If I really wanted to upset the Daily Mail, I would probably call up Tracey Emin and ask her if she would be willing to collaborate with Greenpeace. “Green” seemed to be the big buzz-word of the pre-recession zeitgeist, but in a time of austerity, the environment sadly seems to have taken something of a back seat, retreating once more into the composting bins of eco-hipsters. Environmentalism has started to appear as self-absorbed, and at its worst, self-congratulatory; I can’t help but think of the joke about the Prius driver with one hand on the wheel and the other patting his own back. Serious concerns about humanity’s future on this planet have become muddied with branding and commercialism and the debate has been hijacked by insincere point-scoring by career politicians. But British environmentalism may have found an unlikely hero for its cause. Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966 – 1979 is an outstanding collection of works from some of the most iconic names in British Land Art, such as Tony Cragg, Richard Long, Antony Gormley and David Nash. Following developments in Land Art through the two decades that birthed modern awareness of numerous environmental issues, this exhibition functions as a return to those wholesome, hearty, almost childlike explorations of nature that make land art so appealing, as well as making some very salient points about the world around us.
Much of David Nash’s work is reminiscent of what it was like to learn to love nature. His 1977 work, Ash Dome, was a 22 year project consisting of 22 young ash trees being slowly shaped into a canopy. It instantly reminded me of those childhood games of building dens in the woods with your friends.Wooden Boulder, chronicles a three-decade-long journey of a block of wood from North Wales to the ocean, moved only by the forces of nature. Like a child at play, Nash lets loose the instinctual desire to shape, to create, and to give meaning to his environment. This inescapable sense of innocence permeates land art; an air of naïvety and purity that, bizarrely, serves to add to its highly provocative nature. Of course, we must remember that behind each of these serene depictions of the joys of nature is an artist making a bold statement about the world that they live in.
Few, however, make statements bolder than Tony Cragg. His 1978 assemblage, New Stones – Newton’s Tones (pictured) is a striking, fifty-square-foot piece composed of hundreds of tiny plastic fragments, many of which are recognisable elements of household products. The look and texture of the piece is really quite stunning, and is definitely appealing in terms of aesthetics, made all the more pleasant by the cheesey wordplay of its title. It has that kitschy, plastic, highly tonal feel that I so love – and iOS 7 users seem to so dislike. But itís a bright yellow piece of plastic with the Nestlé logo emblazoned across that makes me realise how I’ve missed the whole point of this beautiful mass of colour. For me, Cragg is making the point that these titular New Stones, no matter how appealing, are rapidly replacing “Newton’s Tones”, and I think Cragg wants us to react strongly to his pretense of naturality in his presentation of these objects. Like John Latham’s “Derelict Land Art: Five Sisters”, a documentation of the disposal of waste from oil shale extraction, the piece serves as a direct challenge to society’s rather blasé attitude towards the planet. In a world where the media is obsessed with throw-away stories, and the profits of international corporations are fueled by throw-away products, art that has remained relevant for five decades is truly eye opening.
But land art isn’t just about punchy messages of social responsibility. Land art can just as quickly swerve “off-message” and turn into a celebration of natural mediums, which is often when itís at its best. Hamish Fulton’s Seven Days documents a week long walk through the Rockies in the autumn of 1978, is as accessible as it is engaging. His humble and thematically uncomplicated pieces are reminiscent of the colloquial style of the works of Alfred Wainwright, who famously documented hundreds of walks in the Lake District. Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking (1967) is maybe the one piece that is simultaneously the simplest and the boldest – a path trampled into some grass near his home. These paths, formed as a product of people cutting across grassy areas, are known by numerous names – “desire lines”, “social trails”, “goat tracks” – and are all equally endearing ways to illustrate our intimate interactions with the environment. Richard Long may have captured his Line Made by Walking fifty years ago in London, but it makes me immediately think of the “desire line” by the traffic lights adjacent to the Law building. This illustrates the reason why viewing the exhibition was so affectingly personal; every piece in the gallery reflects something universal, even fundamental, about our interactions with nature. Land art is one of those rare areas of art that anyone can “get”, because there is nothing more human than wanting to participate in the world around us. Itís often said that art is what distinguishes people from animals, and despite the inescapably anthropocentric nature of such a judgement, I do feel that the desire to craft, to shape, and to nurture are all at the very core of the human experience.
Of course, the accessibility of land art should not be construed as it suffering from a deficit of artistic merit. An attitude does persist in the British cultural mindset that conceptual art somehow lacks the refinement or the rigour of mediums such as sculpture, or oil on canvas. I think that this is part-and-parcel of our “small-c” conservative culture in Britain; our inability, or more correctly, our unwillingness to depart from the comfort of traditional mediums. If you find yourself sceptical of more unconventional mediums, then take the time to enjoy Roger Ackling’s Night and Day. The medium is exquisitely innovative – “sunlight on wood”. Yet despite the abstract sounding description, this medium is immediately familiar to all of us; Ackling sketched his image using a magnifying glass to burn a smooth wooden block. The fact that he considers one of his works to be “a country sketch in the vale of the white horse” demonstrates how keen Ackling is for people to feel comfortable seeing one of his pieces next to a watercolour or a marble sculpture. These challenges to our perceptions of the use of natural mediums are distilled in the work of Antony Gormley. One of the biggest names in British Land Art, Gormley is an expert in provoking discussions about our perceptions of biomass, as well as our interactions with it. His two contrasting works from 1978, Flat Tree (pictured) and Upright Tree, respectively portray a tree sliced horizontally into dozens of discs, and one left intact, raising numerous thoughts as to how we view organic materials.
All of these themes, issues and concepts come together to create an incredibly refreshing discussion of the natural world, which challenges our preconceived notions of how we should behave in our environment, and what sort of legacy that we are leaving for future generations. land art breaks down our cultural perceptions about nature, removing the commercial and political bolt-ons that have distracted from meaningful stewardship of the Earth. By getting back to basics, this exhibition brings out our instinctual love for the land – the inbuilt desire of each human being to care for the planet, to contemplate our role within it, and to behave in a socially and environmentally responsible way. Be sure to catch this exhibit before it disappears after Christmas – it’s worth every minute of your time.
See the exhibition for yourself at the National Museum of Wales from September 28th to January 5th