Land art, or earth art as it is also called, refers to a diverse movement of artists who create in nature, employing materials like stones, soil and leaves and natural features of the landscape.
Many of these works are sculptural. Many draw attention to the slow process of erosion and are intended to help us better appreciate the secret workings of nature.
This movement, which took root in the late sixties and seventies, began as a protest against what many artists perceived as the increasing artificiality of art, and occurred simultaneously with the emergence of the environmental movement.
Land Art can include everything from constructing a road to taking a walk or building a monument or leaving a mark in the sand. It is not possessive and does not seek to own, but rather to work in harmony with the natural world. But this urge for a closer communion with the natural world manifested itself long before the sixties changed the world.
Some time between 200 BC and 600 AD, the Nazca people of Peru created mysterious geoglyphys that span a vast swath of the rugged Peruvian desert, like a giant, complex map. These lines cover some 400 square miles of desert and are etched in the surface of the desert sand, some three hundred figures, straight lines, flowers, animals and anthropomorphic creatures. There have been many theories about the lines, involving visits from aliens and more.
The Nazca plain is unique for its ability to preserve the markings upon it. One of the driest places on earth, flat, stony ground with no dust provided a vast writing pad that was ideally suited to the artist who wanted to leave his or her mark for eternity.
The pebbles, which cover the desert’s surface, contain ferrous oxide and have a dark patina. When this gravel is removed, it contrasts with the colour underneath creating furrows of a lighter colour. Some of the drawings, especially the earliest ones, were made by removing the stones and gravel from their contours; in this way, the figures stood out in high relief.
These monumental early examples of Land Art — some of the largest figures are 660ft across — obviously required intensive long-term labour and correspond to the different stages of cultural change among the Nazca people.
In modern times, exponents of Land Art have tended to reject museums and galleries as the setting of artistic activity and developed monumental landscape projects, which were beyond the reach of traditional transportable sculpture and commercial art. Sculptures are not placed in the landscape. Rather the landscape is the means of their creation. And some projects are staggering in their scope. But more of that later.
Kerry artist Gerry Barry has worked in the Land Art tradition for many years. He employs organic media to create epic installations on Ireland’s landscape, particularly in and around his homeplace of Castlegregory. Using rocks, water, sand and landscaping, he creates artwork that can last for a day or a decade. Circular patterns and shallow troughs are dug in ring like pattern, filling with ground water and rain, which reveal the artist’s chosen pattern.
Like the principles of the land art movement, the installations are meant to co-exist with the elements of nature, which are themselves an ever-changing work of art.
Some of his stunning visual images are available on his website. Gerry told me how his native place inspired his love and his appreciation of landscape.
>>“I’ve been working with natural materials and the landscape since 1975. I was lucky enough to grow up in an area that is very rich visually — sea, mountains, and lakes. This area has been a constant source of inspiration for me. I painted the landscape when I was younger but eventually I wanted more interaction and so I began using the materials that I found around me when I was out walking, like stones, rushes, water to create visuals that complimented that landscape.”
>>“Most times I know what results I want but other times it just seems to happen. Light and water are important ingredients for me along with curves and circles. I can spend hours looking at particular stones — their shapes, sizes and colours so in a sense, each time is a journey to create something that may last an hour, a day or until nature makes its own mark on the work and it’s lost.”
>>“Yes and I really enjoy it too. You get immediate feedback. I don’t really like the term art, I think it’s got too many negative connotations and I think all art should be inclusive. My baseline has always been that I want to experience — and share — a sense of wonder. When I first started doing land art, I used to go down to the beach early in the morning when no one was around because I was afraid the neighbours would think that I was crazy.
“My father was always very supportive to me and he was a great source of inspiration. He was a very creative man who could mend and recycle just about anything. He made his wedding ring from an old half a crown. I missed him terribly when he died and I made a triple circle, which I cut out of the salt marsh with a spade that my father had made. And when I photographed it, there was a perfect rainbow over it. There is a print of it on my website.”