The Unbearable Light of Being
It’s been since late last year that I’ve written an entry for this blog, which gives you some idea of the pace at which things have been moving at the Museum and the Center. We negotiated and acquired the archive from the world’s oldest and largest art & climate organization, Cape Farewell, which was founded by artist David Buckland and for the last fifteen years has taken more than 350 artists, writers, and scientists into the polar regions. We also began to work with artist Trevor Paglen to plan how we might launch a satellite into orbit as an art project sometime during the next two years, and mapped out what the program will be for the 2017 A+E Conference (save the dates: October 19 –21, 2017).
But the most consuming project has been opening Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains sculpture next to Jean Dry Lake outside Las Vegas. Five years in the planning, permitting, construction, and siting, the seven towers of limestone boulders sit on the southern end of the old Las Vegas Boulevard and next to the freeway to Los Angeles. An estimated 40 million people will pass by in the cars during the two years that the installation will be up. Each of the 33 boulders weighs an average of 44,000 lbs, the heaviest clocking in at 56,000 lbs. And each is painted in one of ten day-glo colors from the spectrum.
I stood at the edge of the desert patch that’s been restored after the boulders were stacked on site, neat rings to catch water surrounding each of the replanted desert shrubs, and listened as people reacted. With me were two friends, Guido Deiro and Gianfranco Gorgoni. Guido worked for years as Michael Heizer’s pilot and land agent, securing the property for legendary works such as Double Negative, City, and the first version of Walter De Maria’s the Lightning Field, which was actually built in Arizona and then abandoned for lack of sufficient lightning. Gianfranco became the first significant photographer to document the building of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, as well as its multiple drownings and uncoverings throughout the years, as well as Heizer’s early works done on Jean Dry Lake, such as his motorcycle drawing Circular Surface Planar Displacement Drawing. Guido actually flew Gianfranco to take some of those pictures.
People were asking several questions. First, why the colors when the boulders looked so good before painted? One answer is that Rondinone is deliberately contrasting nature and culture, another is that he is alluding to the spectacle of neon Las Vegas just out of sight over the nearby hills. Another more historical reason is that the largest stones ever moved, the Colossi of Memnon in erected 3500 years ago near Thebes in Egypt, which now present us twin visages of wind-blasted sandstone, were originally painted. Placing bright totems in the desert has a long history, indeed.
Another question revolves around whether or not Seven Magic Mountains is a site-specific installation. See above. More interestingly, people inquired if this was Land Art, such as the projects by Heizer and De Maria. Rondinone himself answered that notion. “Land Art only existed during a moment, the last 1960s and early 1970s.” Rondinone’s partner of nineteen years, the legendary poet John Giorno, when first seeing the installation earlier in the day, exclaimed: “This is Pop Art meets Land Art,” an idea which we all readily adopted.
The great gift of Heizer and his colleagues is that they created a new vocabulary for art, one that used earth itself as a sculptural medium, often shaped with or defined by inserts and supports made of wood, metal, and concrete. It was a medium Heizer used to define negative space as a positive entity (Double Negative being the definitive example); that Smithson used to exemplify entropy (Spiral Jetty, among other things, being an ancient symbol related to the concept); and, that De Maria used as both a surface for a mile-long drawing and as one of the four components of what is arguably the most iconic work from the period, The Lightning Field. That vocabulary has been adopted, adapted and deployed throughout the world by artists and architects from Maya Lin and Lauren Bon in the U.S, to Chris Drury and Charles Jencks in the UK.
Ugo Rondinone’s career is a rich and diverse one, and Land Art a much more complicated and international story than I’m presenting here, and we’re hoping that Seven Magic Mountains will prompt people to think about everything from the nearby rock art in Sloan Canyon to the nature of contemporary art. And the archive from the project, which will reside at the Center for Art + Environment will provide researchers with everything from drawings and press articles to rock samples and signage. Those materials join thousands of images by Gianfranco Gorgoni that range over more than 40 years of artists working in the desert, as well as materials from Guido Deiro and others, that together comprise an ongoing record of Land Art and its inheritors.
Power Switch: A Gathering Place for Western Neighbors
In 2012 I wrote about the controversy surrounding British artist Chris Drury’s installation Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around. Three years after its sudden removal from the grounds of the University of Wyoming, apparently on its perceived condemnation of the extractive energies industry, it was the topic of discussion on a pasture hours away in Sublette County, Wyoming. It is easy to look at the controversy as two-sided, one for the energy industry, and one for environmentalists; but, as with any controversy it is so much more complicated. Sublette County artist Sue Sommers sees the grey areas of the removal that still haunts the small Wyoming art world, but she rails against the idea of censoring artwork from a university campus, regardless of the content. Some remember the incident as a failure, but to look down at the wildflowers blossoming at my feet, it is hard not to see Carbon Sink as a success.
In some ways, these flowers, shaped in a 100-foot diameter circle and line easily recognized as the ubiquitous symbol for electronic power, are a world apart from Carbon Sink’s former home in Laramie. And yet, Power Switch arose, in part, from a need to continue the discussion started by Drury’s ill-fated work. Created by Sommers and collaborators David Klaren and JB Bond (upon whose land the piece grows), Power Switch is, according to the artists: “a provocative metaphor for power and energy in all its natural and human forms.” But as a closer examination of the title reveals (consider the ambiguities of the two words, both verbs and nouns), Power Switch is not as easily comprehended as it originally appears. Take, for example, its relationship to canonical western earthworks like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (mentioned in the artists’ promotional material). Like Carbon Sink, it draws inspiration in shape and scale from predecessors; and, like the Spiral Jetty in situ, it relies on a first viewing from the elevated position of a ridge. But unlike both Drury and Smithson’s work, Power Switch draws its creators into a certain relationship of care and cultivation, it requires a carefully learned and experiential understanding of the land. Weeds need pulled, perennial seeds need sewn, and the quickly changing climate must be considered.
This alternate relationship to the earth is clear when talking to Sommers, who explains the amount of work required to maintain the shape in the first year of the piece’s life, as she yanks errant plants from the ground. However, like Carbon Sink and Spiral Jetty, Power Switch is primarily interested in energy. This assertion is particularly true when thinking of energy in its many forms, from the solar energy that powers the growth of the flowers to the entropic forces that Smithson relied on to erode Spiral Jetty. The elephant in the room is the extractive energy industry, which fascinated Smithson at the Great Salt Lakes, and its apparent condemnation of Carbon Sink, which led to the work’s removal. Once again, with Power Switch, things are not so simple.
Sommers reacts against an out and out dismissal of energy development, and she comes to this from a lived history with Sublette County, a center of the natural gas boom. The areas known as the Pinedale Anticline and the Jonah Field contain much of the nation’s natural gas, which has pumped capital into the region. In her 2007 New Yorker article on Sublette County’s boom, Wyoming-based author Alexandra Fuller described the state as a carbonocracy, “indebted to minerals for its promise of an easy life, yet strangely impoverished by its own wealth.”
This analysis has particular resonance in light of the Carbon Sink controversy. When Fuller wrote, and in the years following, the ozone levels in rural Pinedale were compared to those of mega-metropolis Los Angeles, and exceeded federal health standards. Sommers allows that the air proved difficult for many, particularly those with health conditions like asthma, but she was quick to note the improved conditions, confirmed in an August 28th report by Wyoming Public Media. But, as Sommers explains, improved conditions were hardly inevitable. She attributes much of the change to pressure from Pinedale group C.U.R.E.D. (Citizens United for Responsible EnergyDevelopment), locals willing to hold industry’s feet to the fire, who organized to hand out DIY air quality test kits during the worst of the problem. The relationship to energy that Sommers describes is a pragmatic one; industries won’t regulate themselves, but in her opinion it is a losing battle to advocate for their total removal.
This pragmatism may strike followers of eco-art as surprising, but Power Switch is no polemic. More than many, Sommers is realistic about the history of her part of the West, a place long ranched, drilled, and mined. Before the United States Government began handing out land to ranchers, a site near Pinedale was the location for an important annual fur trading rendezvous, a heavily promoted chapter in the area’s history. While talking at the Power Switch, Sommers pointed toward the Rendezvous site in the distance, and our conversation turned to nineteenth-century artist Alfred Jacob Miller’s (liberally) rendered paintings of the 1837 event. With a chuckle Sommers mentions that she has tried to document Power Switch in such a way that Miller’s view fills the background. Her invocation of the picturesque West alongside the developed West points to another strength of Sommers’ thought process. The two are inseparable. Industry and natural spectacle are never far apart in Wyoming, though tourist draws like Yellowstone and Jackson Hole may pretend otherwise. Industry has a way of making itself visible in this state, even when we attempt to practice historical amnesia.
When I asked Sommers how she would feel about Power Switch being coopted by a “side” (environmentalists or energy developers), she opines that either would be missing the point. Recent community open houses for the piece demonstrate the real importance of the work, as a gathering place. Like C.U.R.E.D., it may be a burr in the saddle of industry, a reminder that neighbors can come together and mobilize when their lives and lands are at stake. Tritely, it could be called a new Rendezvous. Hopefully, where Carbon Sink looked like a festering sore in the earth, one that might not heal, Power Switch looks annual and renewable. Prominent Western historian Patricia Nelson Limerick has lamented that Westerners “share the same region and its history, but we wait to be introduced.” If Sommers has her way, next spring may see energy workers weeding a patch of flowers alongside a local environmentalist.
Power Switch offers hope and conversation in a bleak and reactionary debate. But where hope and action are powerful and evidently effective in the hands of Pinedale citizens, they cannot be cause for a victory lap. An earlier leg of my trip through Wyoming wound past Teapot Dome, site of the early-twentieth century oil scandal that brought down members of the Harding administration, and deep into a ravaged landscape. Along the straight highway a lone bar is surrounded for miles by electrical wires crisscrossing more densely here than in an urban block, all to power drilling equipment. The hope that filled the discussion at Power Switch, of DIY citizen agency, seemed miles away from the denuded landscape. Power Switch must be both gathering place and call, it must be local, but it must also spread its roots, it must be a meeting point cultivated across the industrial West.
 Pipeline Art Project, “Power Switch: A Guide for Visitors,” http://pipelineartproject.com/images/powerswitch/Guide-FAQ-LTR.pdf
 Alexandra Fuller, “Boomtown Blues: How natural gas changed the way of life in Sublette County,” The New Yorker, February 5, 2007. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/02/05/boomtown-blues
 Benjamin Storrow, “Beyond Sublette: Once a Pinedale problem, ozone becomes a challenge for Wyoming,” Casper Star Tribune. December 14, 2014. http://trib.com/business/energy/once-a-pinedale-problem-ozone-becomes-a-challenge-for-wyoming/article_fd476d97-a797-5e72-be33-d4028b5cd43e.html
 Bob Beck, “Wyoming Outdoor Council Rep. Weighs In On Report That Ozone Levels In Pinedale Are Down,” Wyoming Public Media. August 28, 2015. http://wyomingpublicmedia.org/post/wyoming-outdoor-council-rep-weighs-report-ozone-levels-pinedale-are-down#stream/0
 Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton& Company, 1987), 349.
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.
Lofoten Islands, Norway June 2-7, 2015
Among the truly jaw-dropping landscapes on the planet are the Lofoten Islands, a series of impossibly steep peaks on the northwestern coast of Norway that rise straight out of the ocean in a maze of fjords, lakes, rivers, and waterfalls. Sara has arranged to fly to Tromsø to meet me the day I return to the mainland from Svalbard, and we set off in a rental car to check out the public art and architecture projects in the region. This is yet another foray into the investigation of projects deployed in the Arctic to brand its landscapes for tourism. Unlike Svalbard, where there are virtually no roads to drive, Norway’s eighteen National Tourist Routes not only traverse some of the world’s most scenic landscapes, they’re augmented by a government curated series of public amenities, as well as a private artwork program in the county of Nordland, which includes Lofoten.
The first project we come across is the Kleivodden rest stop on the island of Andoya, a series of five incised, geometric, and highly polished black granite plinths designed by Inge Dahlman from the Oslo firm Landscaps Fabrikken (“Landscape Factory). Four of the rocks rest on a concrete plaza, which is itself shaped to resonate with the plinths. The fifth member of the ensemble resides at the end of a small path thrust through the coastal rocks and overlooking the ocean. It’s a quiet array, one that echoes both minimalist sculptures and the low-lying islands nearby. The objective, as with many of the public architecture projects here, is to provide a place where you can contemplate the form of the landscape.
The next day we cross over the bridge to Langoy and have lunch overlooking the harbor of Sortland, inadvertently stumbling across one of the sculptures in the Artscape Nordland program initiated by the artist Anne Katrine Dolven, who during the 1990s commissioned artists to make thirty-three sculptures around the 15,444 square miles of Nordland. The result is one of the more interesting and at times startling public collections in Europe.
Ocean Eye by the Iceland artist Sigurdur Gudmundsson, who now lives in Amsterdam, is a large diamond-shaped window created by a peaked arrangement of six black granite blocks that evokes the shape of a house. The sculpture stands on a rock jetty and is enclosed by a low circular wall of concrete. I was once told by a Norwegian that, unlike Americans, who like their wilderness views unobstructed by any human structure, his countrymen prefer something built in the foreground to create contrast. Ocean Eye both alludes to the house, but also provides a window through which to focus your attention across the fjord and onto the peaks, a double framing device. It’s a vertical work that’s highly resonant with the horizontal plinths at Kleivodden, both devices that, while focusing our attention on the structure of the land, help us understand how we structure our views.
One of the more famous Artscape Nordland works is the reflecting structure by American Dan Graham that stands on Vestvågøy. Constructed of two-way mirrors set into stainless steel frames, the side facing the road the work presents a right-angle corner, which works as a regular mirror; on the side facing the sea, however, the mirrors are concave and serve to dramatically heighten the mountains across the fjord. The concrete base offers a stage in front of this funhouse, and the result is to find yourself standing in the middle of what looks like a Chinese landscape painter’s version of Lofoten. What at first looks like a steel-and-glass funhouse experiment turns out to be both a sensuous and serious work. Even while this untitled work seduces you by dramatizing an already beautiful view, it that takes you one step further in analyzing your response to both the art and the land. First, it injects you into the view, an allusion to the Romantic painting tradition of David Casper Frederick, and then it encourages you to consider how we hype historical landscape views into clichés as we brand them for sale to tourists.
Although the National Tourist Route projects are fairly well publicized and easy to find, the Artscape Nordland projects are sometimes tucked away in genuinely obscure spots, even at times requiring a boat to reach them. And I think that’s exactly right, a combination that elicits those twin pleasures of the treasure hunt, expectation and frustration. The coastline is so fractal that, even if you knew where all the art stood, it would take weeks to track down both the public and private works just in Nordland. You slowly realize, as a result, that the works are as much for the local people as the tourists. Contemporary art hasn’t been an easy sell to Nordland’s 40,000 or so residents, some of whom have been vocally ambivalent about the works, which is also true in the Swiss Alps, too, as Sara and I discovered last fall. But the placement of provocative art and architecture in the landscape can be done so that it is not bolted on as an intrusive gesture in front of your view. When done right, it is something you seek out, stumble across, or just pass by with a sense of delight, curiosity, and awe—more about which in the next post.
The Art of Svalbard, May 23-June 1, 2015
I was in Svalbard specifically to look at public art deployed around Longyearbyen—the statues of polar bears and miners, and the light works on the Global Seed Vault for example—as part of my examination of how a brandscape was being constructed in the Arctic. But I was also interested in the larger realm of artmaking in the archipelago. One of the first topics to research was 19th century tourism postcards, the earliest of which date from 1896 and tended to feature fjords, polar bears, glaciers, and the midnight sun.
Modern-day glossy color postcards focus mostly on promoting touristic views of polar bears and the auroral borealis, and most Svalbard art during the 20th century remained based on landscape painting traditions. This was in line with what I expected, comparable to the branding of the Swiss Alps, the Norwegian fjords, the Grand Canyon and so forth in the Euro-American tradition of the sublime.
But in 2003 the art of Svalbard went decidedly contemporary when David Buckland began taking major contemporary artists, such as Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread, to the archipelago in an effort to engage the public with climate change. He has since led eight art & science expeditions to the islands. The popular Arctic Circle program soon offered similar opportunities for a price, although now the best option for artists may be simply to book passage on the ship everyone uses, the ice-strengthened two-masted schooner Noorderlicht, which is stationed in Longyearbyen.
I want to focus on just one artwork arising from those voyages, Nowhereisland by British artist Alex Hartley, who sailed with Buckland in 2004. While circumnavigating Spitsbergen, Hartley found an island about the size of a football field that had recently emerged as a glacier was retreating. He was the first human being to set foot on the tiny patch of newly revealed land, which was eventually named Nyskjæret.
Hartley returned to the island in 2011 and moved some of its glacial till onto a barge. Once Nowhereisland was in international waters, Hartley declared it an independent nation. He then proceeded to have it tugged to Weymouth, England and then around the southeast coast to end in Bristol, a 2000-mile-long journey that ended when the island was dismantled and given away in pieces.
The ice goes out, new lands are uncovered, territorial squabbles arise over national maritime boundaries . . . Hartley’s intervention is a self-aware land art performance, and he cites, among other works, the floating island barge envisioned by Robert Smithson, Tania Kovats’ Meadow barge from 2007, and When Faith Moves Mountains, the Francis Alÿs performance piece of 2002. But it is also political theatre that highlights global warming, international competition for natural resources, and the fickle nature of national boundaries.
Svalbard, by virtue of its location at the limits of sustainable habitability, is like the Antarctic, its communities dependent on outside resources for survival. Unlike the Antarctic, however, it’s relatively close to the developed world and thus able to host a range of artists seeking to engage the edge of civilization as an arena for their work. I use the word arena, as any art committed in such difficult locations has an element of performance to it, even just erecting a view camera or a painting easel, much less moving part of an island. Most of the contemporary art made in the archipelago is less about permanent installations, and, very unlike works on the Norwegian mainland that are commissioned in order to attract tourism. is more pointed at issues.
Before Nowhereisland was dispersed, it had attracted 23,003 people from 135 countries to sign up as citizens, who wrote the constitution for Nowhereisland, which in its first iteration consisted of one hundred principles and conditions. It remains online, a provocation about the nature of migration and global change. Nowhere island. Now here is land. No where is land.
Svalbard, The Arctic, May 23-June 1, 2015
It’s not exactly a hop, skip, and a jump from saltwater crocodiles to polar bears, but I left tropical Australia on a Tuesday and by the end of the week I am walking up the main road of Svalbard’s only town, Longyearbyen, toward the glacier at the end of the valley. Svalbard is an archipelago located 500 miles north of Norway and 500 miles south of the North Pole. Svalbard is a protectorate of Norway, Spitsbergen its largest island, and Longyearbyen, which dates back to 1896, the administrative center of the islands.
The town’s population of 2000 is outnumbered by the more than 3000 polar bears wandering the archipelago, and you’re not allowed to wander outside city limits without either carrying a rifle for protection, or being accompanied by an armed lookout. As I wheel my duffel into our hotel, I note that cornices overhang the ridges on both sides of the narrow valley. Last year an avalanche munched its way through town and took out a bridge. The temperature is predicted to range from 30 to 33 degrees each day, and there’s 24 hours of daylight, which is perfect for melting the snows above. In short, my kind of town. Did I mention that Longyearbyen hosts one of the largest wine cellars in Northern Europe?
Svalbard was at first a whaling station in the 1600s, then at the beginning of the 20th century a coal producing center. The coal is mostly played out now, although the Russians still mine some in Barentsburg just down the coast—their way of maintaining a strategic presence on the island—and there’s one other mine nearby that fuels Longyearbyen’s power plant. But now the economy of the archipelago depends increasingly on Svalbard’s growing tourism and scientific research. It’s notable that the researchers are studying everything from polar bears to the aurora borealis, exactly what the tourists come to see. Extreme landscapes present not only our desire for sublime views, but also the edge of knowledge.
I’m here with the Future North project from the Oslo School of Architecture and Design—the same group that brings me to Norway every January to study changes in the circumpolar Arctic as the ice goes out and people move in. It’s more than a little ironic that the Global Seed Vault stands is on the edge of town near an abandoned coal mine. The burning of fossil fuels has ignited global warming, which shows up twice as fast in the Arctic as elsewhere, and is making Spitsbergen each year a less suitable place for a freezer devoted to preserving biodiversity.
The Future North team spends the week of our visit walking transects through the town and interviewing locals, looking for manifestations of how the transition from resource extraction to knowledge creation is proceeding. My job is to research how art has been deployed since the 1800s to create the brandscape of Svalbard, which is related to what I was doing in Switzerland in September of last year, and also in the Australian Arnhembrand project the previous week.
One evolution I document is the progression from statues of miners commemorating industry, to a metal polar bear, to a tower constructed from floating plastic harvested in the harbor. What interesting is that the timeline of the progression is so compressed. Homages to founding figures and totemic workers in other European locations were often erected in earlier centuries, then followed by abstract sculptures, and eventually place-making amenities. The wooden sculpture The Miner created by Norwegian Kristian Kvaklands—a horizontal figure drilling a coal seam between claustrophobic layers of wood—was created in 1993. A less effective, if more traditionally heroic bronze sculpture of the same title by Tore Bjorn Skjølsvik stands just down the street, and was created in 1999.
Representations of polar bears are ubiquitous throughout Longyearbyen, starting upon your arrival at baggage claim where a taxidermic one scowls at your luggage from atop the carousel. A few blocks from the miner stands one of the more recent versions, a life-sized beast executed in stainless steel outside the office of filmmaker Jason Robert, who commissioned the work in 2011. Its overlapping sheaves of metal are vaguely heraldic, and evoke myth as much as reality.
Peter Hammersam spots a colorful two-story tower made of plastic waste harvested from the local shoreline, and when we investigate we find a door into the tiny first-floor where a couple of college students are sharing a beer. The floor of the second story is clear and you can peer upwards to continue your visual inventory of the plastic items. The sculpted found-object architecture was created by Solveig Egelund in 2014, who has done similar projects at other sites.
Peter, in the meantime, has been investigating two buildings in town that display the shift from mining to research. The angular and multi-limbed Ropeway Hub, where several tram lines converged bearing hoppers of coal, sits above the power plant. It was built in 1957 and is a striking piece of vernacular architecture. The Svalbard Science Center, a multi-faceted facility, was erected in 2006 and servers as an international hub for researchers, Both are metal-clad and perched on stilts. While the Science Center was designed to echo the shapes of the mountains across the fjord, it also resonates with the functionalism of the Ropeway building, which residents hope to turn into a cultural center for tourists.
The conjunction of science and tourism in this northernmost town of more than 1,000 people is a unique circumstance. Three years ago there was almost no winter tourism in the archipelago; now the town is packed on New Year’s with people flying here in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights, even as the scientists are monitoring the auroral activity. The artwork by Dyveke Sanne along the roof of the Global Seed Vault and down its front is a fine metaphor for the combination. Consisting of highly reflective triangles of stainless steel that reflect the Arctic light during the day, during the long night it is lit by fibre-optic cables refracting through prisms, which evokes the aurora. The artwork is both a reflector and a beacon—in literature a duality referred to as “the lamp and the mirror.” At times it reflects the world, but at others actively illuminates it, a good enough metaphor for tourism and science.
Kubulwarnamyo, May 15, 2015
My last day in Maningrida is an eventful one: I see green ants for the first time (an important source of vitamin C for hunter-gatherers); I almost step on a small green python; and, at three in the morning, I’m woken by a green tree frog hopping onto my head. This troika of fecundity seems emblematic to me of the rich and evolving nature and culture of Arnhem Land. And that’s why we’re flying this morning from Maningrida to the outstation at Kubulwarnamyo. Roads to the remote community up on the plateau, which rises a thousand feet above the coastal plain, are closed much of the year due to Monsoon-swollen rivers. Even now in what is the late Austral it’s evident from the air how much of the country is still covered with water.
Aboriginal Australians were relocated or moved into towns and cities during the mid-20th century. Hunter-gatherers adapting to colonial settlements is a familiar story around the world, and as with many indigenous cultures elsewhere, there was a counter-movement. In the 1970s an “outstation movement” sought to return Aboriginal people to a sustainable and healthier life on their traditional country. A key player in establishing a half-dozen of these remote communities was the artist Bardayal “Lofty” Nadjamerrek.
Lofty was born in 1926 and spent many of his early years with elders learning how to draw and paint rock art; from the 1970s onward he became one of the most influential bark painters in Australia. In 2002 he founded an outstation on his own clan’s territory, Kubulwarnamyo. This community of a few dozen people, which fostered the return to a more traditional relationship with the land, became a virtual bush university for Aboriginal people and visiting anthropologists, ecologists, linguists, botanists, and art historians.
The hour-long flight to Kubulwarnamyo in an eight-seater plane is bumpy, the sky hazy with smoke from the annual fires set by the rangers to keep the land healthy. Upon landing we’re met by Lofty’s grandson, Keith Nadjamerreck, and head ranger Jake Weigl, who with his wife Georgia Valance administers the outstation. Jake works with the Warddeken Rangers, an Indigenous team that manages more than 5,000 square miles of country with international conservation and cultural importance.
Kubulwarnamyo is built near a robust spring. Butcher birds and parrots converse overhead, and there’s nary a crocodile in sight. Everyone lives in tents standing under wooden A-frame-and tarpaulin structures resting atop a steel deck. The double-layered architecture is flexible, inexpensive, airy, and bug-resistant. Solar panels power small appliances and there’s WiFi. After we’re formally introduced to country by Keith and Mary with a brief head dunking in the spring, Mandy works with some of the rangers and artists, including Lofty’s widow, to paint narratives of contemporary environmental issues, using her traveling palette of non-traditional colors.
In the afternoon, we visit the site of Lofty’s last rock art painting, then head deeper into the plateau to a series of deep sandstone clefts and crevices filled with some of the most intricate and powerful rock art I’ve seen anywhere in the world, including images of animals extinct for thousands of years. Many of the best rock surfaces are a palimpsest, layers of images applied atop one another during different eras, which shows how the rock art styles have evolved. Mandy and David Leece, in bringing “fluoro” paint to Arnhemland, as well as Alexander and Laura Boynes working in experimental video, are just laying down the newest layer in the continually evolving cultural response to changes in the environment.
The Arnhembrand project is an effort by contemporary artists, both Aboriginal and “Balanda” (the local term for non-Aboriginal people), to understand how the identity of a place and its culture is both rooted and changing—and what part art might play in that evolution. To brand something is to sell an identity. In terms of remote or sublime landscapes, such as the Swiss Alps, it is an attempt to establish a “brandscape,” a landscape recognized through iconic images and attractive to tourists seeking new experiences. The communities of Arnhem Land are careful about courting tourism, understanding well the challenges. At the same time, the Traditional Owners are rightfully proud of their country and culture, willing to share the stories that bind the two.
The brandscape of Arnhem Land is mostly formed in Western eyes by two images: the edge of the plateau as it appears in Kakadu National Park—the only part of the region that’s easily accessed by tourists—and by rock art. Using art as a way of understanding the complex and evolving relationships among place, identity, images, and brand is of relevance to how we sustain both place and “our place on Earth.”
Arnhembrand, May 10-16, 2015
After the Climarte event in Melbourne, I fly to Darwin with Australian artist Mandy Martin, conservationist Guy Fitzhardinge, architect and artist David Leece, and a host of related folk who have taken on a new “art, science and story” endeavor. The Paruku Project, which Guy, Mandy, and David ran a couple of years ago, addressed the ecological and economic fragilities around Lake Gregory in Western Australia. That work produced a fine archive and exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art, and now we’re off to work on a similar project in Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory.
Much of the Northern Territory is a tropical savanna very unlike the red deserts of Western Australia. This is where homo sapiens first entered Australia, and the region therefore has very old evidence of Aboriginal culture. Arnhem Land, located in the northeastern corner of the Northern Territory, is known for its avid preservation of that culture. Except for Kakadu National Park, it’s a region few outsiders are able to visit. This new project seeks to “raise awareness, both nationally and internationally, of the work that the Indigenous communities living in the Djelk and Warddeken Indigenous Protected Areas undertake to preserve their unique cultural and ecological environments.”
We spend the night in steamy Darwin, then hop in a chartered twin-engine plane for the 323-mile flight east to Maningrida, a coastal town of around 2000 inhabitants and one of the most important art centers in Australia. When we land we learn that the big story in town is an attempt to capture an eighteen-foot-long saltwater crocodile that’s been snacking on dogs and feral pigs foolish enough to wander the beach.
It’s Mandy contention that, while the people of Arnhem Land are world renowned for their bark paintings and other objects telling traditional stories, there are also new stories needed to deal with climate change and other evolving challenges—and maybe new art techniques are needed to portray those narratives. She’s talked with the local people and determined that they’d like to try out a new palette that includes everything from day-glo paints to three-dimensional video techniques.
While I’m writing for the project, I’m also here to spend time with curator Henry Skerritt—with whom I’ve worked recently on our recent No Boundaries exhibition of Aboriginal art. We plan on interviewing some of the better known masters of bark painting, as well as some of the artists with whom Mandy is working.
While Mandy and her husband, the rancher and conservationist Guy Fitzhardinge, meet with the local rangers to sort out logistics, Henry and I head over to the Maningrida Art Centre to meet with Coordinator Louise McBride, and to arrange the interviews, including a conversation with John Mawurndjul, whose work I’d seen at TarraWarra a few days previously. The Centre is packed with some of the finest bark paintings and ceremonial burial poles I’ve ever seen, as well as textiles, baskets, and other objects. At the end of the day we regroup to drive out to the Djinkarr Lodge, an eco-tourism facility set up eleven miles out of town, and where we’re staying for the week. The cabins, which are mostly unused at the moment, sit on a bluff overlooking a river valley, which offers up one of the best sunsets we’ve had in our travels. When dark falls, the invasive and poisonous giant cane toads flop around the paths, while over my bed green geckos chase down an astonishing variety of insect life.
As the week progresses, it becomes evident that Mandy’s strategy of bringing new tools to new stories is a good one. A prime piece of evidence is Ivan Namarnyilk’s fluorescent feral pig rubbing up against rock art, which is painted as white figures on an ochre ground. The neon colors of the invasive species threatens to erase history. This melding of old and new palettes, of traditional images with that of a new environmental and cultural challenge is exactly what Mandy is seeking.
TarraWarra Museum of Art, May 6, 2015
Australia is home to many fine public art museums, notable among them the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, which opened in 1874, and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, which opened in 1861 and is the oldest public art museum in the country. These are large encyclopedic art museums with collections of international importance, including significant collections of Australian Aboriginal art. Shows of contemporary art at the “NGV” can attract as many as three-quarter of a million people.
But the robust public museum community of Australia has more recently been augmented with private museums. The most well-known, even notorious example is the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania’s capital, Hobart. Dedicated to breaking down curatorial and thematic walls in its collections and exhibitions, visitors to MONA can expect to be confronted with a Egyptian sarcophagus standing opposite an elongated human figure by Alberto Giacometti, all surrounded by sloping walls draped in an astonishing collection of tapa cloth from across the Pacific. MONA has become the leading tourist attraction of Tasmania, and a must-see for any serious international museum-goer.
During my visit to Melbourne in early May, I visited another extraordinary private facility, the TarraWarra Museum of Art. Founded in 2000, its handsome single-story form arcs above the famed vineyards of Yarra Valley. The museum’s core strength is in Australian paintings, and during the Art + Climate = Change festival, it exhibited works by two notable Aboriginal artists from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Titled Earth and Sky, the intricate crosshatched patterns by John Mawurndjul represented landscape, while Gulumbu Yunupingu’s dense fields of small cruciforms revealed the starry night sky of the Southern Hemisphere.
Yunupingu, born in 1945, had a vision that led her to paint stars with crosses as bodies, each with a dot representing an eye in the center, the forms all floating on an even denser field of dots beneath them that represent the stars we cannot see. Mawurndjul’s seemingly infinitely detailed crosshatched painting stems from his adoption of “rarrk,” a shimmering technique of layered crosshatching that alludes to the spirit and power of place. Mawurndjul’s use of rarrk is derived from its original forms reserved for sacred ceremonies.
Both artists ground local pigments and then painted with them on bark peeled from eucalyptus trees, a medium that dates back at least into the 19th century, if not earlier. Bark paintings have been collected for their aesthetic and formal beauty since the early 20th century, although they are less well-known in the U.S. than the work of Australia’s Central Desert painters who use acrylic on canvas. Both Yunupingu and Marundjul created major works in 2006 for the Australian Indigenous Art Commission at the new Musée du quai Branly in Paris, which holds masterpieces of indigenous art from around the world.
The exhibition was a powerful reminder that the concern of contemporary artists for climate and our role in shaping it spring from a species-old relationship to an environment that is larger and richer in both reality and imagination, in science and emotion, than we sometimes remember to credit.