Land Art of the American West
Bangkok-based architect Savinee Buranasilapin received ACC support in 2017 to explore land art in the U.S.
Over a period of three months, Ms. Buranasilapin embarked on an ambitious three-month research trip, visiting land art sites in six states - Nevada, Utah, Texas, Colorado, New York, and Connecticut. Here, she shares some insights from her journey.
On the hour-long drive to Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969), Las Vegas disappears quickly, leaving only road and desert. Approaching the piece’s coordinates, the pavement dissolves into a steep, rocky road, dwarfed by the mesas and plateaus around it.
I know Double Negative as conceptual art - its abstract form, its clever title, its relationship to the gallery world. Seeing it in person, all of that disappears, and I feel only the physicality of its setting. As grand as the work is, it’s actually small in its context. It acts as a viewing device to frame the desert on one end, and the lush, green Virgin River on the other. From atop the mesa, the horizon is visible in every direction, already an unsettling experience, where time and distance are measured by the shadows of clouds tracing topography as they sail past.
Walking into the cut, the work regains some of its perceived size. The newly revealed scale of the excavation makes the distance less walkable than it had appeared from the mesa surface. Geological strata, exposed in the side walls, measure time at an even slower scale. Double Negative‘s reputation had brought me to this unlikely spot on the earth’s surface, and the piece itself is very powerful. But the landscape which it barely manipulates is itself already unforgettable.
Salt Lake City, Utah
I used Salt Lake City as my travel/research base, in part because I wanted to experience parts of American culture that I haven’t encountered. It was a big shift for me, to spend time in a city where the emphasis is not on shopping, but on being outdoors. The area is laced with hiking trails, and people go to watch sunrises and sunsets as an organized event. Nature as spectacle – that’s a connection between everyday culture and the land art I’d come to see, which I hadn’t expected to find.
The Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), a non-profit research organization, has an outpost near the Nevada-Utah border. Wendover is a former airbase, with a handful of remaining buildings, which CLUI uses for their exhibition and artist-in-residence program. Architectural interventions are minimal, and the facility is unstaffed. I enjoyed the works on display, but it’s the curatorial attitude which impressed me most. The organization’s focus is on knowledge itself, more than material representation of that knowledge, or institutional brand management. The physical artifact is the land itself, not some representation in a museum.
Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) is two hours’ drive out of Salt Lake City. It’s a cinematic approach. The long journey doesn’t offer us any glimpse of the lake at all, until the road approaching the site curves gently around a hill, gradually revealing a view of the unearthly, shimmering red water of the Great Salt Lake and eventually the Spiral Jetty itself.
Just as the view to Spiral Jetty is controlled by the dirt road approaching it, the piece itself controls the view it affords to a visitor walking along it. It forces me into a constant turn, always looking outwards. To look straight ahead, I’m not looking at the path, I am looking across the lake beyond. To a visitor on the Jetty, the Jetty as a form disappears, and one’s left with a ritualized movement through a strange landscape.
Like Double Negative, this piece is most often shown in a single view from above. While many published images are indeed aerial photographs, the Jetty is sited next to a hill which lets us see it from higher ground, a perfect total image of the artwork in its context.
I visited Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1976) with a group organized by UMFA (Utah Museum of Fine Art). Every other year (alternating with a Spiral Jetty gathering), people from the art community make a day trip to the remote artwork, with live music and activities for people at the site. Art aficionados carpooled; a few stayed overnight. The nature of the artwork and the landscape demands a different manner of engagement from what I’m used to.
Despite the social circumstances, Sun Tunnels is the most isolated of the pieces I saw. It took four hours to drive there from Salt Lake City, mostly by dirt roads. There was no cellular service, and few landmarks to tell us that we were on the right route, making the journey seem especially intense. There was an element of “safety in numbers” to our group trip. Even more than Double Negative, it’s clear that this work is a device for pulling us into the land itself.
This leg of my trip is not a single piece of land art, but a whole town as destination. Marfa has a former Army Air base, with buildings which Donald Judd purchased in the early '70s, transforming them into an art museum, studio and home. I’m struck not only his ambition, but the seamless connection between his work and life. Seeing Marfa, I appreciate that he was much less the solitary artist I had in my mind; he engaged his colleagues and family through the work. His art collections reveal his friendships and collaborations.
Relationships and Artistic Engagements
The physical experience of visiting these artworks is only a component of the appreciation I’ve gained. Surrounding the works themselves, there’s a lot of other material, including publications, that offers insight into the artists’ intentions and how we might see the works. Some of this evidence, which I didn’t expect to find, is found in the communities they were a part of. The artists had relationships with their families, peers, local art communities in their adopted or temporary homes. A conventional narrative of artists moving to the desert is that they were seeking isolation, but none of them were alone.
(Below) Savinee Buranasilapin on studio tour at the Judd Foundation in Marfa, TX