Click on photos to enlarge.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Earth Art

The Great Serpent Mound, Peebles, Ohio (Adams County)                        
This takes a moment to "get"
I think I was about twelve at the time, which would make it around 1957 when I first encountered Earth Art. There is, in southwestern Ohio, Adams County, near the small town of Peebles, a relatively old example of man's shaping the earth beneath his feet into an art effigy--in this case an undulating serpent that has come to be known as the Great Serpent Mound (above). It's over 1,300 feet long, some three feet in height, and depicts a snake with a coiled tail about to eat an egg. The mound was first reported in 1848 by a frontier survey team from the newly founded Smithsonian Museum. Over the years, researchers have attributed construction of the mound to as many as three different, prehistoric, indigenous cultures. Originally, the mound works were thought to be of the Adena Culture (500 AD.) in origin, but more recent carbon dating and evidence from 1996 studies, have caused many scholars to now believe that members of the so-called "Fort Ancient Culture" built it about 1070 AD. They admit, however, that the "Fort Ancient Culture" is something of the ultimate misnomer, in that it did not involve a fort, was not all that ancient, and wasn't really a "culture" so much as a group of relatively diverse Native American communities over several centuries.
Amelia Earhart, "painted" earthworks

Cut along dotted line--earth drawing (or etching).

Earth art elsewhere in the world goes back many centuries before Serpent Mound. Earth art is, after all, simply using the second most available natural art material (after water in it's various forms) to creatively communicate some idea or message. In the case of ancient art, the message may get lost, or at best, muddled in translation, but that makes it no less a work of art. Like our traditional concepts of art, earth art may be divided into three types, roughly analogous to drawing, painting, and sculpture. There is two-dimensional earth art where the earth is merely "disturbed" or etched, as seen in the mesa image (left). Though there is, perhaps, minimal disturbance to the underlying terrain, I count works such as the giant Amelia Earhart image, decorated (or colored) with plant life, as the equivalent of earth painting. Finally, three-dimensional sculptural works such as Ohio's slithering snake, involve instances in which the earth is "mounded" to create an upright or high-relief image. I suppose, technically, monumental "mountain" sculptures such as Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial fit into this category as well.

Mud Man sculpture in The Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall, England
Call me a purist if you like, but I'm reluctant to consider the introduction of manmade materials of any kind into the category of what I consider Earth Art. For instance, Christo, encircling an island in Biscayne Bay with pink plastic wrap may be pretty, but it's not Earth Art. Along the same line, carving up tree trunks, or binding together various organic materials, even in conjunction with environmental adjustments, is likewise not Earth Art. On the other hand, sand sculpting, temporary as it may be, definitely fits the definition. Though ancient man originated Earth Art, it wasn't until the 20th century that such works began to once more intrigue artists such as Robert Smithson when he took a bulldozer and created his famous 1970, Spiral Jetty (below), jutting out from the eastern shore of Utah's Great Salt Lake. Today, it's been allowed to degrade considerably and can best be seen in photos.

Spiral Jetty, 1970, Great Salt Lake Utah, Robert Smithson

Flamengo Park, Rio de Janeiro, Alfonso Reidy
Smithson awakened a renewed interest in Earth Art around the world. The Japanese have always had an affinity for this type of art as seen in the highly rectilinear, Mondrian-like "painting" involving cut stone, pristine, limestone gravel, and dense grass in a "contemplative garden" (below). Brazilian artist, Alfonso Eduardo Reidy, "paints" only with green grass of varying types and lengths in his swirling Flamengo Park, Rio de Janeiro (left). Meg White's Awaking Muse, (bottom) located on the grounds of the Prairie Center for the Arts near Chicago, dates from 2000. With it, she combines her talent for carving limestone with her sensitivities to the comforting cloak of mounded earth. Her muse looks as if she'd like to roll over and go back to sleep.
Japanese Earth Art.
Awaking Muse, Prairie Center for the Arts near Chicago, 2000, Meg White


No comments:

Post a Comment