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Words on THE LAND

by J. A. Lee (2004)

An art site in New Mexico

THE LAND/an art site, Inc., maintains a twenty-acre site about eighty miles southeast of Albuquerque, NM, as a venue for environmental art. The setting is typical of central New Mexico's arid mountain landscape: stands of piñon and juniper encircling a meadow of desert grasses, yucca, and cholla cactus; a sharply rising rocky ridge with a view of the surrounding Manzano Mountains; an arroyo that is almost always dry. Directors Thomas Cates and E. Nuevo, along with guest curators, have been mounting shows on the site since 1997, featuring the work of installation artists, video and sound artists, architects and engineers, poets, musicians and dancers, among others. One show was installed entirely on the Internet - very low-impact. In 2000, Nuevo and Cates established THE LAND/an art site, Inc., as a nonprofit organization.

View of THE LAND from a ridge about eighty miles southeast of Albuquerque, in the foothills of the Manzano Mountains New Mexico.
View of THE LAND from a ridge about eighty miles southeast of Albuquerque, in the foothills of the Manzano Mountains New Mexico. (Images courtesy of THE LAND)
The relatively remote site presents challenges as well as rewards. It's more than an hour's drive from Albuquerque, and accommodations are pretty rudimentary. Resident artists usually bring a roof with them—a tent or a truck with a camper shell. There's a sheltered work area and simple latrine and shower facilities, but no electricity or running water. Accordingly, a residency is not often longer than a few days or a week. But that amount of time draws you into an intimacy with your surroundings that can be revelatory. This is nearly always apparent in the work of artists who have been able to give THE LAND a good chunk of their time. After spending time at the site, some have significantly revised or entirely discarded the project they started out with.

An artist spending time at THE LAND usually leaves language behind. It's a contemplative experience enjoyed mainly in silence (not the land's silence, but the artist's), and it can be extraordinary, even transcendent, to absorb through the senses without recourse to naming or describing. This experience provokes questions about the nature of language itself— and paradoxically, for me, is worth talking about and, I think, making art about. Most of us are artists or writers in part because we have a particular need to tell about things, and when we reenter the flow of language, we look for a vocabulary for telling. It can be a vocabulary of objects and images, or of words, or both.

Environmental art is about making us more aware of its (and our) surroundings, and looking for new ways to examine our relationship with the environment as a living thing. We use words, among other tools, to mediate for us in that relationship, and our understanding of nature and of the environment is bound up with how we use the words "nature" and "environment." We approach the things of the earth in part through the nouns we have invented to identify them, the verbs we use to codify their functions and activities, and the adjectives with which we describe their features. We use names to claim ownership of things. Words can be used to describe a thing or idea, or to take its place. We also use words to celebrate and to caution.

THE LAND/An art site
THE LAND/An art site
Words are rarely the focus of environmental art so it can be difficult to find precedents. Ian Hamilton Finlay is one. More often it's a matter of conceptual or ephemeral works, or works without an audience, like Richard Long's or Hamish Fulton's walks, needing to be documented, and this is done in a straightforward, descriptive way, as it should be (1). But what about art that examines and challenges words, looking beyond their purely descriptive function? How can words be used to investigate both the relationship between land and language, and the nature of language itself? Here's another way of framing the question: If land art is in part a radical reaction to landscape painting, a way of entering into and transforming the land itself rather that making a representation of it, what can be proposed as a corresponding reaction to "nature writing," the literary equivalent of landscape painting?

These questions can be explored in ways almost as varied as language itself. I'd like to see pieces that use words as abstract forms, as environmental sounds, and in more traditionally communicative written or spoken texts ranging from haiku (2) to harangues to collections of quotations to uncompromising ecological tracts. Words can be written on rocks, trees, earth or, if you can figure out a way to do it, water or air, and using any number of media from a finger in the soil to chalk, charcoal or crayon to sticks, soil, clay, or plant matter; installed as objects in an equally wide variety of forms and media; or declaimed, sung, shouted, whispered, or recorded and played back.

Cross section of THE LAND.
Cross section of THE LAND.
And I think there has to be place for words on paper. Because of the natural physicality of land art, it may be easier to think of ways to install words as objects than of ways to make texts that are just texts. One challenge is that of finding a genuinely site-specific vocabulary. Words descriptive of geographic features or plant life, for instance, are likely to be generic. My description of THE LAND in the first paragraph of this article illustrates this. An installation artist has to understand every aspect of a space in order to make full use of it; similarly, in order to make a site-specific environmental piece using language, you have to get to know the site well enough to discover, or invent, a vocabulary that corresponds to its unique character. An imaginative approach to the problem might be to consider, not what words can be applied to the land, as paint is applied to a canvas, but how a text can be drawn from it, the way the shape, dimensions and contours of a building or object can be derived from the topography of its setting—words not only on the land, but from the land.

It's true that, as a rule, the plastic arts exist to say what words can't. But art breaks rules. It's also true that words can be shifty, inexact, and often beside the point. That makes them interesting (and maddening). They can also be a rich source of ideas for making art, and environmental art is, among other things, about ideas. There are as many ideas yet to be explored in making art on the land as there are artists doing it, and, for me at least, experimenting with language as a medium is an especially provocative and promising one.

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(1) But some of Fulton's large, gallery-installed, documentary texts approach the visual impact of concrete poetry.

(2) The classic haiku of Basho's era might be a model for site-specific textmaking: improvised on the spot, and usually noting some interaction of elements in the natural surroundings, using the simplest words, without metaphor or decoration.

For a list of other artists on that look at text and language, scroll down to TEXT under CATEGORY in the Artist Index.

© 2010