The Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MOCA) newest exhibition, “Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974,” on view through Sept. 3 at the Geffen Contemporary, raises one important question: Just what is Land Art? If you think it is easily answered, you are probably wrong. When it comes to the art of ideas and the Earth, very little is set in stone — unless, of course, it’s set in stone.
“Land Art simply uses the whole world as an easel,” artist Joshua Neustein, whose work is included in the exhibition, said during a recent phone interview from his studio in New York City. “It’s still pictorial, it’s still, in a sense, painting or drawing, but your palette is unusual materials, and your canvas is a bit like stone-age art.”
Neustein — who in his 70s remains as mischievous and provocative as ever — was around at the beginning of the so-called Land Art movement in the late 1960s. Born in Poland in 1940 and on the move ever since, Neustein always has considered himself a man without a home. “Almost everything I do can be put on wheels. Is that part of my cultural trope? Inclination? Probably,” he said, laughing.
In the sense that he’s a nomad, wandering a world whose artificial borders have robbed him of any sense of dwelling, Neustein shares much with the men and women to whom he traces Land Art’s beginning: “Stone-age people, probably pre-literate people, drawing animals on the caves ... they didn’t have art materials in a shop. Just lighting those caves must have been difficult.
“It was art for mythical, religious reasons,” Neustein said. “You captured the soul of the bison, or the mammoth that you drew, or the antelope. In many ways, Land Art is a return to that time ... to the beginning, Bereshit.
“What is home? What is language?” Neustein asked. “What does it mean to belong to a place? Land Art has a lot to do with this issue of transient and permanent.”
Neustein’s own early Land Art work made in Israel reflects his fascination with maps and borders, tropes that recur frequently in his work. “My first piece in Israel, in Jerusalem, was the Jerusalem River Project, which was a sound river,” he said. “If you look at medieval maps ... of Jerusalem ... you’ll see that they put a river around the city. Of course, Jerusalem does not have a river.”
This galled Neustein and his collaborators, Gerry Marx and Georgette Batlle. “What self-respecting city doesn’t have a river? Even Los Angeles has one,” Neustein said. “We taped various sources of water in Israel ... springs and waterfalls in the extreme north and near the Dead Sea ... and we took those waters and matched them to the topography of where we did our fictional river.” The sound of water soon emanated from around the city.
Neustein’s piece in the “Ends of the Earth” exhibition consists of a number of bales of hay that are accompanied by the sounds of traffic and helicopters. “Hay bales are a kind of abbreviated meadow,” Neustein said. While helicopters, to a man who spent many years living in Israel, have come to represent war and danger, that symbolism might be lost on Angelenos, for whom the same noise might represent little more than the less-threatening annoyance of TV news copters or police chases.
Many of the American artists who “started” the Land Art movement in the United States originally saw it as a purely American art form, and the idea of creating Land Art elsewhere actually created something of a controversy in the past. Yet, Neustein refutes the notion that Land Art is uniquely, or even originally, American. “Land Art was being done in many countries, and in certain countries before it was done in America, in spite of what the Americans would like to believe and propagate.”
Mierle Laderman Ukeles, though American by birth, agrees with Neustein that the narrow definition that Land Art once carried needed expansion. “Land Art has been associated mostly with three American artists — Robert Smithson, who did the ‘Spiral Jetty,’ ” Ukeles said on the phone from her office at the New York City Department of Sanitation, where she is the longstanding artist-in-residence, “and then Walter De Maria and Michael Heizer,” the latter of whom created the newly installed “Levitated Mass” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “What the two curators [of ‘Ends of the Earth’] have done is they have said, ‘We appreciate those artworks ... however, there was a tremendous amount of other work done throughout the whole entire world.’
“I have dealt with the earth from a very, very early time in my work ... and then continually up to this day,” said Ukeles, who is perhaps most famous for her Maintenance Art, a name she coined in a 1969 manifesto. “The issue of where do I belong, where’s my earth, is actually a universal question. ... In the Bible, it says, ‘Choose life,’ but that also means you can choose death.”
Ukeles came of age at a time when the notion of Earth as the mother of us all was very in vogue. But, as she points out, “Those were also the days of Vietnam.” According to Ukeles, the Western view of the Earth was often less motherly and more, “What are the resources all over the world that we want here?”
Ukeles was born and raised in Denver, where her father was a rabbi for more than 40 years. Her brother followed their father into the rabbinate and served as the Hillel director at UC Berkeley in what Ukeles called “the exciting days.” But, in 1973, Ukeles’ brother made aliyah with his wife and their son, moving to Israel.
“When they moved to Israel, I felt like this one little nuclear family hit a fork in the road, and one branch went this way, and one branch went the other way,” she said. When she visited Israel for her nephew’s bar mitzvah, she decided to do a piece at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. She had her mother bring a jar of earth from Denver, and she brought along a jar of earth from Manhattan. She buried the jars of American dirt between the Shrine of the Book and the museum’s sculpture garden. She then took some Jerusalem dirt “ransom” and returned home with it. “If I die outside of Israel,” she said, “that earth will be the earth that I put in my coffin.”
Philipp Kaiser, the show’s organizer, who is about to leave MOCA’s curatorial department to take on the directorship of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, later this year, was quick to praise both Neustein and Ukeles, and to put in context why MOCA has such an interest in Land Art. “The whole thing is like a fabric, and we are showing the threads that led to the explosion in the late ’60s,” Kaiser said. “These pieces didn’t fall out of the sky.
“In America, but also in Europe, no one knows about this conceptual moment in Israel in the early ’70s. How strong and how smart these artists were,” he added.
So what is Land Art? Neustein thinks the definition goes beyond what even Kaiser would envision.
“Borders are Land Art for sure,” Neustein said. “Does a map recognize the land it represents? I don’t think so ... maps recognize language. Does land recognize language? All of a sudden, God talks another language, right across the border.”
And that, is art.