Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 23, 2022
Land Art: Expanding the Atlas Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, June 26, 2021–January 2, 2022.
Land Art: Expanding the Atlas, installation view, Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, 2021–2022 (photograph by the author)

What is the value of staging an exhibition on Land art in the 2020s? The Nevada Museum of Art (NMA) in Reno posed this question over a year’s worth of programming on the topic during an acute year of climate crisis. Reno sits at the crossroads of two major ecosystems: the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada. It is the third-largest city in a state where 80 percent of the land is nominally public while its extractive economy is decidedly privatized. Land art, too, historically embraces such complexity. The 1960s-born genre originally claimed its removal from commercial art galleries as its critical calling card. Today such posturing appears dispossessive, undermining millennia of Indigenous cultural tradition and stewardship while simultaneously participating in art’s commoditization. But Land art was also, from its inception, prescient: it was mediated by site, material, documentation, and phenomenal perception. Its contemporary practitioners embrace these contradictions, merging conceptual gesture with public engagement in iterative, research-based processes.  

Land Art: Expanding the Atlas addressed these and other issues at the outset of a year’s thematic programming at the NMA. Building on the museum’s comprehensive Center for Art + Environment collection, curator Ann M. Wolfe saw the question of Land art’s relevance in fractal form. Organized around key words (Ground, Environment, Water, Space, City, Border, Ruin, Mark), the show presented work thematically and across forms of practice. In the Ruins room, for example, Beverly Buchanan’s stilling images in Ruins and Rituals (1979) of sited concrete blocks near a neo-Confederate monument in Macon, Georgia, contrasted with stills from Ana Mendieta’s performance in Burial Pyramid (1974), which show the artist lying naked among ruins of a Zapotec temple at Yagul, Oaxaca, Mexico. Under this curation, Buchanan’s and Mendieta’s works upended first-generation Land artists’ obsessions with fragments of cultures past to place bodies of women artists of color at the center of encounters with memory. Wolfe’s accompanying wall text defines “ruin” as the physical destruction or disintegration of something, being destroyed or reducing to a state of decay, collapse, or disintegration. Women’s bodies, themselves subject to authoritarian regulation and control, present a figurative counterpoint to imperial landscape convention. Rather than serving as compositional points of reference, in this exhibition they were agents in their own right. 

At its core, Land Art: Expanding the Atlas was an exhibition on global political ecology. The show opened with Tierra (2013), a large-scale photograph by Regina José Galindo documenting the artist’s performance standing naked in an open field as a bright orange excavator digs six-foot trenches around her body. Isolated, Galindo cut a sobering figure in an image plying the discrepancy between machine and human scale in a post-civil-war Guatemala and also reckoning with the excavation of mass graves and the courtroom trials of the country’s ex-president, Efraín Rios Montt, for genocide and crimes against humanity. Next to that photograph are two other items: Red River, Jemez, New Mexico (1999), a richly saturated print of an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture sinuously cut out of red earth near the eponymous Native American pueblo, and documentation of the performance piece OA_RR (2016) by the Aboriginal artist Reko Rennie (Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay/Gummaroi), in which a Rolls Royce is used to make sand engravings. In combination, all three ask the viewer to consider ground marks along a social continuum, a formal dialogue in the tradition of the visual seen as a symptom of cultural activity. 

Other exhibited artists made the point differently. Michelle Stuart’s time-bleached survey photographs of a New Jersey quarry site (1976) sat under pockmarked soil-pigment samples on muslin-mounted rag paper that provided context for material abstraction. Didactic panels from Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s Sierra Nevada: An Adaptation (2011), a proposal on watershed management, identified land as a substrate of human-led change and remediation. The video River (The Water Serpent) (2016), by Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota), documented a direct action near Standing Rock, North Dakota. In it, water protectors carry mylar-on-plywood shields aloft in a serpentine flow to distract police surveillance planes flying overhead. Luger’s video, produced in concert with Indigenous artist Rory Erler Wakemup (Chippewa), showcases a classic confrontation of self and representation in social conflict, but with bodies camouflaging earth. 

Land art typically asks viewers to consider their implication in the politics of looking. But what of artists’ own politics of making—the ethics of their engagement with land as subject, and of their role as witnesses to its complexities? The NMA attempted an answer with the 2008 founding of its Center for Art + Environment. With materials from over a thousand artists across seven continents, the center acts as a leading international repository for the study of human, natural, and built environments, providing context for understanding the history and politics of Land art. In this exhibition, the center’s reserves framed wall-hung works within ethical and political praxis via vitrines showcasing selected artists’ processes as iterative research. There, through the vendor correspondence, site-plans, and material studies undergirding the execution of Marsh Ruins (1981) and Blue Station Stones (1986), the viewer learned of Beverly Buchannan’s continued site-restitution work in coastal Brunswick, Georgia, and in Miami, Florida, respectively. Another vitrine displayed branded products editioned and sold by Christo and Jeanne-Claude to fund their Umbrellas project, shown on the wall in a 1991 diptych collage sold through the artists’ fundraising arm, “The Umbrellas, Joint Project for Japan and USA Corporation.” A third display contained land surveys, realtor correspondence, and firearm receipts shared between Michael Heizer and his rural Nevada fixer, Guido “Bob” Derio, to procure land and water rights for his monumental City project (1972–ongoing) at the edge of Area 51. This is the social work of demonumentalizing Land art. It opens knowledge of Land art’s material extraction to an expansive ecology of systems and actors crucial to its making. 

People are what is so often missing from portrayals of Land art as site-specific—not-landscape, not-architecture, according to Rosalind Krauss’s famous axiom. Indeed, people are behind the very concept of land, a concept ranging over political boundaries, ownership, use rights, and, at its vaguest, an expanse of grounded earth. Today’s critical approach to Land art is no exception to the growing insistence on putting people back into the picture. With it comes a different attitude toward the genre’s classic engagement with site, one that seeks to understand its extenuating politics. What began in the 1960s as an effort to frame site from afar now imports people to give meaning to “overlooked” locations. It is a point addressed, if obliquely, in the NMA exhibition through photographs of Repellent Fence/Valla Repelente (2015), an installation by the Native-mestizo collective Postcommodity featuring a two-mile ephemeral string of scare-eye balloons along the international border between Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta, Sonora. Conceived in collaboration with US and Mexican community leaders and state agencies, Repellant Fence highlights the inefficacy and shortsightedness of overwriting cultural interdependence on the land. Instead of hinging on sites administered from without, art appears as a sign of bonds between local people and terrain, an archive of community enduring in place. 

Archives are an architecture of thought and organization. They are biographies of their makers as much as of the subjects whose stories they tally. As materials for an art exhibition, however, archives and their ephemera speak less of outcome than of process. Converting archives into proper subjects is an ongoing impulse in conceptually inflected exhibition design and scholarship. Philipp Kaiser and Miwon Kwon’s 2012 exhibition Ends of the Earth at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, similarly drew on documentation, ephemera, and poststudio practice references to showcase the genre as essentially a media category focused on site. Emily Eliza Scott and Kirsten Swenson’s edited volume Critical Landscapes: Art, Space, Politics (University of California Press, 2014) shows this particularly well. An emerging body of literature proposes ecocritical art histories that place emphasis on decolonization and environmental justice, notably Andrew Patrizio’s The Ecological Eye: Assembling an Ecocritical Art History (Manchester University Press, 2019) and the recently published Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change (Routledge, 2021), edited by Subhankar Banerjee, T. J. Demos, and Emily Eliza Scott. 

Participating in this methodological turn, Land Art: Expanding the Atlas presented works of art reminding viewers of our own vanishing points in a land constantly, outrageously in crisis. As a survey of contemporary practices, it opened new vantages for further inquiry. Wolfe’s exhibition also helped place Reno at an important intersection of global art and environmental study. Featuring artists hailing from or working in over fifteen countries from the 1970s to the present, the show presented Land art as a global practice operating with and beyond the parochialism of physical location. But maybe there’s something to be said for parochialism, particularly in this place (the western United States) and time (early 2020s). For Land Art: Expanding the Atlas opened with a strange kind of affirmation of its own shortcomings—a land acknowledgement not only identifying the museum’s location on the occupied territories of the Numu, Newe, Wa She Shu, and Nuwu tribes, but conceding the continued underrepresentation of Indigenous cultures and lands within the exhibition itself. Affirming the NMA’s ongoing commitment to integrating Indigenous peoples and cultures into the work of art exhibitions in introductory wall text is a gesture. Perhaps their next exhibition will make its own role in occupation a central concern of practice.

Susanna Phillips Newbury
Department of Art, University of Nevada, Las Vegas