The Earth as an Artistic Medium and a Canvas

The planet comes full circle.

For this Earth Day, don’t just celebrate the Earth. Celebrate earth. A few decades ago, artists began to use earth in innovative, large-scale works, and the Land Art movement was born. Here, we have a round-up of some of the most influential artists who have used our planet as the material, the canvas, and the inspiration for some of art’s most inventive and challenging works.

Storm King Wavefield by Maya Lin

Storm King Wavefield by Maya Lin; Storm King Art Center, Windsor, New York; Photo by Jerry Thompson

While Maya Lin is most well-known the for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., she was also very much concerned with — and inspired by — the natural world. She considered it to have its own architecture, and that philosophy is clear in her work Storm King Wavefield at the Storm King Art Center in upstate New York. Here, the land has been shaped into undulations like a body of water, suggesting a connection between the two — a concept especially prescient now.

“I am very drawn to landscape, and my work is about finding a balance in the landscape, respecting nature not trying to dominate it. Even the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is an earthwork. All of my work is about slipping things in, inserting an order or a structuring, yet making an interface so that in the end, rather than a hierarchy, there is a balance and tension between the man-made and the natural.” — Maya Lin

A Forest of Lines by Pierre Huyghe

A Forest of Lines by Pierre Huyghe; Concert Hall at Sydney Opera House; Photo by Paul Green

If a tree falls in the Sydney Opera House, does it make a sound? Pierre Huyghe might know. As part of the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, he filled the space with trees to create an artificial forest. The installation lasted only 24 hours, the length of time for one rotation of the Earth. The title was an homage to both lines of the music associated with the place, and the lines of music that were also part of the installation. A press release for the event described it as a “geographical displacement” and an “in-between reality” that showed the artist’s “impulse to consider art as a landscape.”

“I was invited to Sydney to do a project and it is important that there is a correspondence between the work and the context, the environment. But the main reason was that the Opera House is a time-based platform for representation. So within this place of representation there is an environment that has been transplanted, and that this environment happens to be a forest . . . . The forest or a jungle is something you can’t easily define. It is a blurry image, because it’s a multitude, heterogeneous and complex that keeps changing. It is an organism. It is a place where you can lose yourself, so it has mystery.” — Pierre Huyghe

Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson

Ice Watch, by Olafur Eliasson; outside Tate Modern, London; Photo by Justin Sutcliffe 

In order to attract attention to global warming, Eliasson pulled chunks of icebergs from off the shore of Greenland and installed them in front of Copenhagen’s city hall so that they could do exactly what glaciers and ice caps are doing: melt. He encouraged visitors to not simply watch, but to touch, feel and even taste the work. The piece was recreated in Paris and London, where — installed at the Tate Modern — the slabs of ice decayed into their aqueous form and gathered into rivulets that flowed to the River Thames, where they then continued their slow return to the rising seas.

“It’s literally in our bodies, in our brain, and hence I wanted to change the narrative of the climate from the brain and make it an emotional affair into our bodies.” — Olafur Eliasson

Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson

Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson ; Great Salt Lake; photo by Robert Smithson

Comprised of basalt rock, salt crystals, and water, Spiral Jetty is a 15-foot wide manmade formation that measures 1,500-feet long. It curves its way into the Great Salt Lake and was just a few inches above the water level when it was built. As the level of the water changes with the seasons, so too does the jetty’s visibility. It can be entirely submerged or completely exposed and covered in salt crystals.

When Smithson visited the site for the first time, he had already resolved to let it determine the shape of the piece, and he described that process: “It was as if the mainland oscillated with waves and pulsations, and the lake remained rock still. The shore of the lake became the edge of the sun, a boiling curve, an explosion rising into a fiery prominence. Matter collapsing into the lake mirrored in the shape of a spiral.”

Rivers and Tides and Leaning Into the Wind (on the works of Andy Goldsworthy)

Sycamore leaves edging the roots of a sycamore tree, Hampshire, November 1, 2013; Photo by Andy Goldsworthy

Andy Goldsworthy’s works defy classification, even in a class that has no clear boundaries. His materials are often found in nature, as he uses it as his canvas, and incorporates himself in some of his works as well. Brightly colored leaves adorn and highlight where the trunk of a tree dips into the ground. Red flower petals cover his hands as he dips them in water and lets the petals wash downstream. The ephemeral nature of all his works, which intentionally flee like days and seasons into memory and often go unseen, illude the task of saying which one or ones are most representative. His use of materials and his approach to his craft are well-documented in these two films. The title Leaning Into the Wind borrows its name from a work in which he does just that. Only after being literally blown over by the force of Nature does he successfully right himself and stand steadily — with more than a little flailing of the arms.

“We often forget that WE ARE NATURE. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.” — Andy Goldsworthy

The New York Earth Room by Walter De Maria

 The New York Earth Room, by Walter De Maria; © Estate of Walter De Maria; Photo by John Cliett 

The simplest works are often the most enigmatic, and De Maria’s The New York Earth Room is no exception. It really is just that: a room — or rooms — filled with earth. It is one of the first instances of land art, and one the most influential. His other works, such as The Broken KilometerThe Unbroken Kilometer and The Lightning Field allude to notions of scientific measurement and our relationship with nature, but the works also shy away from addressing those topics directly. There have been two previous Earth Rooms in Munich, and the last remaining one is in New York City.

De Maria describes the work as “a minimal horizontal interior earth sculpture.” The room’s caretaker, Bill Dilworth, who has been watering, raking and weeding it for 27 years, simply said, “It’s art, it’s earth, it’s quiet, and it’s time.”

To expand your artistic horizons a bit further, feel free to see the links below.

John Eischeid is the Digital Editor, Fine Art for Artists Network.