Skip to main content

Earth Art

Cathedral Termite Mounds

Cathedral Termite Mounds

Lower Falls, Letchworth State Park

Art is in nature all around us, and we are not the only architects on this planet. Beavers and their are the most well known builders, but many other species construct elaborate structures out of natural material that is surprisingly strong and beautiful. Cathedral termites create mounds over fifteen feet high and Sociable Weaver birds make nests that can house over 400 individuals. Clearly many human structures are so large they can be seen from space, but could we learn to make art in a way that celebrates the forces of the land rather than dominates it?

In the works considered by Amanda Boetzkes in The Ethics of Earth Art the artworks “mediate contact with elemental forces that overwhelm the senses and confound the stability of one’s perceptual apparatus" (4). By "elementals" she means things like land, water, wind, fire, and lightning. Like beavers with their dams and bower birds with their nests, humans have affected the landscape with their large projects, ranging from the Great Serpent mound created by prehistoric indigenous people in Ohio to modern-day Letchworth park. The landscapes that America preserves delight in the power of water, the height of mountains, and the openness of vistas.

The Earth art movement also frequently makes art that is ephemeral, wherein the performance of creating the piece is the artwork.  The work of British artist Richard Long, who walked for days through a volcanic landscape, used this ephemeral line (then documented through photographs) to explore the “point of contact between the body and the earth" (Boetzkes). I believe when regular people enjoy walking through Letchworth, they also seek this kind of artistic overwhelming of the senses and enjoyment of bodily contact. They navigate an open world that is markedly different from their usual environment, an alien place full of new species, markings, and forces. Every landscape painting interprets that world in some way: viewers see a different world than they are used, with different implicit rules.

Mountain Torrent

Leopold Widlizka, Mountain Torrent (ca. 1935-1940)

Earth artist Robert Smithson coined the idea of “site” and “nonsite” when he brought back materials to a museum that could represent his immovable earth art pieces. Like words in language, the materials were understood to be representational of the larger work. Smithson writes, "It could be that 'travel' in this space is a vast metaphor. Everything between the two sites could become physical metaphorical material devoid of natural meanings and realistic assumptions" (364). Virtual, augmented, and even smartphone technologies already are rendering such navigation a reality. In a similar manner, we could unite New Deal Gallery landscape paintings as the nonsite while experiencing Letchworth as the site, where the experience of both localities would create a more whole-some experience.

Works Consulted

—Boetzkes, Amanda. The Ethics of Earth Art. University of Minnesota, 2010.

—Smithson, Robert. "A Provisional Theory of Non-Sites." 1968. Robert Smtihson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam. University of California, 1996.

Earth Art