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Land Art

Stay Wild

An Epic Road Trip in Two Parts

Photos by Jennie Ross // @jennieross


Part 1: 

Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing  One Sees  

by Cat Kron // @jahwarriors

It was when the flu fully took hold at Spiral Jetty that I noticed our road trip had taken a turn. It had started innocently enough, with a rough plan to hit as many land artworks and points of interest as possible in the two-week span the three of us had allotted ourselves. Two weeks looks a certain way from a distance. It looks entirely different from the vantage of the Salt Lake Basin, with the Great Salt Lake herself behind Robert Smithson’s giant basalt earthwork extending endlessly into blank white as you crouch on the salty ground to vomit. Smithson’s seminal work—completed in 1970 at land art’s apex, and which remains among the movement’s best known—is nearly always discussed in the context of his interest in entropy, with the massive helix intended to degrade over time as the water submerged it. Now, squinting at it as the body I had once considered relatively self-contained threatened to spontaneously combust, I considered the glaring symbolism, the seemingly smug prescience of Smithson’s vision. 


Land art—a movement that re-sited artworks from the gallery to the outdoors, often at a monumental scale and with organic materials such as rocks, dirt, and grass—took special hold in the American Southwest, where land was cheap. The region’s expansive skyline and unbroken, spare terrain also provided an ideal backdrop for “interventions” into the earth that might have gone unnoticed in, say, lower Manhattan, where many of these artists were based. Spiral Jetty was the culmination of Smithson’s investigations into entropy, with the terminal lake, whose shoreline shifts according to variations in the surrounding rivers that collect there, serving as an ideal collaborator to execute his idea of the object slowly eroding, dissolving into chaos.

Ironically, the artist’s efforts to harness this process of degradation have been challenged in the last two decades by prolonged drought in the area, which has caused the shore to recede far more than in previous decades, making Jetty visible to visitors once again. Until climate change disrupted his plans, Smithson’s intentionally unsaleable (since underwater) sculpture had served as the logical coda to land art’s ever-escalating attempts to remove the artwork from the commercial nexus its practitioners had become so disillusioned by. Many of Smithson’s peers—among them his widow Nancy Holt and friend/competitor Michael Heizer, both of whose earthwork installations we planned to see—sited their projects in remote locations scattered throughout the southwest, all but ensuring few viewers would ever encounter them in person. As a result of this gambit, most of the people who study these works have seen them only as represented by a handful of photographs and documentary films. I’d written about Holt’s Sun Tunnels the previous year, and now hurtling toward it from the backseat of a Toyota 4Runner, I considered whose chutzpah was worse: my own for having written about a work without having seen it (generally frowned upon among art writers), or these guys’, for making their work so prohibitively hard to get to. Sprawled over the car dog sharing the back, I muttered my discontent. “Elitism!” “He didn’t just excise the gallerists, he excised the viewer!” 


In hindsight, perhaps I ought to have demurred the invitation and recommend this magazine assign said desert trek to a writer slightly more robust—one who can be in direct sun for more than 30 minutes at a time, whose eyes don’t water from the glare until they chap and crack. But we were on our way to Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels with high hopes that her cathedral-like cruciform cement tubes would provide a reset for bodies and nerves. The four Tunnels, with punched-out holes representing four constellations that throw discs of sunlight on their interiors, is tall enough to stand up inside and cool even at high noon. While across the Nevada border, Sun Tunnels is relatively adjacent to Spiral Jetty at only three hours away. Holt and Smithson purchased their properties within a few years of each other, and she was just beginning work on the tunnels when he died in an airplane crash in 1973. 

It’s always dangerous to talk up an artwork to others, let alone one you haven’t seen personally and which entails hours of travel in the desert. But unlike Spiral Jetty, my experience of which was overwhelmingly cloaked in dread, Sun Tunnels was as generous and enveloping as I’d imagined. I found myself lacking the words that might come to someone with deeper religious engagement, a closer understanding of the sacred. The emotional register of these works is what one misses in the photographs.


After a night’s stopover, we ventured on to our final earthwork, Michael Heizer’s Double Negative. Somewhere in the springs, the flu virus had taken off on its next adventure with what I imagined were tiny flagella (perhaps only as far as my traveling companion, who would throw up in the grass later). As the prevailing theme of this trip would imply, the route to this piece was less than straightforward. There’s much to be said (and indeed much has been) about Heizer’s impetus to cut dual incisions into the mesa, which has been alternately interpreted as a display of raw masculine power and as a sort of bombastic peacocking, particularly as the site abuts an actual massive canyon. 

Yet having driven for hours and walked another through scrub brush, bleary, scraped, and driven by little more than gallows humor, upon finally encountering the work–or was that actually it?–I dissolved into laughter. What a silly use of energy this had all been. And how worth it.


Part 2: 

A Case For Disappearing 

by Maude Standis // @maudechild

Contrary to popular belief and expanding recreational pot usage, modern life favors the sober and present. For example, consider the near-ubiquitous usage of the phrase “showing up,” copped from Alcoholic Anonymous, in everyday life.  Showing up is half the battle, you always hear. As if, just being here, there, or anywhere is the only immortality project worth our lives investment. Personally, I wonder if all this congratulatory attendance is missing the point. Maybe what we should really be focused on right now is disappearing. 

As early as 1903, American audiences flocked to magic shows where they watched scantily clad assistants disappear and dramatic escapes by illusionists like Houdini. Meanwhile, wealthy American automobilists used road trips to escape summer cocktail parties on Long Island and vanish into the wilds of the West. Of course, due to society’s perception of the car as a masculine entity, women were—and still are—often relegated to the passenger seat, which on a long road trip can feel more like being kidnapped than participating in a well-orchestrated vanishing act.


The first thing to disappear on our road trip was a box filled with food, tarot cards, a game called “Confessions” that seems primarily designed to elicit social discomfort, our camping cookware, candles, and a set of knives. Tied to a roof rack, the box made an impressive escape from its roped confines about an hour outside of Los Angeles on the I-10.  We pulled over and walked in the rain to collect the battered remains of the box. Sadly, only a single “Confessions” card prompting players to share their most recent “dry-humping” experience was saved. 

“Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it,” writes Joshua Foer. But road trips do both, making them almost a black hole where time is subjected to spaghettification by the opposing forces of constant newness announcing itself alongside every road and the routine of singing along to the same six songs. 

The second thing to disappear was Cat as she scrambled up one of Noah Purifoy’s assemblage sculptures just outside of Joshua Tree. Purifoy, who was driven from Los Angeles due to escalating studio prices, at first was frightened by the Mojave’s deathly landscape. But the more time the artist spent building his sculpture garden, the more he incorporated the landscape’s harsh qualities into his work as if he were collaborating with the elements to make an alien world for all of us to enjoy. Purifoy died in 2004 on this very land when his former collaborator—wind—plotted with a lit cigarette to engulf his trailer in flames as he slept. 

Just outside of Sedona, one can visit—by private request only—the half-subterranean structures of Eliphante. A mixture of apocalyptic bunker and ritualistic art gallery, this hive of experimental structures doesn’t “show up” from a distance. Instead, they invite you to subsume yourself in artist Michael Kahn’s fantasy world. After just a few hours of walking through reptilian-scale-like mosaic walls, meeting a mourning peacock who patiently sits by a vase full of her deceased partner’s feathers, and touring the compound’s dreamy outdoor kitchen, you might just decide that you never want to leave. At least in the same form in which you arrived. 

The next time you are on a road trip, consider trying this disappearing trick. On tiny slips of paper, write as many identities as you can think of. Anything from “Ex-Horse Girl in the early aughts” to “Alien disguised as a teen mom.” Put these identities in a hat and select one. Okay, at the next thrift store, stop being you and embrace being a “Small-town Psychic.” Then drive out to somewhere with a view so epic it makes your heart flutter, and in your new identity dance La Macarena three times while taking shots of tequila. Done right, you’ll remember that road trips are metaphysical proof that no matter how hard you try to disappear, you can never truly escape yourself. And in the end, that’s something to celebrate.