Sometimes, an exhibition’s timing can make as much of an impact as the exhibition itself. A case in point was the excellent, compendious ‘Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974’, which couldn’t have come at a more inopportune moment for its host institution, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Organized by UCLA-based art historian Miwon Kwon and curator Philipp Kaiser in conjunction with the Haus der Kunst in Munich, the exhibition was on view during the height of the recent upheavals surrounding the controversial directorship of Jeffrey Deitch, which included the widely publicized firing of the museum’s chief curator, Paul Schimmel, and an avalanche of resignations from the artists sitting on MOCA’s board, three out of four of whom publicly voiced their concern for the flashy, celebrity-driven turn in the museum’s recent programming. As such, ‘Ends of the Earth’ unintentionally acquired a dirge-like quality, as if it had been made manifest for the sole purpose of reminding us of the kind of rigorous, scholarship-driven shows that the museum was in the process of losing.
Of course, this feeling was certainly helped along by the fact that the show was the product of Herculean curatorial effort – it is surely the most comprehensive exhibition of Land Art to have ever been mounted – that combined a palpable passion for the works on view and a purposeful examination of their place in art history. Significantly, this examination extended beyond the presentation of a quasi-comprehensive survey of works that engaged, whether literally or metaphorically, with the earth, the elements and the cosmos-at-large, ranging from Isamu Noguchi’s works from the 1930s and ’40s until the (somewhat arbitrary) cut-off date of 1974. In addition, Kwon and Kaiser pursued a number of secondary goals, which they laid out in their introductory essay to the exhibition’s informative catalogue. These included pointing out the fact that Land Art production did not escape institutional and gallery frameworks, as has been asserted in oft-repeated utterances of critical wishful thinking, that it was not only produced in the vast, sublime environs of nature, but had equal purchase on the territory of less picturesque, urban landscapes and, most interestingly, that it was a wide-ranging, international impulse, and functioned equally as a media practice as it did as a sculptural, performative and conceptual one.
On the international front, Kwon and Kaiser did a commendable job of combating the notion that Land Art was an exclusively American enterprise, a misconception that has been hard-wired into the movement’s historical DNA, whether by way of the mutually reinforcing mythologies of the rugged American pioneer and trailblazing grand artistic gestures, or by deliberate design. (In a catalogue essay, the late Willoughby Sharp, curator of the important 1968 ‘Earth Works’ show at Cornell University, recounts the territorial hostility that certain American land artists directed towards their European counterparts.) This effort, perhaps unsurprisingly, included works by artists associated with widely known international art movements such as Arte Povera and Mono-Ha. Most notably, this also included Group Zero, who were represented by way of works from Heinz Mack’s 1968 Sahara Project, which put the vast African desert on the Land Art map, two hilarious, poetic works by Günther Uecker, and works by the group’s elder statesmen and guiding lights Jean Tinguely and Yves Klein, the latter of whom was represented in part by an uncharacteristically bleak – at least in context of the show – text work from 1960 that read: ‘I will raze everything at the surface of the entire earth, until it is flat. I will fill in the valleys with mountains, then I will pour concrete over the surface of all the continents.’ There was also a generous helping of more obscure groups and individuals, some of which were genuine discoveries. Notable in this regard were the Slovenian collective OHO, the slightly more familiar Italian architectural firm Superstudio, and Icelandic artists Kristján Gudmundsson and Sigurdur Gudmundsson, the latter represented by documentation of outdoor sculptural works whose construction was guided by the direction of the wind, a strategy that recalls a better-known work by Joan Jonas, Wind (1968), which also made an appearance.
The largely art-historical issue of the movement’s international bona fides aside, consideration of Land Art’s status as a media practice, which is, of course, enmeshed with the mounting of an exhibition that consisted almost entirely of documentation, allows an avenue for thinking through issues of the present, and returns us to the question of timing. In their introductory essay, Kwon and Kaiser note that the vast majority of Land Art works were ‘produced’ not simply on-site, but within the public consciousness, through the dissemination of documentary photographs in popular media outlets like Life, Newsweek and Time, a fact that leads them to wonder if the media was a fundamental aspect of Land Art’s very existence. Of course, the same could be said of the works and projects of Deitch celebrity darlings like Shepard Fairey and James Franco. However, the distance between these two poles is vast: while artists and impresarios like Fairey and Franco operate in a feedback-looped media echo chamber whose sole purpose is to further enchant and sustain its own dream world, on the whole the artists in ‘Ends of the Earth’ sought to enchant and examine the world itself, not only in a way that addressed its still urgently relevant political and ecological valences, which are often privileged in the show’s catalogue, but also the unfathomable eons of prehistoric and geologic time recorded in and on it, and the awe-inspiring mystery of the cosmos that surrounds us. In light of this, perhaps this exhibition’s most important contribution to our present moment is not its academic, art-historical one – which causes hand-wringing and garment-rending on the part of cultural bureaucrats with their eyes locked on the attendance ticker – but its forceful reminder of just how blinkered and petty our concerns have become.