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When Artists Work With Nature

Land art and environmental art are experienced in ways wholly different from interacting with traditional forms of art. The term “environmental art” refers to practices connecting nature to art; breaking sculpture, conceptual art, and performance out of the art world’s traditional definitions. With great variety and diversity amongst them, America’s most famous Land art pieces activate each of nature’s elements.

James Turrell, “Twilight Epiphany” Skyspace

Twilight Epiphany (2012), Photo: Florian Holzherr. Image courtesy of Rice University.

Built in 2012, James Turrell’s “Twilight Epiphany” Skyspace is housed at Rice University in Houston, Texas. The pyramidal structure accommodates 120 people between two levels, with seating facing inwards towards a square skylight in the center of the 72-foot knife-edge roof. An LED light sequence projects onto the ceiling and through the skylight at sunrise and at sunset. For the full 40-minute light sequence, the color-changing LED lights frame the skylight, allowing the sky to function as the artwork, in conjunction with the LED colors complementing the natural light. The sky appears to change color dramatically with the changing LED lights, making for a deeply reflective viewing of the heavens.

Olafur Eliasson, "Your waste of time", 2013

Installation view of EXPO 1: New York at MoMA PS1. Photo: Matthew Septimus

Olafur Eliasson is a Danish–Icelandic artist known for his use of elemental materials like light, water, fog, and air temperature in large-scale installations, transforming museum galleries and public areas into immersive environments. For, “Your waste of time,” Eliasson displayed pieces of ice broken off of Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. Exhibited in a refrigerated gallery space powered by solar panels, the ice “sculptures” represented an ancient archive of the planet’s experience. The 800 years of Earthly existence the ice has lived through, when compared to the human lifespan, puts viewers’ life experience into a grander perspective. The piece also alludes to the global warming crisis, the human ego, and the general disregard for environmental preservation.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, "Running Fence", 1972-76

Christo and Jeanne-Claude Running Fence, Photo: Jeanne-Claude © 1976 Christo

Artist duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude were beloved for their monumental environmental artworks, which temporarily altered land and cityscapes in disorienting, perception-altering ways. Running Fence was a project made of 200,000 square meters of heavy woven white nylon fabric, hung from a steel cable strung between 2,050 steel poles. Running Fence extended north of San Francisco, east-west of Freeway 101, on the private properties of 59 ranchers, following the rolling hills and dropping down to the Pacific Ocean at Bodega Bay. Running Fence was completed on September 10, 1976, and its removal quickly began 14 days after its completion.

Agnes Denes, "Wheatfield - A Confrontation", 1982, Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan.

Image source: © Agnes Denes

Agnes Denes, a Hungarian-born conceptual artist based in New York City, rose to international attention in the 1960s and 1970s as a leading figure in environmental and ecological art. Her most famous work is undoubtedly Wheatfield—A Confrontation (1982), in which she spent six months planting a field of golden wheat on two acres of landfill near Wall Street in Manhattan, a plot worth $4.5 billion. Denes weeded, irrigated and cultivated the mini wheatfield, bringing the spirit of rural America into the throngs of America’s urban landscape. The wheat crop yielded over 1000 pounds of healthy, golden wheat at harvest, which the artist used to feed the local homeless population.

Rachel Sussman, “Mojave Yucca, Mojave Desert, California, 12,000 years old,” The Oldest Living Things in the World series.

Image source:

For Rachel Sussman, her practice of documenting stories of resistance in the natural world began with a 2,000-year-old cypress tree in Japan. Her master work, “The Oldest Living Things in the World” is an epic journey through time and space. Over the past decade, artist Rachel Sussman has researched, worked with biologists, and traveled the world to photograph living plant organisms that are 2,000 years old and older. Functioning like portraits, Sussman’s photography captures millenia-old life with reverence, acknowledging a metaphysical sense of character they have developed over their lifetimes.

Nancy Holt, "Sun Tunnels", 1973–76

Sun Tunnels at the Great Basin Desert, Utah, 1973-76. © Holt/Smithson Foundation and Dia Art Foundation/Licensed by VAGA at ARS

Nancy Holt spent several recluded months at a time establishing a personal relationship with the Southwestern desert. Sun Tunnels is the resulting large-scale installation in Utah's Great Basin Desert, consisting of four large concrete cylinders. The cylinders are arranged on the clay desert floor in a cross, calibrated to perfectly align with the sunrise and sunset on the summer and winter solstices. When the viewer stands inside one of the cylinders on these solstices, a lens of light is created that engulfs the body, while small holes in the tubes (modeled on the position of four constellations) throw scattered discs of light onto the interior. The virtuosic elegance of Sun Tunnels belies Holt’s labor of hauling concrete into the desert, consulting with engineers, astrologists, contractors, and crane operators throughout its construction.

Joseph Beuys, "7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks)", inaugurated at Documenta in 1982

© Joseph Beuys/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photo: Bill Jacobson Studio, New York

In 1982, Joseph Beuys proposed a plan for Documenta 7, a large international art exhibition in Kassel, Germany: he would plant 7,000 oaks throughout the city of Kassel, each paired with a basalt stone. With support from several arts organizations, the project took five years to complete. In 1988, Dia Art Foundation installed five basalt stone columns paired with five trees in New York at 548 West 22nd Street, expanding 7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks) internationally to the United States. Then, 1996 Dia extended the installation by planting 25 new trees, each paired with a basalt stone, on West 22nd Street from 10th to 11th Avenues. Beuys saw the act of tree-planting as holding the potential to spark wide environmental and social changes, as well as contributing towards urban renewal.


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