an exhibition of works
curated by Sarah Wilton and Simon Olley
artists include: Eric Timothy Carlson; Menna Cominetti; Sara Ludy; Simon Olley; Sarah Wilton and Joel Wyllie
Special contribution text from Matt Simmons
Private View: Friday 2nd August - 6pm till late
Peer Critique: Saturday 3rd August - 2pm
Continues Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th August - 12 to 5pm
Un-earthing Bedrock: Towards a Geology of Contemporary Art Practices
Bedrock delineates a geological feature; inherently variable, its makeup is determined by seismic shift resulting in a composite of material that in turn provides the foundations for the landscape as we see it on the surface. Above the Bedrock lies a layer of unconsolidated rock or substratum followed by subsoil, the surface horizon and an organic horizon layer. In Stratigraphy, these stratum are labelled R, C, B, A and O. The notion of time in geological terms is one entirely alien to our own, with transformations transpiring over millions of years. As such, this subterranean and largely invisible landscape remains unfamiliar, removed from our own temporal mortality while simultaneously shaping those landscapes on which our human experience, our very notions of the earth and natural world are formulated. Bedrock is universal, it does not designate geographic or social boundaries, but provides the foundations for a landscape within which we operate, dissecting it both physically and politically over time. In comparison to the turbulent world of borders and political relations on the surface, Bedrock is constant.
This exhibition takes this notion of Bedrock as its own foundation and conceptual framework, an exploration of our connection to the earth through science, popular culture and spiritual mysticism. The purpose of this essay therefore, is to provide a contextual underpinning, to establish the historical and social milieu from which these practices have emerged. Through doing so, we aim to interrogate and throw light on our collective yet diverse perspectives on landscape, the earth and our place within it as both product and inhabitant of its surface. Most importantly perhaps, we seek to provide a platform from which art is able to cement itself as a discursive force or intervention capable of reinforcing or subverting these viewpoints on our worldly surroundings.
Our relationship with the earth has forever been integral to our very existence. The earth’s function however, while always maintaining a status of provider, has altered irrevocably over the course of our evolution. For the hunter-gather archetype, the earth represented food and shelter, it provided entirely for his sustenance and survival. While ‘living off the land’ for early man meant relying on it for his immediate existence, in the modern age this sustenance requires money and commerce. In today’s society, the earth’s greatest material assets are no longer seen as those cherished by early man, but those of its very makeup; its natural resources. We might argue that this has been the case ever since man harnessed raw materials; with the invention of tools comes skills, which in turn leads to an exchange in services for goods. With trade in place, the way is paved for the arrival of money and the development of industry and organised labour. While this development has taken place over millions of years, it is no revelation that we have long inhabited an age where the earth itself has become commodity.
While the harvesting of ores, minerals and fossil fuels is a source of colossal capital for those relative industries, it would be short sighted to state that this perception of the earth as commercial asset is applicable to all. There are of course many cultures that hold entirely dissimilar attitudes towards the natural world and their surrounding landscape, a view perhaps more in tune with the earth as entity, one worthy of respect or even worship. We refer here, to the many indigenous cultures that see the earth both as their material and spiritual provider, elevating nature to the position of creator or spiritual power. Yet even this spiritual connection to the natural world is not immune to what we might call a corruption via commoditisation and popular culture. During the European colonial period it is unarguable that the treatment towards native peoples was one of violence and oppression through the forcible acquisition of land and labour. This attitude towards indigenous populations can be interpreted as depicting European societies fear towards the Other. Emmanuel Levinas declared that there are three distinct responses when confronted with the Other; the first being one of violence, to kill in an attempt to exterminate the harbinger of difference. This ultimately fails, as the concept of alterity itself survives beyond its physical embodiment1. If during this period we witness the first stage of response to the Other, then we could argue that today we are witnessing the third stage; to defuse the Other through integrating it into our own totality – remaking it as part of ourselves2. This development can perhaps best be observed through the rise in new age spiritualism, the market for native arts and crafts and the appropriation of native signs and customs. This appropriation of culture depicts the capital value of the exotic and its marketability to economically dominant societies; it depicts our desire to connect with that which is foreign. As Deborah Root explains in her book, Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation and the Commodification of difference, there is a more sinister undercurrent to this practise of cultural appropriation; such acts imply a right to that which is appropriated, and an assumption of prior ownership or entitlement on behalf of the appropriator. As Root states, ‘Appropriation reduces the living people and culture to the status of objects.’3 In short, while on the surface the marketing of native crafts and spirituality may appear to illustrate progressions in multicultural attitudes, an appropriation of a cultural sign carried out without the consultation of its owners serves to reinforce what Root calls a ‘colonial space.’4
We have mentioned briefly the effects of appropriation on spiritual beliefs, many of which hold a connection to the earth as a spiritual body, but what occurs when landscape itself becomes the subject of appropriation? As Simon Schama states in his text Landscape and Memory, ‘ Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is a work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.’5 Here Schama argues that our notion of landscape, or rather a particular landscape is denoted as much by our personal memories towards it as its geographical or geological features. As a case in point, the landscape of Arizona is perhaps one of the most easily recognizable within Western culture. A Wikipedia entry entitled List of Films Shot in Arizona perhaps goes some way in providing explanations for this phenomenon, namely, that the Arizonan vista is the location for countless mainstream films that have permeated our collective perception of the place. From a plethora of Westerns to Easy Rider, Arizona has provided the backdrop to numerous narratives of adventure, violence and freedom under expansive blue skies. As such, our view of Arizona has been so irreversibly moulded by cinema and popular culture that it is hard to conceive of it as a place in its own right; the fact that Arizona is home to numerous indigenous peoples such as the Navajo and the Hopi often remains forgotten outside of their generally incorrect representations within Hollywood cinema.
This example serves to illustrate a broader point; in our digital age, our notions of the earth, of landscape and of place are becoming deterritorialized. Through Google maps we can observe the geographic topology of almost anywhere in the world and through street view we can even visit it at ground level. This inherent globalising effect of the digital gives way to an entirely new way of seeing our planet; No longer reliant on books or television reports, we can visit the furthest corners of the earth via a few clicks of a mouse. In a sense, such technology has further demystified what was once unknown.
Figure 1: Arizona Desert Sunset Mountains Wallpaper HD
While Google Maps may make the surface of our globe familiar, there is technology that probes further, providing insight into the most inaccessible areas of the earth; it’s interior. 3D seismic mapping provides us with a graphic display of the earth’s geological makeup and provides a suitable example from which to examine the influence of science and the digital over our image of the natural world. The language of 3D mapping is both one of geophysics and commerce. Through these technologies, the earth is effectively laid bare as data. As such, we witness the mediation of the natural via the digital. Effectively translating one language to another, we are presented with a pictorial representation of nature which is entirely abstracted, its form rendered unrecognizable. This gridding or cartographic practice is one that demarcates earth as commodity, a language of industry and carbon based energy interests such as oil drilling or Fracking. In effect, through scientific illustrations of the earth’s crust, we witness a double Othering of what we considered the familiar. Primarily, we are confronted with the earth beneath the surface, and secondly, we witness it as deterritorialized into an entirely foreign space – floating digital matter navigated via the cursor, we are able to zoom in and out and view from all angles – the digital removes all sense of perspective and scale. While we have mentioned the skewing of spatial perception, there is another layer of distortion that we are subjected to through this process, the distortion of time. When examining seismic maps, we effectively view an abstract timeline upon a vertical axis – each layer represents a stratum of rock that in turn denotes its geological age. When viewing such timelines in real life cross-sections of earth, this progression of time is visible. However the abstraction witnessed through seismic mapping serves to completely remove our awareness of physical forms, and with them, our signifiers for time. Of course, those accustomed to such technology have learnt its signs, yet there remains a definite removal. The time of the digital is constantly within the present; its form is software, files and code, matter that appears to hold no physical presence whatsoever, the space of the digital is diametric to the physical world, a space within which time itself is warped. In short, when viewing the earth through such technologies, we do so through a lens of removal, one that alienates us from every facet inherent to its natural subject.
We might propose then, that in our synthetic society we exist at odds with the earth itself; that we exist in an age of opposition to the natural world. This however is not the case, for the synthetic and the natural are of course one and the same. In his 1968 essay A Sedimentation of the Mind, Robert Smithson explains, ‘Even the most advance tools and machines are made of the raw matter of the earth. Today’s highly refined technological tools are not much different in this respect from those of the caveman.’6 From this then, we return to the concept of earth as provider, no matter to what extent society appears to separate itself from the natural world, the earth remains integral to this process. Michael Heizer sums up this theory in an interview in 1984 stating, ‘synthetics are intensifications of the organic sources.’7 Within the same text, Smithson compares geological systems to those systems of the mind, the continual erosion of thought and concept, giving way to new ideas and cognitive processes8. This is an apt analogy, and the mention of Smithson and Heizer an important one, for having navigated a number of ways in which society and culture relate to the natural world, we will now ask how art might seek to reflect and interrogate such relationships.
In their landmark text A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari adopted a geological metaphor to illustrate all worldly systems, proposing that all things are an amalgamation of heterogeneous elements which when fused adopt the characteristics both of their individual components and of a new whole, a process they named a double articulation9. This is a concept quite succinctly demonstrated through Geology as demonstrated by Manuel De Landa in his interpretation of the text;
‘...each one of the two articulations involves substances and forms: sedimentation is not just about accumulating pebbles (substance) but also about sorting them into uniform layers (form); while consolidation not only effects new architectonic couplings between pebbles (form) but also yields a new entity, a sedimentary rock (substance). Moreover, these new entities may themselves accumulate and sort (as in the alternating layers of schist and sandstone that make up Alpine mountains) and become consolidated when tectonic forces cause the accumulated layers of rock to fold and become a higher scale entity, a mountain’10
The same of course can be said of Art. Any work of art encompasses concepts from those which have preceded it, but as a product of its environment, art will naturally amalgamate any number of diverse and often contradictory elements within its totality. Art therefore becomes a product not only of its own context, but the context of all artworks and of all systems they operate within. Ultimately, this forms an interconnected system with no beginning and no end termed by Deleuze and Guattari as a Rhizome11. Adopting this theoretical model, artworks are able to resist compartmentalisation, connecting with each other as with the rest of the world, regardless of past present or future. When discussing the movements of art history, it is this we should bear in mind; rather than visualizing a timeline from which works in the present day find their root; we should instead envisage an open discourse between work both in the present day, the past and indeed the future. Only in this way can we allow for an open plane upon which trains of artistic thought can be discussed, developed and disseminated, yet also adapted and reinterpreted.
One such train of thought can be observed in 1915, within the painting of Mondrian on the advent of his discovery of a new and ideal form of representation. Composition 10 in Black and White (1915) marks Mondrian’s departure from Cubism into his own unique form of perfect abstraction. While not yet fully realised, the image marks the conception of Mondrian’s signature style; one which sought to revise a world view on landscape and the natural world. Indeed Mondrian’s departure from figurative representation is not surprising when we consider his interest in philosophy. His desire to depict the world as it really was, the truth beyond the visual, reveals that this progression into abstract modes of representation was integral to his world view. In turn, Kenneth Clark in his text Landscape into Art provides an additional contextual reasoning for a departure from figurative landscape painting, he writes, ‘The microscope and telescope have so greatly enlarged the range of our visions, that the snug, sensible nature which we can see with our own eyes has ceased to satisfy our imaginations.’12 Here again, in a text from 1949, we see the mediatory lens of technology filtering our view of the earth. For Mondrian and his contemporaries of the De Stijl movement, such abstraction presented a deconstructive engine through which to explore and promote a utopian vision of perfect order and spirituality. This notion of spirituality, and in particular, the spiritual essence of landscape was of particular relevance to Mondrian, who throughout his career had attempted to express this mysticism within nature. Through the employment of geometry and primary colour, Mondrian endeavoured to purify the natural, reducing it to base elements that were no longer pictorially specific in form to precise locations but presented a universal depiction of the world beyond, of emotion and spirituality in the face of beauty. As Mondrian himself wrote;
‘Therefore art can express style precisely, whereas in nature style remains for the most part veiled. To express style precisely, art must free itself from the natural appearance of things so as not to represent them: only in an abstract appearance can it represent the tension of form, the intensity of color and the harmony revealed by nature. ‘13
The formal geometry of Mondrian’s painting can also be seen to reference other lines imposed upon landscape, those of cartography, used to demarcate land towards geographic, political and economic means. In some ways then, Mondrian’s use of the grid structure can be seen as a subversion of its typical usage within the map.
While we may often associate geometry with mathematics and science, it is prevalent within the natural world, Heizer elaborates on this stating, ‘Geometry is organic. The study of crystallography demonstrates that there is more geometry in nature than man could ever develop...there is no sense of order that doesn’t exist in nature.’14 Again we return to Heizer, and with good reason. While Mondrian’s concern lay within painting which he deemed the most flexible means of aesthetic expression, another more recent movement concerned with landscape sought to transgress entirely from two dimensional, pictorial form; favouring instead to work upon the earth itself. In the mid to late 1960’s, the Land Art movement subverted previous incarnations of the landscape in art by introducing the concept of landscape as art. This shift from subject to object, often realized on a vast scale, threw into jeopardy existing ideas on sculpture, art as commodity and our relationship with the natural world, in particular, our intervention or imposition upon it.
The term Land Art often recalls the earthworks of Smithson and Heizer such as the iconic Spiral Jetty (1970) and the immense 244,000 tonne displacement Double negative (1969-70)both of which still exist today. However, viewing Land Art as a movement concerned solely with mans influence over the landscape would fall significantly short of the movements intentions. Firstly we should consider the types of spaces favoured by early Land Art practitioners for their work. Often, the desert was the landscape of choice; however, dry lakes, mudflats and all manner of similar sites were also employed. It is neutrality that these locations have in common, Land Art was not concerned with landscapes of picturesque beauty, but with periphery spaces. The emptiness of the desert, often depicted within cinema evokes a sense of endless possibility, a tough landscape where man must come to terms with himself as much as his environment. In certain cases, post-industrial landscapes were preferred, those that Smithson describes as being ‘disrupted or pulverized’ in a process of ‘denaturalization’14. In all cases, the landscape of Land Art stood in stark contrast to those typically evoked within the art that had gone before.
Figure 3: Michael Heizer, Double Negative (1969-70), as seen from Google Earth, 28/07/2013.
As much as early earthworks were interested in intervening with landscape, they were equally concerned with the temporal nature of such work and the disparity between their own time and that of the environment they operated within. This concern is perhaps best demonstrated through works such as Walter De Maria’s Desert Cross (1969) or even Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking (1967), the life spans of which ranged from months to minutes in the case of the latter. Other works were also subject to erosion and decay, Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown (1969) and Glue Pour (1970) would both have a temporary physical presence. In the case of these works however, we can note another vein of investigation within the movement, that of the displacement or introduction of materials. While works like Spiral Jetty constituted the moving of matter to a new location, Asphalt Rundown and Glue Pour see the introduction of the synthetic within the natural landscape, bringing the two into direct confrontation to create new forms.
Of course, while Land Art is commonly considered a form of sculptural practice, the remote nature of many works means this view has in part been shaped by our experience of them through photographs. It is only in visiting the work, when we cannot comprehend it as a totality, but instead must walk around and in it, that we realise that many pieces were actively engaged with the viewer’s navigation of landscape and spatial surroundings. As such, Land Art was as much concerned with the surrounding environment, as the work itself, often engaging with historical, mythological and social issues inherent to its site. One such work which perhaps sums up all of these concerns within early Land Art, is Dennis Oppenheim’s Relocated Burial Ground (1978) in which Oppenheim drew a large cross in industrial primer upon the landscape. While this form of mark making appears to reference mapping and demarcation of land, it also holds religious connotations. The eventual erasure of the synthetic primer serves to highlight the gradual erosion of manmade spiritual sites within collective memory and the tangible landscape.
From this brief exploration of previous art practices, we can discern that many of the concerns expressed within such movements maintain their relevance today. Our relationship with the earth is both ever evolving and paradoxical. While the earth itself denotes our very existence, society continually seeks to improve upon it. Whether through genetically modified crops, plastic surgery or the Palm islands in Dubai, mainstream societies existence appears to be at once dependant on the earth, and in contention with it. The interventions of Land Art and the painting of Mondrian both sought to engage with the earth on levels relevant to the time of their creation, and the art of today is no different. Whereas Land Art focussed on denaturalized or peripheral landscapes, artists in today’s climate may explore any terrain as denaturalized through satellites and ubiquitous screens. There are grounds to, for exploration of the spiritual investment in landscape, still prevalent today as a counter attitude towards earth as commodity. In what ways though, can artists hope to engage critically with an earth we believe ourselves to be so familiar with? How can art escape our preconceived notions of place, formed through popular culture and digital media? One such way would be for artists to create their own landscapes. Through creating new vistas, unfamiliar to society’s gaze, we may hope to provide critical distance, to rid ourselves of a globalised notion of place, shedding light on issues in our own material world.
In comparison to the changes witnessed within humanities past, the earth itself has altered very little, the stratum of bedrock appears static to the stratum of human history. One thing however remains certain, that no matter the shifts within society, our dependency on the earth is unquestionable; the earth itself provides the Bedrock for human existence.
1 Levinas, E., 1961 Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, Translated by Alphonso Lingis, 1969 Pennsylvania, Duquesne University Press.
3 Root, D., 1996, Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, and the Commodification of Difference, Boulder, Westview Press, p.72.
4 Ibid, p.73.
5 Schama, S., 1995, Landscape and Memory, London, Harper Collins, pp. 6 – 7.
6 Smithson, R., 1968, A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects, reprinted in Kastner, J., and Wallis, B., 1998, Land And Environmental Art, New York, Phaidon Press, p. 212.
7 Heizer, M., 1984, ‘Interview with Julia Brown’, Sculpture in Reverse, reprinted in Kastner, J., and Wallis, B., 1998, Land And Environmental Art, New York, Phaidon Press, p.228.
8 Smithson, R., 1968, A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects, reprinted in Kastner, J., and Wallis, B., 1998, Land And Environmental Art, New York, Phaidon Press, p. 211.
9 Deleuze, G., and Guattari F., 1980, A Thousand Plateaus, Translated by, Massumi, B., 5th ed. London, Continuum, p.45.
10 De Landa, M., June 2005, The Geology of Morals: A Neo-Materialist Interpretation, [Online], available at http://www.t0.or.at/delanda/geology.htm. [Accessed 24th July 2013].
11 Deleuze, G., and Guattari F., 1980, A Thousand Plateaus, Translated by, Massumi, B., 5th ed. London, Continuum, p.7.
12 Clark, K., 1976, Landscape into Art, cited in Jackson, J.B., 1984, The World Itself, reprinted in Kastner, J., and Wallis, B., 1998, Land And Environmental Art, New York, Phaidon Press, p. 194.
13 Mondrian, P., 1917 – 1918, Neoplasticism in Painting, translated by Jaffé, H.L.C., in Abrams, H.N., 1971, De Stijl, New York, [Online], available at http://modernistarchitecture.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/piet-mondrian%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Cneoplasticism-in-painting%E2%80%9D-1917-1918/ [Accessed 26th July 2013].
14 Heizer, M., 1984, ‘Interview with Julia Brown’, Sculpture in Reverse, reprinted in Kastner, J., and Wallis, B., 1998, Land And Environmental Art, New York, Phaidon Press, p.228.
List of Illustrations
Figure 1: Leapfrog 3d modelling software, [Online], available at http://www.im-mining.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/leapf.jpg, [accessed on 23rd July 2013].
Figure 2: Arizona Desert Sunset Mountains Wallpaper HD, [Online], available at http://gembez.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Arizona-Desert-Sunset-Mountains-Wallpaper-HD.jpg