What Is Land Art?

Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty.

You probably recognize land art, even if you don't know exactly what it is. You may have even made some yourself, if you've drawn intricate patterns on a beach or arranged stones in a pattern near a stream bed. Land art is that which is made from natural materials, built or created in an outdoor setting, and which makes some kind of comment or observation about the environment.

That accessibility is part of the foundation of land art — sometimes called earthworks or earth art. It grew out of and shares common ground with the artistic movements of conceptualism and minimalism, but some think land art is arguably the oldest creative form. Monuments like Stonehenge, the Mexican pyramids, and the Nazca Lines could all be considered ancient earthworks or earth art.

Its evolution as an art form was also spurred by some artists' reaction against the increasingly commodified art world during the late 1960s. Simultaneously, many were inspired by the activism around environmental issues and the new attention towards the human relationship with the earth, a subject of books, films and music of the time. Land art allowed its creators to work outside the dominant art paradigms of the time while commenting on something of social relevance, which is basically what artists have been doing for thousands of years.

With forests, meadows and mountaintops as his canvas, Swiss artist Sylvain Meyer arranges meticulously ordered patterns and designs using a variety of ephemeral materials. (Photo: Sylvain Meyer)

Ephemerality and exposure

Many land art installations are ephemeral — meant to disappear or age naturally over time, with the next tide, or when they melt, wash or blow away. And even if they are a little more permanent, none of them were meant to be housed in a museum or bought or "held" by an art collector. Land art is necessarily found outside the walls of an art museum or other kind of protective environment.

"Spiral Jetty" by Robert Smithson, pictured at the top of this article, is a perfect example of this idea. Built in 1970, it's made of rock, earth and algae in a 1,500-foot-long spiral that projects into Utah's Great Salt Lake. You can see more or less of the sculpture depending on natural fluctuations in the water level. Sometimes it has been completely covered in water, while during times of drought, it has been completely exposed. It's ability to change with the natural world is part of its reason for being.

Here's a video that shows a collection of earthworks within the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area:

Natural materials

Earthworks often use materials that are taken from the natural world, usually from the site where the art is created, though sometimes brought in. Stones, water, gravel, fallen tree branches, leaves, feathers, shells and soil are the most commonly used materials, but more unusual items like animal bones or skulls, fur, ice or snow or animal tracks might also be used.

Other materials, especially textiles, glue, wire and string may be added to hold a structure together, though some land artists believe this violates the tenets of the movement. For example, some don't consider Christo's large-scale textile installations in natural areas to be land art, since special materials are often used in their installations, but others see it as land art since the artist and his wife aim to bring attention to environmental features.

Sun Tunnels in Lucin, Utah
'Sun Tunnels' by Nancy Holt is the result of Holt’s interest in variations in sunlight in the desert versus cities. (Photo: Calvin Chu/Wikimedia Commons)


One almost indisputable aspect of land art is that structures are meant to "live and die" in one place. They are created for a specific place and oftentimes with a specific viewpoint in mind like Stan Heard's made-from-veggies take on a Van Gogh, which can only be viewed from high above.

Sometimes it's ocean tides that are intrinsic to the installation, or water levels (as with "Spiral Jetty"), while in other cases wind or light ("Sun Tunnels") are part of the art. And while a natural setting might seem to make the art less accessible than what's in an art museum, usually these pieces are free to visit or simple to get to — perhaps opening the door to those who would never go to an art museum.

Nancy Holt wrote about her famous land art installation, "Sun Tunnels": "It is a very desolate area, but it is totally accessible, and it can be easily visited, making Sun Tunnels more accessible really than art in museums ... A work like Sun Tunnels is always accessible ... Eventually, as many people will see Sun Tunnels as would see many works in a city — in a museum anyway."

After all, the natural world is available to most of us at any time, even in urban areas, making land art one of the more accessible forms of art.

But only if you know where (and how) to look.