Artists have always tried to record nature. From the earliest cave paintings, and before them in sculptures, artists were representing it to themselves and to others. We might think also of standing stones, cairns and the figures cut into the landscape for various - often unknown - purposes. The White Horses on the English Downs, for example. And from the earliest beginnings (probably) artists have attempted to interact with nature, maybe to add a new element to what they saw or to rearrange, adapt or modify it in some way. And so it is that still today we have these two forms represented in what has come to be termed Environmental Art or Land Art, even (as I like to think of the best of them) markscapes. Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy belong to the first division (in both senses), while artists such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude are noted for wrapping landscapes in plastic sheeting. Others have modified the landscape on larger and more permanent scales, bringing in earth-moving machines to rearrange what nature made. The contributions of Long and Goldsworthy, look natural. They are co-operating visibly with nature. Christo and Jeanne-Claude (and even less, some others) could not be said to be doing that. What Christo and Jeanne-Claude add does not belong to nature in form, composition or appearance. They maintain that by doing it they are helping us to see our environment, and that may well be, but they are not co-operating with nature to the degree that Long and Goldsworthy are.
This is what I wrote about them a year ago. I think it worth repeating. Christo and Jeanne-Claude achieved fame, and some notoriety, way back, wrapping objects and people, before moving on to larger stuff like islands and sea shores wrapped in polypropylene. Their latest project, not to be realized before 2011, is to suspend translucent panels of fabric, horizontally, over the Arkansas River in the State of Colorado. The panels will be seen as shimmering screens waving high above the water level and, when seen from below, will have "projected" on them, the silhouetted forms of clouds, mountains and vegetation.
Typically, their projects take decades to come to fruition, most of which time is consumed by the need to survey perhaps dozens of potential sites to find the perfect one, to complete all the paperwork, obtain all the permits, reassure the locals at public meetings, modify the plans to meet any objections and/or the requirements of local use and health and safety issues. Indeed, most projects never see the light of day, and those that do, Christo and Jeanne-Claude insist, are dismantled after a fortnight.
When it was put to Christo that it must be very difficult, thinking of the concepts for their projects, he disagreed: "Any fool can get a good idea," he said, "the difficult part is doing it".
Art such as Christo's and Jeanne-Claude's tends to grab the limelight and so has become what most folk now think of as Environmental Art. It is Site Specific art. It may be different in kind from Godsworthy''s art or Long's, but it deserves to have a lot going for it. However, it has had some significant failures. Christo, for example, once wrapped the coast of Little Bay, near Sydney, Australia, as a result of which a seal and some penguins became trapped. The fabric had to be cut to allow them to escape; an incident which caused the creatures concerned no little trauma and set in train a great deal of rethinking on the issues raised by that particular form of environmental art.
Somewhere between these two groups, I think, comes the work of an artist like Antony Gormley with his terracotta figures (shades of the terracotta army?) and his figures in the sea. These last are not just natural-looking, but eerily so. The fact is that they do not belong to a landscape in the way that a tree or a rock belongs to it, but have more claim to ownership of a landscape than sheets of fabric.
In 1967 Richard Long took the first steps - literally - towards a new form of art. Or at least, so he would claim. He took himself off into the country, found a convenient field, and walked in a straight line, backwards and forwards along it. By the time he had finished he had pressed down the grasses to such an extent that walked a line into the landscape. He had left a mark upon it. It was the beginning of his walking as art, as mark-making. He does not consider his walks as being in themselves conceptual, but they realise a particular idea, often the relationships existing between time, geography, distance and measurement. He regards these walks (works) as essentially ephemeral and so records them in some way. In one of three ways, to be precise: by means of maps, in photographs or in textual form. He has said that his work lies between two borders, that at which monuments begin and that of leaving only footprints.
Walking figures almost as much in his routine as art. For example he once covered 150 miles in five days, travelling only 10 miles the first day and increasing the distance by 10 iles each day until on the fifth he had 50 miles to do. These walks most often result in texts, typical of which is something like this:
Andy Goldsworthy has explained his art more lucidly than I ever could, so maybe he should speak for himself:
"I enjoy the freedom of just using my hands and "found" tools--a sharp stone, the quill of a feather, thorns. I take the opportunities each day offers: if it is snowing, I work with snow, at leaf-fall it will be with leaves; a blown-over tree becomes a source of twigs and branches. I stop at a place or pick up a material because I feel that there is something to be discovered. Here is where I can learn. "
"Looking, touching, material, place and form are all inseparable from the resulting work. It is difficult to say where one stops and another begins. The energy and space around a material are as important as the energy and space within. The weather--rain, sun, snow, hail, mist, calm--is that external space made visible. When I touch a rock, I am touching and working the space around it. It is not independent of its surroundings, and the way it sits tells how it came to be there."
"I want to get under the surface. When I work with leaf, rock or stick, it is not just that material in itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave it, these processes continue."
"Movement, change, light, growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work. I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. Nature is in a state of change and that change is the key to understanding. I want my art to be sensitive and alert to changes in material, season and weather. Each work grows, stays, decays. Process and decay are implicit. Transience in my work reflects what I find in nature."
"The underlying tension of a lot of my art is to try and look through the surface appearance of things. Inevitably, one way of getting beneath the surface is to introduce a hole, a window into what lies below."
The image above is of his Ice Spiral