Another country

Hugh Pearman loses himself in the land art of the Americas. It’s a far cry from our idea of public art

When you come across a Henry Moore in a plaza, you have to stifle a yawn: not because of Moore, but ­because of the plaza. But more interesting by far to me is the art of ancient times

Art and Place is a coffee table book, and a big one at that. This is not an authored volume of art criticism, rather it is an editor-produced straight presentation of material. As such, ­normally I would dismiss it right away. But it grew on me. Partly because it contains a lot of art, sometimes of staggering scale and ambition, of which I knew nothing; partly because South America comes out of this rather better than North America with all its money; partly ­because of the politics wrapped up in much of it; partly because it gives the art of prehistory equal billing with the art of today and the ­recent past; and partly because, when it comes to public art, we in the UK have very little to compare to any of this. Once you’ve immersed yourself in this book, the Angel of the North will seem very small beer.

I’m sure you know all about the Land Art of the United States, with particular reference to Robert Smithson’s 1970 ‘Spiral Jetty’ in the Great Salt Lake and James Turrell’s ­Roden Crater in the Painted Desert of Arizona, a life’s work of Neolithic ambition and mystery, begun in 1979. Big country, big art. But how about Andrew Leicester’s ‘Floating Meso’ of 1980 in Amarillo, Texas – essentially a long painted steel screen erected just below the summit of one of the area’s characteristic flat-topped buttes, from a distance making its top appear to hover like a UFO? Or for that matter, what about Walter de Maria’s ‘The Lightning Field’ of 1977 in Western New Mexico?  This very ambitious arrangement of stainless-steel lightning rods, in feel something like a military communications installation, comes to spectacular life during the storm season, drawing lightning from the sky in unpredictable patterns. 

Land art on this scale knocks the socks off the kind of corporate-commissioned art you find elsewhere in the book, particularly on the streets of Manhattan. And when you come across a Henry Moore in a plaza, you have to stifle a yawn: not because of Moore, but ­because of the plaza. But more interesting by far to me is the art of ancient times. The Cave of Hands in Santa Cruz, Patagonia; the reversed-out geoglyphs of the Atacama Desert, done over 3,000 years; the famous Nasca Lines in the desert plain of Peru’s Pampas de Jumana; the Toro Muerto site, also in Peru, with its unearthly carved zoomorphs.  Even the Polynesian Easter Island apparently counts  as being in the ‘Americas’ (Chile administers it). 

 

The 15th century painted sarcophagi of Peru’s vanished Chachapoya culture.
The 15th century painted sarcophagi of Peru’s vanished Chachapoya culture.

In modern times – some of that North American land art aside – it’s definitely a win for Central and South America. They just seem to have more about them when it comes to public art, be it a matter of installations on the Caracas metro or the art commissioned for a remote hydro-electric station, deep in the Venezuelan rainforest. But politics definitely intrude – why else would John D Rocke­feller have destroyed an unfinished mural he’d commissioned from Diego Rivera in 1932 for the Rockefeller Center, despite protests from the Museum of Modern art and others? Why, ­because Rivera had included a portrait of Lenin which he’d unaccountably forgotten to put in his preliminary sketches. Capitalism would never stand for that. But never mind, Rivera had a free hand elsewhere, above all in the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City where his mural history of his country and its aspirations happened to include Karl Marx. 

It’s a book to lose yourself in, this. And as for the lack of a critical authorial voice, that’s fine too – you’ll find yourself supplying your own. 


Art and Place: site-specific art of the Americas

Phaidon, £49.95, HB, 373pp