Project Space: The Third Site of Land Art

by Jennie Lamensdorf

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      Images of ‘60s and ‘70s land art feature colossal works in epic landscapes that are easy to imagine as pilgrimage sites. Most of us, however, will only ever know these works from a handful of archival photographs. Other than the chronicling of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) since the Great Salt Lake first swallowed it in the early 1970s, documentation of land art rarely portrays the work as changing or as an active system. Nevertheless, over the past few decades land art has eroded, cracked, grown, and even in some cases, such as Walter de Maria’s Las Vegas Piece (1969), all but disappeared.

      When Smithson articulated his theory of Site/Nonsite in 1968, he invested the site and its referent, the nonsite, with equal weight. Site/Nonsite relationships overcame the impossibility of displaying an earthwork in a gallery. Today, this duality expands to include a third site revealing the temporal nature of land art. The third site is the current reality or configuration of the work.* The third site is not static and its manifestations are rhizomatic, nourishing and emboldening each other.

      Land art is active artwork. As such, one cannot accurately describe or know it from one moment to the next. In that sense, it is non-objectifiable beyond specific impressions. The descriptions below are linked to the conditions under which I visited them in September 2010.

      Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969) is cut into Mormon Mesa in the Mojave outside Overton, Nevada. The archival photographs show either an expansive aerial view of the mesa that emphasizes the thrust over the ravine that Double Negative bridges, or are framed to accentuate the size of the excavated space. An iconic image features a solitary figure contemplating the precipice, completely engulfed by the space.

      What first struck me about Double Negative was how negligible its size really is when compared to the scale and vastness of the surrounding landscape, particularly to the Virgin River Valley to the North. Today, standing on the mesa, you don’t feel like Heizer conquered the land. Instead, you notice how nature is reclaiming what is hers. The wind erodes the once-sheer wall faces to reveal hidden layers of stratified geology. Huge boulders rest in Double Negative and creosote and sagebrush grow inside and up the ramps. Due to all the collapsed rock, the ramps are no longer forty-five degrees but resemble terraced staircases. The walls of Double Negative create the only shade on the mesa; rattlesnakes, lizards, insects, scorpions and human visitors seek shelter within. At night, the horizon is illuminated with light pollution from Las Vegas and Mesquite, Nevada. Looking upon Double Negative you might think that you are visiting the traces of an archeological site.

      It’s fair to say that nature succeeded in taking back Las Vegas Piece. The work is gone save for a few unnaturally straight lines of rock that edge what was once a six-foot-wide bladed line in the Tula Desert northeast of Las Vegas. It is important that viewers still return to this site despite the near total disappearance of the work. The third site preserves the memory of Las Vegas Piece and provides material for dialogue beyond the entrenched rhetoric of the era.

      The go-to image of Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1976) features the solstice, when the tunnels line up and encircle the sun with a concrete halo. Today, Neo-Druids worship here and gun aficionados tattoo the industrially fabricated tunnels with unintentional black and grey drawings. Evidently, they rest the barrel of their weapons against the interior wall of the tunnels and fire -- the bullet paths are legible from the impact point then swirl through the tunnel leaving trails that conjure skateboard wall rides and cave paintings. This unanticipated life of the work is part of the third site experience.

      Holt still owns and maintains this work; patches on the tunnels reveal recent restoration. The collective knowledge of past Land Arts of the American West journeys uncovers more interventions than my visit alone could reveal. A year ago the tunnels’ center point was disturbed and their foundations exposed. Since land art is an active system, the third site operates as an archive and collective memory that preserves its innumerable iterations.

      In “serious” conversation about land art, we limit ourselves to the era of a work’s creation. But there are forces operating beyond the intentions of the artist that do not regularly appear in the discourse. The third site is an archive of land art’s mutability and it grows with time as the sites evolve. A simple Google search will reveal a host of images that document recent travels to many of these sites. The third site creates a space for richer dialogue that we otherwise inhibit by having an immobile perspective of land art. The conversation should expand to include an active and experiential way of reading works that are too often portrayed as fixed.

      * My concept of the third site is indebted to the Center for Land Use Interpretation.

      Jennie Lamensdorf is a graduate student in Art History at the University of Texas and a 2010 participant in the Land Arts of the American West Program.

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