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Michael Heizer, Double Negative

Green issues are now high up the political agenda, from worries about global warming to research into sustainable fuels. One related topic that is galvanising conservationists is the fate of a number of iconic works of Land Art which are under threat from energy and real estate development.

The use of nature as a medium to create monumental works of art emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a protest against the materialism of the art world. Artists such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer and Walter De Maria sought to create works that could not be contained by a museum or placed in a collector’s home.

Arguably the most iconic intervention in the US landscape is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, a spiral constructed from basalt rock and earth which juts into the Great Salt Lake in Utah from its northeastern shore.

This summer, conservationists won a reprieve from the Canadian oil company Pearl Montana Exploration, which wants to conduct exploratory drilling into the lake bed. In co-operation with Smithson’s widow Nancy Holt, also a land artist, and the public policy group Friends of the Great Salt Lake, the Dia Art Foundation, which owns and has maintained Spiral Jetty since 1999, started a petition against the drilling. The state of Utah received thousands of complaints. “What we particularly object to is the potential visual impact that drilling might have on the work, as well as the equally important environmental impact it could have on the lake itself and its delicate ecosystem,” says Laura Raicovich, deputy director of Dia. “An oil spill could be disastrous for the lake, and therefore, the jetty.”

On 13 August, Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas and Mining returned Pearl Montana’s application for a permit to drill on the land near Spiral Jetty, stating that the company’s responses to questions on the project were “inadequate”. Although the company is allowed to refile its application, the state has said it must first “make the necessary investment and professional effort necessary to match the challenges presented ahead by this project”. Ms Raicovich says Dia is working with the state to negotiate the long-term preservation of the work and that the state is conducting an analysis to establish what the visual impact of drilling would be, among other considerations.

Other works remain at risk. On the opposite side of the Great Salt Lake from Spiral Jetty is Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, 1976, four massive concrete cylinders which the artist aligned to frame the rising and setting sun during solstices. In May 2007, the oil and gas rights on a parcel of land directly adjacent to the work were offered for sale by the state of Utah, which said in a press release that it had researched the site, in consultation with the Utah State Historic Preservation Office, and found “no historic properties affected”. As we went to press, no bids had yet been made on the land.

Meanwhile in Nevada, Michael Heizer’s City, a massive complex of sculptures and earthen forms built by the artist next to his ranch in Lincoln County, is not yet finished but already threatened by development. Stretching one and a quarter miles across the desert, City is one of the largest works of art ever undertaken, and has occupied the artist for over 30 years. Recently, the US Department of Energy (DOE) revealed plans to build a railway running across Garden Valley, next to the work and the artist’s home. This would transport nuclear waste to a storage facility at Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada. First proposed in the 1980s, the Yucca Mountain project has been repeatedly stalled by legal challenges. Last month, the DOE’s application was processed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and it now has up to four years to complete safety studies and hold public hearings before the site can open. Around $9 billion has already been spent on the project. The DOE estimates that the railway will cost over $2 billion to build.

Nancy Holt, Sun Tunnels

Despite the developers, the most consistent threat to Land Art is nature itself. Many early examples are eroding as exposure to the elements slowly takes its toll. For most artists, this is part of the works’ natural evolution.

One of the first monumental sculptures is Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, 1969, two perfectly aligned trenches cut into the Mormon Mesa in Nevada. Around 240,000 tons of sandstone was displaced to create the ravines which span 1,500 feet and are each 50 feet deep.

The work was donated to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Los Angeles by dealer Virginia Dwan. According to the artist’s wishes, MoCA does not perform any conservation on the piece. Meanwhile, the walls of the man-made canyon are slowly crumbling.

Helen Stoilas
The Art Newspaper


Fort Stanton Cave, New Mexico:

Hundreds of feet beneath Earth’s surface, a few seasoned cave explorers venture where no human has set foot. Their headlamps illuminate mud-covered walls, gypsum crystals and mineral deposits.

The real attraction, though, is under their shoes.

A massive formation that resembles a white river spans the cave’s floor. A closer examination reveals that the odd formation is an intricate crust of tiny calcite crystals.

The explorers have reached Snowy River — thought to be the longest continuous cave formation in the world.

”I think Snowy River is one of the primo places underground in the world and there’s still so much left that we haven’t discovered. … We don’t even know how big it is,” said Jim Goodbar, a cave specialist with the federal Bureau of Land Management.

The survey expedition by members of the Fort Stanton Cave Study Project in early July added several thousand feet to the measurement of the spectacular formation, which is at least four miles long. The explorers who have been following the passage under the rolling hills of southeastern New Mexico say there’s still more of Snowy River to be discovered.

The few who have walked on the formation say they’ve seen nothing else like it. Early studies point to its uniqueness: Already, some three dozen species of microbes previously unknown to science have been uncovered…

Last summer, explorers were surprised to arrive at Snowy River and find it flowing with water. It had been dry when first discovered in 2001 and during trips in 2003 and 2005.

It took several months for Snowy River to dry out, leaving scientists with another set of questions about where the water came from and where it went. Some scientists believe innumerable floods formed Snowy River, dropping a thin layer of calcite each time.

Areas of Fort Stanton Cave are open to those who get permits from the BLM, but Snowy River — deep in the cave behind locked metal gates — is off-limits. It’s unlikely Snowy River ever will be open to anything but research because of the fragility of the tiny calcite crystals and microbes on the cave walls.

New York Times

The Dia Art Foundation is hoping to raise $1.1m by the end of next month to protect 6,000 acres of land surrounding Walter De Maria’s land art installation Lightning Field.

The money will be used to pay a ranching family in western New Mexico, who own the land, for the right to restrict real estate and industrial development. This would create a three-mile radius around the installation. The restrictions on the property will bind all future landowners and become part of the chain of title for the estate.

According to Laura Raicovich, deputy director at the foundation: “The experience of Lightning Field depends upon the isolation of the site, and we’d like to preserve the setting for future generations.” She says the organisation has raised $900,000 to date, including $500,000 committed by the State of New Mexico, and says she is confident they will reach their goal by the official deadline in June.

Commissioned and maintained by the Dia, De Maria’s land sculpture consists of 400 polished stainless steel poles installed in a rectangular grid measuring 1.6km by 1km. The work is situated in an unpopulated area about four hours outside of Albuquerque, and is designed for viewers to observe the effects of meteorological phenomena on the installation over time. Visitation is strictly monitored to only six people per day, and reservations must be made months in advance through written correspondence. Since Lightning Field was completed in 1977, nearly 13,000 visitors have visited the site.

The Dia is currently in the midst of another preservation campaign for a land art installation in their permanent collection, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. The State of Utah will decide this month whether to permit oil drilling near the site.

The Art Newspaper

Courtesy of Amy C. Elliott/Public Art fund

For more than a century, the majestic Brooklyn Bridge has straddled the East River, linking the piers of lower Manhattan to the brownstones of Brooklyn Heights.

Now, under the hand of the Danish-born artist Olafur Eliasson, the national monument is passing into a second, and temporary, phase: that of hulking, stone-and-steel canvas.

Beginning this month, the Tishman Construction Corporation will install four electrically powered waterfalls, arranged on skeletons of exposed scaffolding and ranging in height from 90 to 120 ft. One installation is scheduled for Governors Island in New York Harbor; two more will sit on either side of the East River, in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The fourth will be mounted on the underside of the Brooklyn Bridge.

In an e-mail message, Mr. Eliasson said he hopes the scale of “New York City Waterfalls” – among the most ambitious projects in recent memory – could help spur a revitalization of New York’s waterfront.

There “have been attempts, of course,” he says, “but I want to push that further.” If it is a triumph, “Waterfalls” could prompt tourists – and hardened New Yorkers – to reengage with one of the world’s most iconic skylines.

“Waterfalls” also ushers in deeper questions about the role of public art in urban life. Apart from the inevitable flood of media attention, how do we judge whether a public project has been successful? The ultimate test, experts say, may be a work’s ability to forge connections – by reaching out to its viewers and engaging them in their environment.

Historically, public art has forced “you to reconsider your relationship to that site. It shocks you out of your complacency,” says Noah Chasin, assistant professor of Art History at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Rochelle Steiner, director of New York’s Public Art Fund, a major backer of “Waterfalls,” hopes Eliasson’s project has precisely that effect: “People will think about the city, the East River, and nature – particularly water as a natural resource – differently after having seen them…”

For a city, of course, success is often gauged in more tangible terms: Public-art projects can generate an incredible amount of community revenue.

In 2005, for instance, the European artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude erected more than 7,500 saffron-colored nylon banners across Central Park for two weeks. According to Kate Levin, commissioner at New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs, “The Gates” generated approximately $254 million.

“New York City Waterfalls” is expected to bring New York roughly $55 million over three months – a figure based on tax revenues “that the city would not get otherwise,” says Ms. Levin. The figure includes tourism-related spending and income from increased use of public transportation near the site.

Eliasson and the city are also hoping to usher in long-term financial benefits that may be harder to quantify. Consider: The stretch of Manhattan abutting the East River has historically been thought less desirable than the opposite bank of the island. A waterfall constructed on Pier 35, near Rutgers St., will, Eliasson hopes, prod visitors to contemplate the developmental viability of the area.

“New York City is an island city, and our waterfront has for a long time been neglected,” Levin says. “Waterfalls,” may help pull foot traffic toward the East River.

“Waterfalls are spectacular in themselves. In that way they suit the skyline,” Eliasson says.

The next question: “Can we go beyond the spectacle?…”

But Janney [“public art” artist] and others are quick to point to the ways in which public art can be unsettling or disruptive. Many art lovers remember Richard Serra’s infamous “Tilted Arc,” a magnificent wall of undulating steel that bisected Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan. Almost immediately, office workers were in an uproar. In 1989, eight years after its installation, the $175,000 commission was removed and junked. Serra had intended the piece to be permanent.

“That really marked a sea change,” says Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTnews magazine. “Even though it’s understood that you’re not going to find a piece that all people will like, there’s a real sense of trying to make art something the public can connect with – even if it might have some kind of edge.”

Acknowledging the complexities a public artist must navigate, more art schools, such as USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts in Los Angeles, are offering programs in public-art studies and practice. “They recognize it is a discipline that requires special training,” says Janney.

Public art is markedly different from a private gallery show, admits Steiner, since it can “make ripples in the life of a city and impact people who see it.”

One of the intentions of “Waterfalls,” she says, “is to intervene in the city such that people are inspired to reconsider their environment, both built and natural.”

Matthew Shaer and Teresa Méndez
Christian Science Monitor

Welcome to the story, NYT; what are you talking about?

I’m delighted that the NYT has (finally) discovered the Spiral Jetty story. I’m amused by its headline: “Artists Rally for Spiral Jetty in Utah.” I’m further amused that the NYT mini-story has no mention of any artists doing any rallying. But best of all: This has been on blogs for a week, and the NYT, with all its resources, managed to add nothing new.

Also: Today Dia finally came out in opposition to drilling near the Jetty. Dia boss Jeffrey Weiss in a statement: “The expansive natural setting is integral to Smithson’s artwork, providing an essential frame for experiencing the Spiral Jetty. Any incursion on the open landscape, including the proposed drilling, would significantly compromise this important work of art.”

Tyler Green
Modern Art Notes

Recap of news coverage on the fate of the Spiral Jetty:

New York Times

Miami Herald

Art Info

Media Bistro
To express your support of preserving the site, please contact Jonathan Jemming at 801-537-9023 pr by email,

The Shift, by Richard Serra

Other than maybe patching up a “few cracks in it,” Richard Serra says he isn’t worried about Shift (1970-1972), the American sculptor’s stone work on a rugged stretch of farmland near King City.

But many local residents continue to fret about the future of the meandering wall-like structure adjacent to Keele St. until it is officially protected under the Ontario Heritage Act…

“You can find many pieces (by others) which came after Shift,” [Richard Serra] says on the phone from his New York office. “They have direct links back to that piece.”

Now best known since the ’80s for his enormous work made from Cor-Ten steel and situated in urban spaces, Serra in the ’70s worked in parallel with the late Robert Smithson in forwarding the very macho idea of land art.

Serra reminds me that he helped “stake out” Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), the mammoth earth piece spooling out into the chemically tinctured Great Salt Lake in Utah that’s arguably still the best known earthwork on the planet.

Spiral Jetty is best seen by way of an aerial view from an airplane. “But Shift was really about an insertion into the landscape,” says Serra. “To me it was a breakthrough piece,” the 68-year-old artist goes on. “There wasn’t any precursor for that kind of work. No one had yet used the measure of one’s body walking to deal with the perception of elevation and the rise and fall of the landscape. (Shift) was determined by two people walking in opposite directions.

“We had an engineer who took core samplings so that we could put its foundations as deep as they needed to be in order to sustain the load. So far it’s proven to be correct. Because if it does crack there’s going to be a problem in terms of the alignment and the piece might get out of plumb. There hasn’t been a structural upheaving yet.”

Securing a colossal Serra work seems to be a must for any new arts space. The 2005 installation of the New York sculptor’s Tilted Spheres (2002-2004) literally affected construction of Pearson airport’s new Terminal 1 to make room for the work’s four mammoth plates, each 4.54 metres high.

Serra’s 1,000-plus-tonne sculpture The Material of Time is the centrepiece of the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, northern Spain, along with an earlier work, Snake. Only this month these works have caused Basque cultural figures in Bilbao an equally mammoth guilt-trip. Originally expecting to pay some $30.5 million (Canadian) for the work in 2005, museum officials admitted they must now pay about $9 million more due to a “mistaken” calculation in currency exchange rates.

Serra only just finished installing two new pieces in the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, part of the newly renovated Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) due to open Feb. 16. Sequence, on loan, may eventually end up in a new contemporary museum proposed for San Francisco, Serra’s hometown, by Gap founder Donald Fisher. Band, “a more abstract piece,” in Serra’s view, remains at LACMA. “It is hard to understand,” says Serra. “It has a very fast, ground-hugging motion to it.”

In April he’ll begin installation on yet another large-scale work. It opens May 6 in Paris’ Grand Palais as part of its Monumenta series, which began last year with Anselm Kiefer.

“It is probably the biggest indoor site in Europe,” says Serra. “The piece will have 12 elements 120 feet apart.”

Yet, he balks at the term “monumental” being attached to his work. “I don’t know of any sculpture that’s not figurative that’s monumental,” he says. “Monuments signify a code that has usually something to do with a personage or an event. I build a lot of landscape pieces that are not monumental.”

Peter Goddard
The Toronto Star


Say you’re sitting on a story that requires an immediate, international response, otherwise known as a fast rally of the art troops. If something isn’t done today, terrible results may ensue.

Who do you call?

Not The New York Times. Not Artforum, Frieze, Flash or Art in America. Not museum directors, heavy-hitting curators, deep-pocketed and politically connected collectors or artists who have the world at their feet.

You call, text or e-mail Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes, the best-known art blogger in the business.

Case in point: On Wednesday, he posted that an oil company planned to drill in the Salt Lake near Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. The public comments period was under the radar and insanely short. It closed the same day at 5 p.m. Utah time.
Before the Modern Art Notes alert, almost nobody knew about this. Even Leslie Peterson, acting director of the Salt Lake City Art Center, was in the dark. She had heard not a word, she said, before Wednesday.

E-mails had gone out to a small circle a day or two earlier, from Smithson’s widow Nancy Holt and from Lynn DeFreitas, director of Friends of the Great Salt Lake. But MAN put the issue on speed dial. Other art bloggers responded, and the news leapfrogged around the world.

Peterson said that Jonathan Jemming in the governor’s office was inunduated with responses: more than 1,000 messages in a couple of hours. He hastily extended the comments period to Feb. 13.

(His phone number is 801-537-9023; e-mail, – and it’s still a good idea to let him know what Smithson’s signature piece means to the world.)

If the Jetty had to wait for print journalists, the comments period would have closed before they got to it.

While the state is very familiar with the ecological issues of the lake, Peterson said, it was less familiar with the art consequences of drilling for oil, until Green’s chain reaction. “I think they were impressed to be taking calls from Europe and Japan about an artwork in Utah,” she said.

I know bloggers who would have praised themselves for motivating such an important stay of execution. Green simply noted the extended deadline in an update. Classy guy.

Regina Hackett
Seattle PI

Illustration courtesy of The New York Sun

Olafur Eliasson, a Danish–Icelandic artist whose installation “The Weather Project” drew 2 million people to the Tate Modern in 2003 and 2004, has designed what will likely be the city’s biggest public art project since Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s “The Gates”: a series of freestanding waterfalls in the East River.

Mayor Bloomberg and the Public Art Fund, a private nonprofit organization that produced, among other works, Anish Kapoor’s “Sky Mirror” and Jeff Koons’s “Puppy,” both at Rockefeller Center, are scheduled to announce Mr. Eliasson’s project at the South Street Seaport tomorrow.

Kate Taylor
The New York Sun


To Inuits in the late 1800s, a map was a piece of wood with carved gnarls and pocks representing the coastal inlets of Greenland.

To ancient Greeks and early Europeans, maps were flights of fancy and horror, showing beautiful beasts and savage humans of uncharted lands.

Eighteenth-century Buddhists saw maps as moral charts juxtaposing landscapes of men’s sensual desires and “infinite space.” New World colonizers used maps as tools of conquest and empire, distorting size and shape to serve their self-interest.

No matter the age, maps have always inspired that eternal human penchant for dreaming of far-off places, for locating oneself in the universe. As vessels of wishful thinking, they transform us into explorers lured by the mystery of the unknown, if not a lust to conquer it.

Pursuits and desires such as these are at the core of the Festival of Maps here, billed as the largest, most diverse cartographic exposition in U.S. history. “Maps: Finding Our Place in the World,” which is one part of the Chicago festival, will open in March at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Although computer and satellite technology seem to cast a cold, hard light on our physical realm, people still turn to maps to feed their imagination, festival organizers say — whether through collecting and studying ancient maps, using modern mapping technology in creative and interactive ways or making cartographically inspired art. Rather than distance us from cartography, technology has made mapping part of our everyday lives — in driving, in fashion, even in political protest.

“It turns out almost any man on the street you talk to says they love maps,” says Anna Siegler, who was hired to coordinate the festival by her friend Barry MacLean, one of the world’s top collectors, with more than 20,000 maps.

The love of maps is “this quietly held passion [that] people have,” says Siegler.

Kari Lydersen
Washington Post


The French government is taking emergency action to rescue the celebrated cave paintings of the Lascaux caverns from a fungus.

Archeological experts have begun applying a fungicide to halt the spread of grey and black mould in the caverns, dubbed the Sistine Chapel of prehistory.

The caves, discovered in 1940 by teenagers walking a dog, contain images of bulls, deer and horses believed to be 15,000-17,000 years old.

The French government has closed the caves located about 450 kilometres south of Paris to everyone, including scientists and historians, for three months and will replace an air circulation system that may be partly responsible for the fungus.

The system, installed seven years ago, may have been poorly designed, as a similar fungal attack took place after its installation.

The fungus, which grows because of moist conditions, is threatening some of the 600 drawings in yellow, red and black mineral pigments that cover the caves.

The drawings, believed to have been painted by hunter-gatherers, have survived since the last Ice Age.

A team of specialists who assessed the site before Christmas recommended stopping all activity in the caverns and taking action to stop the fungus.

They put pressure on the French government by alerting UNESCO, which classifies the caverns as a World Heritage Site, about the conditions…

The experts disagreed on the cause of the problem. Some say global warming is to blame, others that human activity in the caves is exacerbating the problems.

One of the projects to be halted by the emergency treatment is a survey that was to make a three-dimensional digital record of every painting in the caverns.

CBC News