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What Is Earth Art?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated May 23, 2024
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Earth art, also known as land art or earthworks, is an artistic movement in which works are created in nature using available natural and introduced materials. Rock, soil, and water are mixed with materials like metal and concrete to create sculptures and other pieces from the landscape. Rather than placing art somewhere, this type of art creates a work from the landscape itself. Robert Smithson is one of the movement’s most representative artists and prominent figureheads.

The movement arose in the United States toward the end of the 1960s and early 1970s. Land artists rejected what they perceived as artificiality in and commercialization of art. Working to create landscape projects on a grand scale, earth art was non-transportable, difficult or impossible to display in a traditional museum setting, and was therefore thought to be beyond the influence of the commercial art market. Many pieces are ephemeral, created away from developed areas and left to change, erode, and disintegrate with time.

Despite a suspicion of the traditional gallery environment, earth art can still be displayed in a commercial setting. In many cases, photographs of the original work are shown, but earth artists also create smaller installation pieces. The outdoor projects are often the most influential and reveal a preoccupation with both science and nature.

Many projects are monumental in scale and can be found throughout the United States, Europe, and Africa. Large images or geoglyphs visible from high altitudes are drawn in sand or created with stones. Giant boulders become heads emerging from the ground, and balls made of tightly fitted logs greet forest visitors. Earth-moving equipment is often necessary to complete land art.

The most famous piece of earth art is likely the spiral-shaped jetty created by Robert Smithson in 1970. Smithson made his jetty protrude into Utah’s Great Salt Lake by arranging earth, rock, and algae in a long spiral shape. The fluctuating water levels influence how much of the piece is visible at any given time. Smithson also created works that could by exhibited in a gallery setting, such as his piece "Gravel Mirror with Cracks and Dust," made in 1968.

The 1968 group exhibition “Earth Works” in New York at the Dawn Gallery is considered to be the beginning of the earth art movement. One of the exhibition’s announcement cards was written in sand. Smithson gave the movement a critical framework that same year in his seminal essay, “The Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” which elaborated that earth art was a reaction to Modernism’s disconnection from social issues. Smithson’s 1973 death in a plane crash robbed the movement of its most prominent thinker and figurehead.

The roots of the earthworks movement are found in minimal and conceptual art. Most land artists are American men, including James Turrell, Michael Heizer, and Carl Andre. Nancy Holt and Alica Aycock are two prominent female earth artists. Australian Andrew Rogers and British artists Andy Goldsworthy and Chris Drury are influential non-American exponents of land art.

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Discussion Comments
By gldneaple — On Apr 14, 2014

The earth art of Rapa Nui and Giza is actually a giant stone rebus volcanology. The Easter ring of volcano statues is a rebus of the real ring of fire volcanoes they sit within, even to the dormant and erupting tops. Add faces to the real ring of volcanoes and they’d be twins.

Giza is a rebus when you restore its reflective mirrorlike casing stone long ago removed. It is a rebus of super volcanic acid rain aerosol reflectives that surround earth in stratosphere and reflect away the sun, thus cooling the earth. See Pinatubo 1991. Easter is the key. The others read the same. It is a giant pictionary across earth, with the instruction to cool the planet. We simply took real facts and phenomena unable to be changed by present day humanity and connected them.

By clintflint — On Feb 07, 2014

@MrsPramm - There are some amazing earth art artists around though. Often they will make sculptures that aren't going to last very long, like with leaves or with stacked pebbles, rather than something more permanent that requires real change to the landscape.

There have been some gorgeous ones recently made from sand and from snow, where the artist will basically use their footprints to etch out patterns. You can see pictures of this online. And it's completely non-commercial, because how could they possibility sell something like that?

By MrsPramm — On Feb 06, 2014

@croydon - You still get jerks who decide that they are going to do a big art installation in a woodland or forest area, using the Earth as art, but without any concern about the environmental impact it might have. It doesn't happen as often now as it used to because the public gets pretty annoyed (the internet is good at letting people know about this sort of thing) but it does still happen.

To be honest, I think aside from the selfish nature of it, this kind of installation is simply bad art. They are almost always trying to make a comment on the environment by placing the art in that context. Decent art has context. If the artist doesn't understand that, then they aren't a very good artist.

By croydon — On Feb 05, 2014

It's kind of ironic really that earth art projects are now considered to be a less commercial option than other forms of art.

When I think about this kind of art I can't help but picture the famous heads on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and according to some historians they were basically a venture that was very similar to commercialism and ended up ruining the environment of the entire community.

Supposedly, the trees were all cut down on the island in order to move the heads from the quarry to the ocean and they were carved for chieftains or other people of power, in order to display their worth (which is very similar to why some people buy art today and pay extravagant prices).

Today the fact that earth art can't really be moved means that it can't really be sold off. The people of Rapa Nui basically decided that they were willing to pay the price.

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