almost 15 feet in diameter, required four years to engineer, and assistance from the Norwegian Army to ferry the bedrock gabbro rocks from a nearby quarry.
Bonanno, who has lived since 1970 in Denmark, is a renowned artist working with natural materials around the world. To find a major work by an artist of such stature by happenstance while traveling is a particular joy. The relatively intimate presence of the steel-and-glass figures of Fremskritt at the hotel, and the monumental presence of Målselv Varde are examples of a likewise diverse yet linked set of motivations for sculpture in the landscape. They establish enduring human relationships with land by creating metaphor, as if to say land is one thing and landscape another. It’s in this constant cognitive give and take between what is natural and what is cultural that public art can create another way to stay alert to the world.