If you’ve spent any time outside, you’ve probably been drawn to play with natural materials—making designs from similar stones, creating a small diorama of twigs, or comparing leaves to see which is the reddest. Land art (sometimes known as earth art or environmental art) takes this desire and uses it to have the natural world be both the canvas and the medium for artwork.
Land art was born out of the minimalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s and contemplates the human connection to, and impact on, the earth. Many land art pieces are created using natural materials, but use human-created forms and designs that are obvious on the landscape. By working in this way, land artists reflected the tension between the human and the natural worlds.
One of the seminal works of land art—Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson—perfectly encapsulates this relationship. Interestingly, when it was constructed, Spiral Jetty was submerged in Great Salt Lake, however, as climate change has led to decreased water levels, the sculpture is now visible, giving new meaning to the artwork’s original intent.
While many land artists primarily use natural materials such as stone and wood, or even twigs and leaves, others use more industrial materials to capture other aspects of nature, such as Nancy Holt, who used concrete tunnels to highlight the sun and constellations in Sun Tunnels or Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, a series of metal poles intended to attract lightning.
Land art can be permanent or ephemeral, large or small. Pieces constructed with impermanent materials such as leaves, twigs or even ice and snow, the transient nature of the materials underlies the intent of the composition. These artworks only continue to exist in photographs as they’re reclaimed by the earth over time.
It’s not possible to talk about land art without talking about Andy Goldsworthy. Probably the best known modern land artist, Goldsworthy’s works include a plethora of materials from rock to ice to leaves to feathers. As with other land art, Goldworthy’s works are constructed outdoors and left to the mercy of the elements, meaning that even the sturdiest constructions are always changing.
Whether they are ephemeral or permanent installations, land art gives us the opportunity to reflect on our place in nature and to see the world in a new way. Many other artists continue to explore the idea of using the world around us as a canvas, producing exciting works of art, many of which last for hours or days, before disappearing. If nothing else, land art reminds us to embrace beauty in our lives, no matter how fleeting.