Professor Miwon Kwon was driving the third SUV in a dusty three-vehicle caravan through the remote Nevada desert when she suddenly felt a tire go out.
"It blew in a major way," she laughed. "It just exploded."
But Kwon wasn’t going to let that deter her or the graduate students traveling with her from their unusual mission.
Driving through rugged desert terrain that stretched far into the horizon, they were committed to seeing a work of art: Walter De Maria’s "Las Vegas Piece" (1969), described as an etching on the desert made with four shallow cuts, two that are one mile long and two a half-mile long, forming a quadrangle.
This expedition followed an earlier one in the morning to visit Michael Heizer’s "Double Negative," a 1,500-foot trench into the earth on the Mormon Mesa in the Moapa Valley, located approximately 65 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Heizer is the 67-year-old artist whose "Levitated Mass," a 340-ton granite rock that has been suspended over a 456-foot concrete channel, drew hundreds of people to its unveiling at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last weekend.
Heizer and De Maria are considered canonic artists of Land Art, a genre that emerged in the late 1960s. It is commonly understood as an art form that is integral to the existing landscape, sometimes at monumental scale, using natural materials, such as dirt, rocks and leaves. Left to the forces of nature to reshape over time, these artworks are usually located far away from urban centers and are often only accessible to adventurous visitors willing to travel to distant locations, even if it means putting up with a flat tire.
With her SUV pulled over to the side of the road, Kwon, a professor and chair of art history at UCLA, was concerned that no one would notice their predicament. "The first car couldn’t even see us; the second one could, but didn’t know what was happening. Did we even want to go see De Maria’s artwork at this point?" she recalled thinking.
Instead of giving up, they stuck it out. Eventually the first car did return, the expedition guide helped replace the tire, and Kwon was able to give her students an experience that, she hoped, would transform the way they thought about art and art history.
"Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974" is a collaboration between Kwon and Philipp Kaiser, until recently senior curator at MOCA, that presents an entirely new approach to looking at Land Art. The exhibit is on view at the Geffen Contemporary until Sept. 3, at which point it will travel to Munich’s Haus Der Kunst.
Just as when she was confronted with her flat tire, Kwon was unfazed when Kaiser asked her more than four years ago to co-curate a historical survey of Land Art, even though the art historian did not consider herself an expert on the topic at the time. Kwon has an M.A. in photography, and her Ph.D. from Princeton is in architectural history and theory. But she had once written a catalogue essay for one of Kaiser’s exhibits, and he was familiar with her book on site-specific art.
Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison. "Hog Pasture: Survival Piece #1, 1970-71. Wooden container of earth with light box of equal size above, planted with R. Shumway Seedsman's Annual Hog Pasture Mix. 48x96x144 inches. Installation view, "Earth, Air, Fire, Water" exhibition, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA 1971. Photo: courtesy the artists.
Her interdisciplinary perspective has helped give her work a unique point of view. "I think I have a certain feel about space and spatial dynamics as a factor in artworks," Kwon explained.
But such understanding also made her acutely aware of the difficulties of presenting Land Art in a museum: How can one exhibit such pieces like Robert Smithson’s "Spiral Jetty," a 1,500-foot-long spiral built from mud, salt crystals, rocks and earth located off the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake? It’s visible only when the level of the lake falls and requires an arduous expedition to see it in person.
"[Land Art] is commonly known as being about a return to nature, or as a form of anti-art," Kwon said. Yet she and Kaiser discovered during the course of their rigorous research that such assumptions about Land Art completely ignore many other aspects of the movement.
Among the misconceptions or myths are that Land Art is fundamentally an American phenomenon, that it’s primarily a sculptural art, that the movement is an escape from the urban and that it is essentially a revolt against the art system. "Ends of the Earth" convincingly challenges all these myths.
Kwon and Kaiser decided to concentrate on the earlier years of the movement when the category of Land Art was not yet fully established. In doing so, they could present artists and art that hadn’t been considered before as well as expand the definition of what Land Art is.
Group "i". "E. Jari," 1966. Approximately 12 tons gravel (4 truckloads), conveyor belt. Collection of Group "i". Photo: Group "i".
Some of the pieces, like the pile of gravel that constitutes "E. Jari" made by a Japanese art collective called Group "i", were refabricated for the show. It’s just one of many artworks by non-American artists that Kwon and Kaiser included in the exhibition to reflect the international dimension of the movement.
The piece, both in form and the process of making, also reflects the dialectical relationship between individuals and groups — part to the whole, Kwon said. It’s an apt example of the contrasting themes in Land Art that "Ends of the Earth" draws attention to: individual and group, regional and international, urban and rural, conceptual and material.
Kwon also recognized that planning the exhibition offered her a rare "teachable moment" for her graduate students in art history.
She invited Kaiser to help her teach a graduate seminar that would serve as a workshop for the exhibition. They decided they would present their ideas for the show as they were being formulated, and the students would function both as a research team and sounding board.
"I also had them research specific artists and argue whether they should be included in the exhibition," explained Kwon. Their final project was similar "to a presentation that a curator would make before a museum committee or board."
Keith Arnatt. "Liverpool Beach Burial," 1968. Vintage silver gelatin print, printed by the artist. 10 1/4 x 7 1/8 inches. Estate of Keith Arnatt, London. Image courtesy Maureen Paley, London and The Estate of Keith Arnatt.
Of course, that was back in 2009; students in her just-completed graduate seminar have gotten not only to travel to Nevada to see Land Art for themselves, but also to obtain a behind-the-scenes look in the late stages of the exhibit’s installation.
As an educator, Kwon said she was thrilled to be able to share these experiences with her students, expose them to art in far-flung locales and show them how they can craft a show that both exhibits art and interrogates it.
"Ends of the Earth" isn’t about redefining Land Art so that it fits within the confines of the art system, she said. It’s about challenging viewers’ concepts and expectations of what Land Art can be — not just monumental, but personal; in tune with nature, but also in conversation with life in the city; ephemeral, but also enduring.
Ultimately, Kwon pointed out, the exhibit is a "stoppage" in an ongoing conversation, not a definitive end to the discussion.
The positive reviews and feedback from the art community have been more than heartening, said Kwon, who’s excited to see how "Ends of the Earth" will affect art history and change the way the genre is thought of as well as taught.
"I actually learned a lot from doing the research, and un-learned some of my own training. I was educated in these myths as much as any other art student," she said.