This paper will consider one of the four elements – earth – and its use in art since the 1960s. When we think about earth in art, we inevitably think about vast, remote masterpieces like Michael Heizer’s Double Negative: two massive, fifty-foot trenches blasted and bulldozed into the Nevada desert in 1969-70; or Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty: over six thousand tonnes of earth dumped into the Great Salt Lake in Utah in 1970. I deliberately call these works ‘masterpieces’ because they seem to manifest a fundamental urge to master the earth, while subscribing to the mythology of the artist-genius as a figure of superhuman powers. During the late 1960s and early 70s, audiences watched in awe as the ‘heroic’ artist – usually white, male and North American – defied the institutions of the art-world in order to make epic, isolated interventions in the landscape; albeit trailed by an invisible team of wives, assistants, contractors and patrons. The practices associated with ‘Land Art’ or ‘Earth Works’ have been much discussed, and I’ll avoid reiterating those debates here, in order to explore other kinds of works with earth – works which are incidental, provisional, fugitive, comical, invisible or literally self-effacing. Bearing in mind Smithson’s warning that “one cannot avoid muddy thinking when it comes to earth projects,” I will loosely organise my paper into five sections: Burial, Excavation, Displacement, Cultivation, and Territory. These aren’t meant to be exclusive or all-encompassing categories; neither will I attempt a comprehensive survey of earth as an artistic material. Instead, I want to use these themes in order to explore a set of diverse and often contradictory practices, which take ‘dirt,’ ‘soil,’ ‘earth,’ or ‘terra firma’ as their common ground.
After the eight o’clock news on the eleventh of October 1969, German TV station WDR 3 played a static image for two seconds, before continuing with the evening’s programming. Broadcast without commentary, it showed a man in jeans and a black top standing on a grass verge backed by trees and shrubbery. An hour later the man was back, for two seconds only, his pose the same but his feet having sunk, inexplicably, into the ground. The following night, the man reappeared on the same channel: still sunk at eight-fifteen, and further submerged in his two-second slot the following hour. Every night that week, at eight-fifteen and nine-fifteen, the man appeared for two seconds, each time disappearing further into the ground. At the end of the week an interview revealed him to be British artist Keith Arnatt, and the images Self Burial: a series of pre-existing photographs which, in this new context, gained the subtitle Television Interference Project. Hijacking the medium of popular entertainment, Arnatt also addressed a more specialised art-world audience. Commenting on current debates surrounding the “disappearance” of the art object, he suggested it was a logical corollary that the artist should also disappear.
Arnatt’s humorous intervention engaged with two key artistic debates of the late 1960s: the much-vaunted “dematerialization” of the art object proclaimed by critics Lucy Lippard and John Chandler, and the “death of the author” described by French theorist Roland Barthes. The fundamental absurdity of both positions when taken literally is made manifest in Arnatt’s photographs, which seem to ask: what kind of artwork has no visible form; and what kind of author has no presence at all in his own work? If the object and author are buried, does that really mean they have “disappeared,” or do they lurk just beneath the surface, like so much brute matter and raw humanity gasping for breath? Conceptual art’s sometimes dogmatic critique of visuality and subjectivity is at once tested and ridiculed in Arnatt’s photographs, in which the deadpan figure of the artist appears swallowed up by the grave.
Arnatt’s Self Burial also stands in direct counterpoint to the heroic gestures of many of the better-known practices associated with ‘Land Art:’ instead of stamping his presence on the earth, his work is literally self-effacing, erasing all trace of his existence from its surface. While one contemporary critic described the American land artists as “long hairs in hard hats” – suggesting an amalgamation of counter-cultural rebellion and brute, macho force – in Arnatt’s work the figure of the artist has more in common with Winnie, the forlorn yet stoical heroine of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Described by one critic as a “hopeful futilitarian,” Winnie sinks further into her mound of earth with each act of the play, all the while maintaining: “perhaps some day the earth will yield and let me go, the pull is so great, yes, crack all round me and let me out.” Beckett’s grim humour seems also to permeate Arnatt’s piece, and a related photograph, Self Burial with Mirror (1969) in which the deadpan artist regards his situation with an air of resignation and a decidedly British stiff upper lip. Both hilarious and bizarre, these works turn the conventions of self-portraiture on its head, rendering the revered figure of the artist a figure of fun. Earth is deployed as means of exploring the cultivation and deconstruction of the artistic persona, via processes of reflection, concealment and defacement.
While Self Burial provides a pointed counterpart to the self-aggrandising gestures of some American land artists, Arnatt’s work can also be understood as part of a productive transatlantic dialogue during the late 1960s. Self Burial was made in direct dialogue with Sol LeWitt, who described himself as a conceptualist “with a small c” and had his own form of dry humour. After a series of hypothetical proposals made in the mid 1960s – including encasing the Cellini Cup or the Empire State Building in cement – LeWitt buried an object he described as being “of importance but little value” in the garden of Dutch collectors Martin and Mia Visser in 1968. The object was sealed in a metal box fabricated according to LeWitt’s instructions, a physical enclosure analogous to the secret shared exclusively by LeWitt and his collaborators. Sometimes described as a symbolic gesture marking the death of Minimal art, Buried Cube has also been read as an act of refusal: a pointed denial of visual pleasure, acquisition and commerce. The work cannot be seen, loaned or sold: the artist and collector are bound into a contract, but one that hinges upon shared knowledge rather than the exchange of a precious commodity. Yet the fact that LeWitt chose earth, rather than his originally proposed cement, as the material with which to inter the cube produces more generative associations. Lucy Lippard has suggested the work possesses: “a sense of the possibilities of the transformational at its most profound – energy buried in the neutral (‘dead’) form and activated (‘brought to life’) by the idea.” This rhetoric of resurrection highlights the ritualistic and mystical aspects of much conceptual art – also captured by Lippard’s own term “dematerialization.”