Land Art above by Simon Max Bannister
Land Art as a reminder of transience in nature and witness to the invisible processes at play in ecological science.by Galeo Saintz
There is a prescient reminder where art and ecology meet, of the hereafter. Of what comes next. Of what follows in the wake of our actions, of the inevitable return of all structure and form back into the secret patterns of relationship fostered by wild elements. Of change, entropy, process and always the pattern that connects.
I came upon it as one does the unexpected. At first nothing was apparent where I stood only meters from the edge of cliffs that fell jagged into the opaque blue waves below my feet. Waves, rushing in and out with the tide, churning the rocks of the beach in their wash, a distant rumbling from their song rising towards me.
I had not noticed at first, but soon realised that the rocks I stood on had been moved. They made a shape untoward, not entirely foreign nor random in pattern as we may expect to find in wild places. Instead their placement reflected the shape of something else, from nearby but at a different scale entirely.
A succulent rose shape to be accurate, made of large rocks and stone shards laid flat on the ground, some embedded in the soil belying they had been there for aeons. They had not. A Rosetta stone of a different kind, conveyed through the hidden language of form and shape and placement, something unseen in the surrounds, and now made present through the protean nature and whimsy of art.
As it turns out this particular piece of installed land art was a commission by a conservation conscious landowner with a deep appreciation of the patterns his heavenly piece of land is host to. The fractal nature of rocks, reflected again and again in the cliff edges leading east and west along the coast, the way land meets ocean were present too in this artwork subtle in its execution and wholly embedded in place. Made from rocks found in the immediate vicinity, the flower shape reveals a plant found flowering high up on the cliffs, where it fights daily to hold its niche in the ecology of this ragged coastline.
In playing with scale, the artist found a language that initially attracted my eye, but in choosing rocks, many covered in lichen, he appeals to my sense of touch and the repeated fractal patters of broken stone. The sprinkling of sand mixed with the tiniest of shells of every hue at the centre of the flower attracts the appreciation of colour just as the centre of a whorl of petals does the bee.
The interface of art and ecology, of art created from site specific materials gathered in the surrounds and exhibited in place is nothing new to our species, but arguably the old and ever present call to be at play in the universe. Our earliest ancestors collected shells and stone artifacts, made and left their marks on cave walls and shards of rock. In time, and with culture unfolding through our hands, we eventually became the progenitors of the great sculptural forms of antiquity.
In those long past eras places of offering collected all manner of found objects infused with meaning for their owners, left in remembrance of loved ones or to appease the gods of the elements when storms never abated, or when droughts brought a pallor of death across the land. There is something deeper that lies behind these actions of placement I believe, something more than the artifacts left behind or the inferences we pass back and forth today in trying to understand our origins. There is something about the urgent need within us even now, to make sense of our place in a relational universe. Relationships to nature and natural phenomenon, to pattern and form, to the climes and landscapes that inform and form us, are sometimes only understood in a sensual manner, yes, through the senses.
It is in this space where the senses meet nature out beyond the horizon, deep in the forests, beside small streams or along jagged coastlines that the land artist of today responds to an old calling in the bones, a deep desire to make nature's relationships visible, tangible and sensual. The land artist is surely the ultimate visceral philosopher making sense of the world and its often hidden relationships, not through too much thinking or talk, but through revealing, sometimes unexpectedly, the patterns that connect elements to place, and all of us to earth and each other.
What sets such art apart from the myriad creations found in galleries or town squares, or adorning the domes of chapels and caves, is its willful exposure to the wild, its presence unprotected and its constituent elements still in direct relationship to the surrounds from which they come. In addition the intention not to intervene and maintain the art piece, but to let it embark on a journey of unraveling. Fragile collections of earthly matter shaped to turn our minds to reflection, our awareness to insight, our experience to invisible patterns waiting all around. Such art is about the direct experience of place both in the making thereof and in its appreciation. This appreciation of pattern in nature and recognising it and learning to understand the hidden relations all pattern reveals, has been at the core to our survival over the millennia. It is this appreciation and the practice of science that comes from it, that allows us to navigate both the tracking of a wild animal to feed the tribe and the ability to discover the secrets deep within the atom.
The art of tracking undertaken by our long past kin in the wild, might be nothing less than the storytelling that unfolds from following specific patterns and the relationships they reveal. Today land art is a kind of storytelling unfolding in the open air, revealing and developing a dialogue not only between the elements of place, but in a greater sense with the discourse of our time. What other art reveals more presciently, with such directness and lack of hyperbole what it means to be present to the unabated destruction of biodiversity, to the death of old forests, or the transformation of untouched millennial landscapes by concrete? What other art lets us glimpse the secrets of ecology in the unexpected?
Land art left to be formed by the vagaries of elemental forces sometimes finds its final state of completion through those very characters of chaos and upheaval that finally unravel it and return it to its origin. Impermanence is at the core of land art, and is also a significant attribute shaping the way such art is appreciated. Informing a temporal component that lends such work appreciation not unlike that of live performances in theatre or music, yet in this case form and natural processes of change are the performers.
Rainer Maria Rilke captured the depth of impermanence in his letter to Withold Hulewicz in November 13, 1925 where he writes: "Impermanence plunges us into the depth of all Being. And so all forms of the present are not to be taken and bound in time, but held in a larger context of meaning in which we participate. . . . in a sheer earthly, deep earthly, sacred earthly consciousness: that what we see here and now is to bring us into a wider - indeed, the very widest - dimension. Not in an afterlife whose shadow darkens the earth, but in a whole that is the whole."*
Our direct engagement with ecological processes and with the impermanence of phenomena that land art of the past forty-odd years highlights, brings us into a deeper appreciation of the present and in turn the observation of the patterns and processes that follow any change or disturbance we make in natural environments, this leads us into both appreciating and contemplating the ever-changing wholeness of nature. This art form that overtly includes the processes of ecological functions in its creation, has given us new eyes to both see and appreciate the devastation of the ecological crisis we are living through. It is also for the first time an art-form that specifically calls our attention to the process of decay and transience in nature and ecology. A transience, when appreciated for what it is – a return to the elements that are all around and from which we are all shaped – is the awareness of the hereafter. Of what comes next and a reminder of our eternal return to where we come from, not some heavenly realm, but an earthly reality of eternal change. The perpetual dialogue of life unfolding, reforming, turning, changing and returning.
What is this art form? An impulse to be at play with elements found in nature and allowed to remain rough, wild and in some sense unshaped? What is the new found appreciation of a collection of stones, depicting nothing but a collection of stones? The colour of a lone bright-yellow leaf caught in the wet of a rock in the centre of a stream – if nothing more than the contrast of bright-yellow against rock black, or maybe something more? What is the draw to create a giant tapestry of woven grasses hanging from a tree in a manner that pays homage to the great weaver birds, other than to pay homage to the great weaver birds? What is the pull to balance rocks atop each other for hours, only to have them tumble down with the first gust of wind? To what end the slow witnessing of decay of a circle of leaves placed in perfection on a forest floor, now changing with the weather and the season, to reveal what started out as a bright colour wheel is now nothing more than a faint pattern of fallen leaves?
Land art is a potent realisation of the transience of all things, and in particular the ephemeral nature of anything our culture or species produces, whether we leave our mark amongst the tracks of wind, storms, and searing heat or in the gradual change of the biosphere over centuries and eons. It is a reminder that the hereafter, however much our ideals may reach to the heavens, is always a return to earth.
Like a secret waiting in the path
I notice it again and again,
waiting for someone or something to discover its small
ribs of a spine, rising out of the earth like a great range of mountains, only to slip beneath the surface in a whorl where the sand lifts off the cliff and headlong into waves.
Who would have thought rocks might align to make a statement of purpose, unbeknown to other eyes, but our own?
And there above the clash of waves,
concentric rings of large then smaller rocks and the shards of shells,
lie scattered by the rush of winds, is revealed a wild return
to the hereafter that follows everything, through the smallest of windows, even the stones.
* Translation by: Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, from the book: A Year with Rilke, 2009, published by HarperCollins.
Galeo Saintz is a conservation adventurer, inspirational speaker, a mountain wilderness guide and occasional writer.He is the founder and director of the Wild Peace Campaign. Chairman of the World Trails Network, a global platform of the world's leading hiking and walking trails. Together with visionary co-founders he has helped establish numerous landscape wide conservation initiatives all with a remarkable journey or trail element at their core. His first collection of poems are being collated and cover subjects from walking to wandering and wilderness. Galeo sits on numerous conservation NGO boards. He consults emerging business ventures to embrace a values driven approach to their enterprise ... www.galeosaintz.com